How to De-Stress with Niksen, the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing

Stressed out? Overwhelmed? If you said no, I’d worry whether you have a functioning nervous system. For those of us who don’t get out much now because of the pandemic, even staying home has become a source of stress. We’re isolated or being driven up the wall by beloved family members. We’re grasping at every stress-relief tool we can find. For those who have to leave for work, especially in medicine, reading the headlines before masking up for a shift must make for higher than average blood pressure, at least. Every major health agency has issued mental health guidelines for coping during the coronavirus. Not many governments, however, are forthcoming with funding for mental health support. That’s not even to mention, well…. name your super-colliding global crises….

So, we meditate, or squirm in our seats and hate every second of trying to meditate. Maybe it’s not for everyone. Even as a longtime meditator, I wouldn’t go around proclaiming the practice a cure-all. There are hundreds of traditions around the world that can bring people into a state of calm relaxation and push worries into the background. For reasons of cold, and maybe generous parental leave, certain Northern European countries have turned staying home into a formal tradition. There’s IKEA, of course (not the assembly part, but the shopping and sitting in a newly assembled IKEA chair with satisfaction part). Then there’s lagom, the Swedish practice of “approaching life with an ‘everything in moderation,’ mindset” as Sophia Gottfried writes at TIME.

Hygge, “the Danish concept that made staying in and getting cozy cool” may not be a path to greater awareness, but it can make sheltering in place much less upsetting. A few years back, it was “Move Over, Marie Kondo: Make Room for the Hygge Hordes,” in The New York Times’ winter fashion section. As winter approaches once more (and I hate to tell you, but it’s probably gonna be a stressful one), Hygge is making way in stress relief circles for niksen, a Dutch word that “literally means to do nothing, to be idle or doing something without any use,” says Carolien Hamming, managing director of a Dutch destressing center, CSR Centrum.

Niksen is not doomscrolling through social media or streaming whole seasons of shows. Niksen is intentional purposelessness, the opposite of distraction, like meditation but without the postures and instructions and classes and retreats and so forth. Anyone can do it, though it might be harder than it looks. Gottfried quotes Ruut Veenhoven, sociologist and professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, who says niksen can be as simple as “sitting in a chair or looking out the window,” just letting your mind wander. If your mind wanders to unsettling places, you can try an absorbing, repetitive task to keep it busy. “We should have moments of relaxation, and relaxation can be combined with easy, semi-automatic activity, such as knitting.”

“One aspect of the ‘art of living,’” says Veenhoven, “is to find out what ways of relaxing fit you best.” If you’re thinking you might have found yours in niksen, you can get started right away, even if you aren’t at home. “You can niks in a café, too,” says Olga Mecking—author of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing—when cafes are safe to niks in. (You can also use “niks” as a verb.) It may not strictly be a mindfulness practice like the many descended from Buddhism, but it is mindfulness adjacent, Nicole Spector points out at NBC News. Niks-ing (?) can soothe burnout by giving our brain time to process the massive amounts of information we take in every day, “which in turn can boost one’s creativity,” Gottfried writes, by making space for new ideas. Or as Brut America, producer of the short niksen explainer above, writes, “doing nothing isn’t lazy—it’s an art.”

Related Content:

How Mindfulness Makes Us Happier & Better Able to Meet Life’s Challenges: Two Animated Primers Explain

Why You Do Your Best Thinking In The Shower: Creativity & the “Incubation Period”

How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Timo Carlier says:

    Being Dutch, I can say that we are not particularly better or worse than other cultures at doing nothing. It really is just a word like any other, but happens to have a nice ring to it. It isn’t a more important concept in Dutch culture than say loving or being irritated.

    I could write an article about the wonderful English phrase of ‘letting the mind wander’, a metaphor that showcases a particular quality specific to English life and culture and their ability to not think about anything which we can learn from.

  • Transition Labyrinth says:

    Walking a labyrinth or tracing a finger labyrinth with a finger sounds like a perfect source for giving the mind some much needed space as mentioned in the article. A labyrinth (unlike a maze) has only one path from the outside of the pattern to the center and back out–no choices, no dead ends, no tricks. Since it is not a puzzle to be figured out, there is nothing for the analytical mind to “do” so once it realizes that it’s services are not required it often will just sit down and be quiet (it gets its payoff when reaching the center, which it can trust is coming without its help). Especially for people who can’t sit and meditate, or for whom other activities (like knitting!) would just add to the frustration and stress, the labyrinth is a gentle tool for quieting the “monkey-mind” and centering oneself. More labyrinths are being installed every month not just in churches, spas, and retreat centers, but also in parks, hospitals, schools and universities, prisons, etc. You can find various finger labyrinth patterns online that you can print out at home (slip them in a sheet protector or even laminate them to make the finger slide better and ease cleaning), or there might even be a labyrinth near you! Check out the “Labyrinth Locator” online and the regional maps at the Wellfed Spirit site.
    Blessings on your path, from Transition Labyrinth! <3

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