First there was hygge, the Danish art of making yourself as cozy as possible, Then there was Dutch gezellig, a less expensive, more down-to-earth celebration of the quaint. There was even Swedish fika, a relaxing coffee break when you eat something sweet and delicious. It’s hard not to covet these foreign cultural staples, but we especially love the latest Nordic buzzword: niksen. Translation? To do nothing.
It seems to be both a revolutionary concept and also a silly one. All of us are capable of doing nothing, so why do we need a Dutch word for it? Well, because we’re not very good at it.
If it makes you feel better, we’re not alone in our stress mindsets. It sounds like the Dutch aren’t particularly good at relaxing either. As Olga Mecking writes in Woolly magazine, “The popular proverb ‘niksen is niks,’ for instance, means ‘doing nothing is good for nothing.’ And another popular Dutch saying, ‘doe gewoon normaal,’ translates to ‘just be normal.’ In practice, this is a suggestion to stay busy, but not too busy; to rest, but not too much. Above all, it means don’t be lazy. Be productive. Contribute.”
In the U.S, we’re much the same. We don’t seem to know how to turn off or wind down. We listen to podcasts designed to help us sleep, take vitamins and medications to make us chill out and take endless amounts of advice on how to do more self-care. It’s no wonder. Beyond the stressors of daily life — money, family, politics — we’ve created an expectation of constantly being occupied. We can’t sit still; we can’t slow down; and we even monetize our hobbies.
You might be tempted to correlate niksen to the everyone’s-doing-it mindfulness, but mindfulness asks for active, conscious participation in the present moment. Niksen does not. Niksen doesn’t want you to actively, consciously try to do anything. How do you niksen? By not trying to niksen or do anything else at all.
There’s a chance doing nothing is actually closer to our natural state of being than we realize. Carolien Hamming, who is a coach at an organization that fights stress and burnout called CSR Centrum, told Lifehacker, “In the wild most animals do nothing two-thirds of their time… They yawn, look around, sit and wait until a little snack comes by.”
If you’re already the kind of person who leaves yoga class at the end of savasana, this might make you especially uncomfortable. But it could lead to better productivity and creativity, so maybe give it a shot.
A few examples of niksen (in case you’ve forgotten how to be unproductively still):
- Staring out a window
- Laying on a bed and looking at the ceiling
- Sitting on a park bench and watching the world go by
Now go get busy doing nothing.