Between hygge, the Danish concept of coziness, and Sweden’s lagom, which encourages living a balanced life, there are plenty of buzzy Nordic lifestyle methods that proponents claim will make you a better person. But if your problem is less about finding happiness and more about tuning out the nagging voices in your head, you may want to head slightly south and check out the Dutch concept of niksen.
Niksen is a stress-reducing practice from the Netherlands that literally means to do nothing, or to be idle. In (non)practice, this means “doing something without a purpose, like staring out the window, hanging out, or listening to music,” Carolien Hamming, a coach at CSR Centrum, an organization devoted to fighting stress and burnout, told Olga Mecking for Woolly Magazine, where I came across the concept.
Instead of constantly occupying your mind with what you need to do next or bouncing from one task to another, niksen is the practice of slowing it all down. As Mecking writes, it’s a welcome reprieve from societal expectations about work and productivity that permeates the culture.
The cultural bias against doing nothing comes across heavily in the Dutch language. 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.
Sound familiar? In the U.S., too, we’re constantly told to increase our efficiency and productivity, to work harder than everyone else, to hustle harder. “It’s a word with a rather negative connotation,” Hamming wrote to me in an email. “When we ask each other on Monday, ‘How was your weekend,’ nobody says, ‘I tried to do as little as possible.’ That’s not sexy.”
But niksen is the exact opposite of that mentality. It’s the chance to “deliciously do nothing,” as Mecking put it.
“Our inner voice says always, ‘Do something useful,’” Hamming says. “For yourself, your family, the world … so niksen is really hard to do.”
The hygge mentality is appealing because it’s all about comfort. But niksen has its own appeal. As Mecking writes, “To me, hygge seems comfortable, but also extremely time-consuming: You have to light candles, shop for blankets and loungewear, and include other people in your cozy existence. I’m more than happy enjoying my own company. So, given my introverted, quiet nature, I’m more drawn to niksen.”
Niksen is similar to mindfulness, a word that’s been the subject of countless self-help books and articles over the past few years. But unlike mindfulness, niksen is not about staying in the moment and being conscious of your surroundings; it’s about letting yourself do nothing, about letting your mind go where it will without guilt or expectation. “I think that niksen on [a] regular basis is important to stay healthy,” Hamming says. “It’s a form of mental resting [and] recuperation, while you’re awake.”
The Dutch certainly didn’t invent doing nothing—philosophers and writers have touted the benefits for centuries, and other cultures have phrases for a similar experience (in Italy, dolce far niente means the sweetness of doing nothing). Mecking notes it’s during niksen that she gets her best story ideas, an outcome familiar to anyone who’s had an “aha moment” while in the shower or performing some other monotonous task.Above all, it’s not laziness. As Mecking puts it, it’s a “thorough enjoyment of life’s pauses.”
“In the wild most animals do nothing two-thirds of their time,” Hamming says. “They yawn, look around, sit and wait until a little snack comes by. Therefore, niksen seems to me a natural state of being.”