Niksen: A Dutch-American's Thoughts On The Priceless Art of Doing Nothing

August 2, 2021

Ask any one of my friends and they’ll be the first to tell you: I’m terrible at sitting still.No matter the day, I’m always looking for the next mountain to climb, goal to accomplish, recipe to create, or place to explore. 

In a lot of ways, I’m proud of my rampant restlessness. It’s led me to do more, be more, and achieve more than I ever thought I could—giving me a life that I’m proud of and that fulfills me. Still, there are days when I wonder when I’ll achieve enough, be enough, or do enough to ever feel content and satisfied to merely rest and be still. While my mother jokes it’s my type A behavior, I like to think this rampant restlessness inside of me is a part of my heritage as a third generation Dutch-American. 

windmill in a field

My grandmother emigrated to the United States from the Netherlands during World War II, and raised me on Dutch pancakes, toast and hagelslag (Dutch chocolate sprinkles), and, above all, a strong, Calvinist work ethic. Ever the devout churchgoing woman, she raised my mother (who, in turn, raised me) to never skip a Sunday sermon, always keep a clean house, and, above all, remain disciplined and frugal. As the obedient and disciplined granddaughter, I took those lessons to heart: cutting coupons, attending church, getting good grades, and (mostly) keeping my room neat and tidy. 

And, from what I could tell from my experience attending a predominantly Dutch-American university, that strong work ethic and repugnance for doing nothing seemed mostly universal among my fellow Dutch-Americans as well. If you were “resting” at my university, you were still multitasking ten different things at once, with downtime looking like ironing out your five, ten, fifteen year goals or fitting in a “quick” 1.5-hour bike ride or jog to stay fit and active. 

Dutch seemed synonymous with “do” in my mind, making Ogla Mecking’s recent book, Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, all the more confusing given everything I thought I knew. 

At first, I felt indignant. After all, the author of the book is a Dutch transplant, born in Poland and raised in Germany (never mind the fact that I wasn’t born in the Netherlands either and probably have a watered down version of the culture given my largely American upbringing). 

Still, something about it felt invasive, like an anthropologist peeking into a culture that they could never truly understand. 

And yet, the more I let my inherent skepticism fade, the more her words seemed to resonate, despite her non-native upbringing. In a culture so heavily influenced by Calvinism and work begetting reward, it made sense that niksen would creep up there, a necessary rebellion against a culture of doing, achieving, and maximizing one’s life. 

In that light, I began to see niksen not just as intrinsically Dutch, but necessarily Dutch as well. It’s a much-needed check and balance to the overarching sentiment of frugality and discipline—a focus on the frivolous instead. 

And, while it may seem counterintuitive, rest experts are increasingly linking the revolutionary act of “doing nothing” (aka niksen), with overall creative stimulation, inspiration, and relaxation.

Unlike the mindfulness movement, niksen is intentional mindlessness—letting your mind wander creatively, freely—to the deep recesses of your brain you wouldn’t otherwise let your mind go. Niksen can be practiced as you drink your morning cup of coffee or walk your dog under the hazy evening glow. 

It’s an on-the-go tool and distinct from mindless social scrolling or TV watching, which still require “doing” rather than “being.” Rather than immediately picking up phones to stave off boredom or spiraling about all the things you’re supposed to do, Eva Ekman, the director of training at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, describes niksen as the act of training our minds “to wander in a way that’s imaginative and creative.” 

With that description, niksen can seem like a difficult task in a world that offers every app, dopamine rush, and TV show, right at the edge of our fingertips. And yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, social media and television rarely offer the rest and rejuvenation we hope it will. In fact, recent studies have linked heavy social media usage with poor sleep, anxiety, loneliness, and fear of missing out—quite the opposite of what rest and rejuvenation should look like in an ideal world. 

And with burnout at an all-time high (particularly post-pandemic), it seems we may need niksen now more than ever (and no, those anxiety spirals staring at the ceiling do not count). 

As we look to our own individual and collective futures, it’s time to start envisioning what that future looks like—whether chaotic, busy, and stressful, or restful, rejuvenating, and balanced. 

So turn off your phone, take a break from that side hustle, and enjoy a slow morning Sunday or a silent walk in the woods instead. After all, you never know what that intentional act of nothingness may inspire you to do.

Also by Dana: What Is Gezellig, The Dutch Secret To Happiness?

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Photo: Skitterphoto via Pexels

Dana Drosdick
Dana is a marketer living in Saratoga Springs, NY with a passion for all things related to stewardship, faith, wellness, and personal enrichment. Her work has been featured in various Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, The Odyssey Online, and The Banner Magazine. Follow her at @danadrosdick on Instagram for foodie trends, her latest book recommendations, and far too many photos of clementines.

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