We just finished a very lazy Christmas break. It was one of the best staycations my family has had in a while—and it wasn’t just because of all the fun things we did. Sure, we opened presents, watched a few holiday movies, and ate a bunch of yummy food.
But we also did a whole lot of nothing. Like moments where I just sat on the couch staring at the wall and spacing out. It was freaking wonderful.
What stood out to me about all the nothingness me and my family experienced was how often I had to justify it to myself. I kept thinking there was something more productive I should be doing. I’d think: Doesn’t the kitchen need to be swept? Shouldn’t I be calling my mother? Maybe I should get a head-start on work for next week.
I found myself wanting to make magic memories with the kids, urging them to play another board game, or bake cookies with me, when really all they wanted was to play video games or lie on the couch chatting or staring off into the abyss. Once we got into the groove of doing nothing, it seemed that we got even better at it! Who knew?
Lo and behold, as the winter break drew to a close (sob, sob), I came across an article about all the nothingness we were basking in. Apparently, there is a Dutch word for the art of doing nothing: niksen, which literally translates to “do nothing.”
Along with hygge, which is the Norwegian and Danish term for staying cozy indoors and lagom, the Swedish concept of “everything in moderation,” those Nordic folks seem to be doing a fantastic job of informing the rest of us that scaling back on our lives and keeping it simple is the key to lifelong well-being and happiness.
Now, there isn’t much to niksen—after all, it’s about doing nothing. But there are a few things you might want to know about it.
First of all, it’s not like meditation, where you are supposed to sit still, close your eyes, and let your thoughts go. It’s a lot less structured than that, and aside from putting your phone down and sitting or standing in stillness, there’s not much else you need to do. You can think whatever you want to think.
In fact, Megan Cannon, licensed clinical social worker, often recommends niksen to clients of hers who find mediation more difficult.
“I suggest mindfulness activities to reduce symptoms of anxiety, where the goal is to just focus on breath and push out thoughts — and for about 50 percent of the people I work with it works, but the other 50 percent of [my patients] flounder with it,” Cannon tells NBC News. “Everyone is so busy and so stressed, and it’s not always realistic to sit there and effectively hit your thoughts away with a mental tennis racket.”
But although niksen has no real structure or instructions beyond doing absolutely nothing, followers do recommend engaging in it as a practice and not just on a whim. Chris Bailey, a productivity expert, told the New York Times that niksen is most beneficial when practiced regularly and with intention.
He recommends choosing times of day when you are having trouble concentrating on tasks or seem to be performing tasks on autopilot. These are times to practice a bit of niksen. What you might find is that these niksen breaks will actually make you more productive.
“[I]f our energy is totally shot, our productivity is not going to be good because we’re not going to have fuel to burn with which to be productive,” says Bailey.
Olga Mecking, author of the forthcoming book Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, and the writer of the Times article on niksen, argues that niksen isn’t just something to do for fun, but that it’s actually beneficial for us in terms of physical and mental health. “Generally speaking, our culture does not promote sitting still, and that can have wide-reaching consequences for our mental health, well-being, productivity and other areas of our lives,” Mecking writes.
Things like smartphone use don’t help matters much, either, Mecking argues.
Yup. I mean, how often do you think, “OK, I’m going to zone out and relax,” but that really translates as, “OK, I’m going to spend the next 15 minutes on my phone.” Guilty as charged.
Mecking tells Scary Mommy that practicing a little niksen can actually help us break free of our smartphone addictions.
“If we can learn to sit still and do nothing, we might not feel the need to grab our phones or to keep ourselves busy in the first place,” she says.
Clearly we all need a little more niksen in our lives. The question for many of us parents is how in the hell to accomplish that when we are busy AF and surrounded by children during any free moments.
Again, the good thing about niksen is that there are zero rules about how to get it done. You can practice niksen while lying in the dark waiting for your kid to fall asleep. You can practice it while rocking your baby for the 20th time that night. You can practice it in the line at morning drop-off.
You can get your kids involved too. See what happens when you tell them that everyone is going to take ten minutes to sit on the couch and do nothing. It may not be successful, but it will definitely be interesting, and kids actually are all about living in the moment and just being …if you get them at the right time, and in the right mood.
Either way, Mecking says that you can model niksen yourself to your kids and they will reap the benefits. “As parents, it’s also important that our kids see us niksening to learn that it’s a normal thing to do and so that they can learn to niks themselves,” Mecking tells Scary Mommy.
I think what I love most about a concept like niksen is that there is really no pressure to do it right, or even do it at all. It’s mostly just an affirmation that if you find yourself in a situation where you are lying around doing nothing or sitting on your couch daydreaming, you’re aren’t acting lazy or woefully unproductive.
What you’re doing is to be applauded, encouraged, and is actually good for you. I’ll take it.