Julia Roberts sits silently in her room in Naples, barefoot in bright sunlight – prepared to enjoy a freshly-cooked breakfast of soft boiled eggs, stir-fried asparagus, bread, olives and more. Before she takes her first bite, she says to herself, softly, “Il Dolce far niente.”
“The sweetness of doing nothing.”
If unfamiliar with the 2010 biographical romance movie ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, Elizabeth Gilbert’s (played by Julia Roberts) quest for herself takes her to Italy, where she is introduced to this cultural idea of a sweet idleness, soaking in the moment and doing nothing in particular. It plays a role in her journey of healing, helping her immerse herself in the local food and culture to her heart’s content.
Nevertheless, as the world becomes increasingly more frenetic and fast-paced, our time punctuated by incessant pings of calls, emails, work and personal commitments – prioritising idleness can be seen as laziness. Even Gen Z culture includes facing off on how little we have slept as a marker of our ‘hustle’ (a healthy 8 hours almost indulgent), all-nighters becoming normal for high-school and university life. Growing up with the established adage ‘an idle mind is a devil’s workshop’ has encouraged an ominous connection to idleness that lasts throughout our life as well – and the result of these cultures has been the increasing levels of stress and burnout.
In a study on understanding the prevalence of depression amongst adults in the UAE, 12.8 to 28.5 per cent are suffering from depressive disorder. However, it was found that the prevalence of depression was 38 per cent, anxiety was 55 per cent and stress was 29 per cent among students of the UAE. Overall, 80 per cent of people are under stress and burnout.
Laxmi Saranya, clinical psychologist at Dubai-based Lifeline Modern Family Clinic, says, “In a study on understanding the prevalence of depression amongst adults in the UAE, 12.8 to 28.5 per cent are suffering from depressive disorder. However, it was found that the prevalence of depression was 38 per cent, anxiety was 55 per cent and stress was 29 per cent among students of the UAE.
“Overall, 80 per cent of people are under stress and burnout.”
But, science, and our historical traditions actually advise against it. The concept and philosophy of doing nothing is encouraged in forms such as Niksen in Netherlands, Il Dolce Far Niente in Italy and the importance ascribed to emptiness and stillness in meditation, or ‘shunyata’ in Zen Buddhist and Hindu philosophies.
Netherlands’ Niksen: Being idle
The Dutch term literally means to do ‘niks’ or nothing, being idle or doing actions that have no particular use – such as sitting in a chair or looking out of the window. In the fifth happiest nation in the world, doing this in moderation is an accepted and cherished idea.
Nynke Whiterod, 49-year-old Dutch expat, and lawyer says, ‘In the Netherlands, if you say to someone, ‘Oh, what did you do yesterday? And you say, ‘Ohh - niks.’ - it’s okay for everyone that you’ve done niks, and everyone can have a positive feeling about it. Like oh, that’s so nice, you just do niks – you didn’t have an obligation, you weren’t needed anywhere, you just got some time to yourself. So people consider it a positive thing.”
It is not necessarily just sitting on the sofa and doing nothing but rather the freedom to do anything you like at that moment, not driven by any need, obligation, or pressure from an external force but just doing anything you like.
The key to Niksen, she explains – is hitting the pause button without guilt – just letting time go and enjoying the passage of it. She says, “Niksen to me is something that I did as a child all the time. We wouldn’t plan our weekends as much – you would wake up, and if there was nothing planned, then you would just do nothing."
It cannot be planned, but rather, when you have nothing to do and you accept that….
“It is not necessarily just sitting on the sofa and doing nothing but rather the freedom to do anything you like at that moment, not driven by any need, obligation, or pressure from an external force but just doing anything you like,” says Whiterod. Letting your mind wander aimlessly during such moments can actually be beneficial in other areas – a 2013 study published in the Swiss-based Frontiers in Psychology journal cited inspiration for goals and clarity on decision-making as byproducts of allowing the mind to wander, according to Saranya.
Saranya says, “Niksen allows us to switch on to the default mode of operation of our brain where we encourage the concept of mind wandering. We all remember Archimedes with his contribution in physics, where he had an ‘aha’ moment in his bathing tub.
“A creative idea is followed by an incubation interval which proves that our brain is still processing information and can use the available processing power to solve pending problems.”
She recounts coming across patients who like staring out of the window, who were previously discouraged from doing so. She says, “But it is not like your brain is not working, there are always some processes taking place, just like when you are asleep.
“It is almost like in all species, - having this ‘resting phase’ to take some time, process things and suddenly come up with a solution.”
1. Archimedes thought of the Archimedes principle from a particularly relaxing bath.
2. What are the benefits of sitting under a tree and watching apples fall, you ask? It gave us the law of gravity by Newton.
3. In 1845, Elias Howe dreamt of being stabbed by needles that had a hole at one end, which helped him solve a key problem in building the first sewing machine.
4. Dimitri Mendeleev saw the periodic table of elements in a dream.
5. The idea for Google came to co-founder Larry Page in a dream – one where he could download the entire web and just keep links.
Benefits of mind wanderings
Saranya recommends practising niksen in daily life by allotting a fixed time in our daily schedules to reap its benefits.
She says, “The research on niksen brings us the understanding that is as effective as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, which are evidence-based practices for dealing with intrusive thoughts, worries and ruminations.
“Practicing Niksen will be helpful in attaining a personal objectives that extend beyond the current moment, becoming relevant for making choices that are beneficial over the long term period and to create and maintain an integrated, meaningful sense of self and to cope with life.”
According to Saranya, benefits include:
- Integrating past and present experiences for the purpose of future planning and simulation.
- Benefits of slowing down - reduces anxiety and strengthens the body’s ability to fight stressful time periods.
- Orients toward personal goal resolution.
However, it is only when practised in moderation, in addition to an active lifestyle that it is useful. If not, you might experience these difficulties:
- Reduced attention and interference with performance on tasks that require substantial controlled processing.
- Scholastic failure to traffic accidents if long niksen practice time.
- Dwelling in past and being in negative mood.
She adds, “Carving out time to be idle balanced with an active lifestyle can maximize the benefits of niksen.”
Italy’s Il Dolce Far Niente: The sweetness of doing nothing
Pleasant relaxation in carefree idleness and taking the time to relax completely – is the heart of the cheery Italian lifestyle concept of Il Dolce Far Niente. Gulf News interviewed Gen Z volunteers from Italy at Expo 2020’s Italy pavilion for their take on this old way of life.
Celeste Luciano, International and Diplomatic Affairs student links the concept to sunny childhood days spent with extended family in the coastal countryside town of Conversano surrounded by green hills and a glittering sea. She explains: ”Dolce far niente basically means taking your time to relax and enjoy nature, enjoy celebrations in a sort of calm atmosphere, and used to be a mood and lifestyle towards things. So detaching from any source of stress, taking the Italian time to do things – and doing nothing is the practical basis to developing this concept.”
Similar to niksen, she recounts noticing a more positive trend towards Il Dolce Far Niente: “Our generation is the generation of stress, we know that. The factors of stress are becoming more evident, and maybe unescapable. So maybe this is why this is a more common concept - don’t think too much, be more carefree.”
For Viktoria Husak, student of College La Sapienza, studying international relations, the concept is different: “To me, Il Dolce far niente is not really not doing anything, but spending time with the people you love.
''The best period that describes this concept is the period where I was in quarantine during Covid-19 – I had so much time to do nothing because I cannot go out in Italy, strict rules. I could chill the whole day, I could relax.
"I can say that I have noticed, that especially during the Covid period – that many of my friends are used to the concept of Dolce Far Niente so they like to be at home to do nothing, and use their phone to send messages.”
But she does find including quiet moments in her daily life important: “Here [during my workday] in Expo, I have to get 2 hours when I hear no one, be alone and try to just lay back and relax. I do it only to have the opportunity to do better things in the next hours.”
Elena Diroma, another international relations student and volunteer at Expo 2020’s Italy pavilion says, reflecting comtemporary trends: “When I do nothing, I kind of have the fear that I’m kind of losing my time. I know that’s not the correct way to see it – I think it’s just I just feel that I shouldn’t do the dolce far niente.
“However, my mother says to just take some time for myself – just relaxing, not thinking about anything. Especially when she sees me stressed out. “
In Europe, Germans also have a saying for the benefits of keeping an idle mind - 'die Seele baumeln lassen’, meaning ‘let the soul dangle.’
Meditation; ‘Shunyata’ in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy
Similar ideas are foundational in the practices of meditation, and emerge in Zen Buddhist and Hindu philosophies. Emptying your mind and focusing on breath is taught at the beginning of meditation and yoga classes as the base going forward.
In fact, according to Dr Peter Gobets, secretary of the ZerOrigIndia Foundation in Netherlands that researches the origin of the digit zero, even the number could have arisen from the contemporaneous idea of emptiness from Shunyata, or the Buddhist doctrine of emptying one’s mind of thoughts and impressions.
Pockets of peace in daily life
Saranya says, “The idea is to spend some time on activities that let your mind wander.” She recommends a few simple methods for winding down on a daily basis:
• Taking more solo walks
• Sitting on a chair
• Looking at the busy road
• Looking through the window
• Enjoying the taste of food
• Enjoying your cup of coffee or tea
• Enjoy a chat with your friend
• Try knitting
• Listening to music
• Reduce technology use
For me personally, I have noticed that carving out a small pocket of stillness before sleep to recharge is a peaceful end to all kinds of days; even if it is late, to sit in bed for a few minutes after an evening shower in a dim room lit by my study lamp, listening to soft music before curling under the blanket and drifting off.
Dr Saranya says, “Though rest is functional and may make one feel better after activity, it is not a main way to happiness in the sense of life satisfaction, Relaxing your body and mind will lower your stress levels automatically.
“By doing this, burnouts can be avoided and the immune system will be strengthened.”
If you lead an active lifestyle, and are looking to fill your time with more – how about a few minutes of peaceful nothing?