Niksen – What the Dutch Can Teach Us About Nothing

Is it just me or has the rest of the world (the United States in particular) developed a bit of an obsession over concepts from Northern Europe recently? A few years ago, I learned about the Law of Jante (from Nordic countries) and how it could be the key to happiness. More recently, several bestselling books have been written on the Danish concept of hygge, as well as on the related topic of lykke, though to a lesser degree.

Between hygge, lykke, and the Law of Jante, it almost feels like we’re having a direct response to the rising troubles of overwork and burnout. People are seeking comfort, more and more, and the simple desire to lead a more purposeful, less stressful life. And I mean, who can blame them? We have to remember that having goals does not preclude the ability to be happy right now. They can coexist. You can still have ambitions; but you can also be more satisfied right now too.

Which brings us to the Netherlands. And nothing. And how nothing could be the best something you could be doing (or not doing?) right now. Let me explain.

The Dutch have this concept called niksen and it has been defined as the practice of doing nothing. Some people say it is the practice of being idle. In reality, it’s just a bit more than that. It’s not so much about doing nothing, because it is literally impossible to do nothing. Even when you think that you’re doing nothing, you’re necessarily doing something. You’re breathing. You’re watching TV. You’re lounging around the house or you’re taking a walk in the woods.

In this way, it’s more accurate to define “niksen” as making the conscious decision to do something with no specific purpose in mind. There is no real desired outcome, at least not directly. You’re not doing this something in service of something else, again, at least not directly. Niksen is granting yourself the permission to be idle, to take a break, and just hang out.

But why?

By making the conscious and intentional decision to “do nothing,” you allow the space for your mind to wander. Inevitably, if all you’re doing is staring out the window, if all you’re doing is people-watching while sipping on a latte at the local cafe, your mind will start to wander. You’ll start to daydream. And especially when you have a more creative or entrepreneurial career — as is the case with blogging — this is really how you’ll come up with more creative, original ideas.

Some time back, I tweeted that “I’ve forgotten how to do nothing.” At that very moment, I was in downtown Vancouver, right by the Olympic cauldron near Canada Place, staring out at the view you see above. That’s a photo I took that day. I was about an hour early for a planned meetup with some YouTuber types, so I had some time to kill and I didn’t know what to do with myself.

I felt compelled to do something, to be productive in some way. Should I be trying to write a blog post on my phone? Should I be taking photos (I took a couple, admittedly) that I can share on social media? Should I be catching up on my reading? And then it hit me that I really should be doing nothing, because I need to give my brain the space to wander and rest. This idleness is something that I’ve missed tremendously for years.

In the end, I did end up doing something, because you can’t really do nothing. I listened to a nerdy podcast with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Adam Savage, but I did so with no real end objective or goal in mind. I had no purpose other than to kill the time before meeting up with some friends for dinner. This wasn’t quite “niksen,” as I didn’t really allow my mind to find its own stimulation, but it’s a step in that direction.

Niksen could be the key to more effective problem-solving, more creative ideas, and maybe just a little less stress. Isn’t that the lifestyle we all want?