How the Dutch pursue the fine art of doing nothing

Feb 13, 2024 | 0 comments

By Viv Groskop

I am standing on the sand at Scheveningen, The Hague’s most famous beach resort, in the act of niksen, the Dutch term for doing absolutely nothing. I try not to think about whether I am really doing nothing if I am standing on a beach. Maybe I should be sitting down? But then I would be sitting down. How do you niksen properly? Being effortlessly aimless next to me is Olga Mecking, the author of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing. In the three years since the book was published, she has become the Netherlands’ go-to authority on doing sod all. I suddenly remember there is a pancake house back on the promenade. Does eating pancakes count as doing nothing, or is it too much like doing something? Maybe I am not cut out for niksen.

It’s very common, says Mecking, to struggle to define niksen. “The definition I use in the book is: to do nothing, without a purpose. Not watching a movie, not scrolling social media, not reading emails. We always have in mind some kind of outcome. When we prepare meals, we think, ‘This meal will help me lose weight or will make me healthier.’ If we go for a walk, it has to be part of our 10,000 steps. So we lose that fun of just eating or just walking. So it’s about letting go of the outcome.”

I like this. I am ready to let go of the outcome. “It wasn’t easy to find a definition,” she adds. “I found any strict definition would make people feel guilty. So many people tell me they feel guilty because they can’t succeed in doing nothing.” And here she has defined exactly why there is a global market for her book.

Writer Viv Groskop doing nothing on the beach at Schevengen, The Hague, Netherlands.

A journalist and parenting blogger (she has three children), Mecking is married to a German and lives in The Hague. Although she speaks Dutch fluently, she is Polish. She first encountered the expression niksen in a free supermarket magazine in 2018. She was intrigued that there was no similar verb in any other language she knew. She pitched niksen to the New York Times. When the article – The Case for Doing Nothing – was published in 2019, it went viral. Within weeks, she had a publishing deal. The book, designed to sit alongside books on hygge (the Danish art of cosiness) and fika (the Swedish art of the coffee break), came out just as the Netherlands went into its first hard Covid-19 lockdown in late 2020. A typical Amazon review from that year? “Perfect reading if you are struggling with pandemic-related stress.”

After the pandemic, the cult of niksen lives on. Last month, David Lloyd Leisure – which has more than 100 fitness clubs in the UK – announced it was launching niksen classes to help people “release tension”. The announcement quoted Jan de Jonge, a Dutch psychologist and “niksen expert”. “Wellness is so important in our hectic lives, and the Dutch, with their reputation of being laid-back and easy-going, like to niksen after a stressful day’s work.” Over on X, he does add that niksen is not an inherently Dutch lifestyle, more a reaction to modern living.

There are yet more niksen books from more people who clearly don’t want to take their own advice and do nothing. Niksen: The Dutch Art of Doing Nothing by Annette Lavrijsen. The Lost Art of Doing Nothing: How the Dutch Unwind with Niksen by Maartje Willems and Lona Aalders. Niksen: The Power of Doing Nothing by Tess Jansen. A Dutch Guide to Niksen by Johanna van Elp.

But just how Dutch is doing nothing, really? And how did the word originate? “Niksen is a media concept, like Blue Monday,” says Ruut Veenhoven, an emeritus professor of social conditions for human happiness at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Blue Monday, the third Monday of January, was once thought to have been “calculated” to be “the most depressing day of the year”. It later emerged that the concept was dreamed up by a travel company. Niksen is not quite the same: no one is reminding you to book a package holiday. And Dutch people really do use the verb. Veenhoven admits that the amount of interest in the idea of niksen is telling. “We are typically the most happy when we are active. And in modern society there are lots of nice things to do. As a result, we do a lot. The pace of life is higher than in non-western societies and the level of life satisfaction is also high and keeps rising. And yet … A side-effect is that we get into time pressure. And we dream of more relaxation.” Niksen gives us what we crave: an explanation for what’s missing – the presence of nothing in our lives.

Olga Mecking, author of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, also does nothing at Schevengen.

Mecking’s book has now been translated into 13 languages and the French are particularly keen on it. (“L’art de ne remplir aucun objectif …” sighs French Cosmopolitan – translated as “The art of not having to fulfil any objective …”) But just because niksen originated in the Netherlands does not mean the Dutch are particularly good at it. “Niksen seems to be considered as a concept in the whole world, except in the Netherlands,” says Carolien Hamming, the founder and CEO of CSR Centrum, a centre for research into stress and resilience just south of Utrecht. “It has nothing to do with our culture. On the contrary, we’re Calvinists and tell each other to work harder.”

Mecking interviewed Hamming when she was first researching niksen and Hamming told her that the Dutch are not good at doing nothing. “We are raised with the belief that we must always be useful and helpful. Niksen is the devil from whom comes nothing good.” She doesn’t blame anyone for being interested in the idea, though, when stress and depression are on the rise. “Our brains are overloaded; we don’t know how to do nothing.”

When I asked Dutch friends to comment on the meaning of niksen, they said they knew the word but didn’t feel they had any explanation as to what was Dutch about it. But they also made jokes: “Sorry, I’m too busy doing nothing to answer.” Mecking herself says that by the time she started writing her book on niksen, another publisher had commissioned another author to write on the same topic. The race was on, and her deadline was pulled forward. Hardly in the spirit of niksen.

And Hamming is right: it’s not a quintessentially Dutch idea. I couldn’t find any record of use of niksen in the Dutch language before the late 2010s. It is usually categorised as a reaction to relentless work culture which, as dictionary definitions go, seems curiously specific and suggests a recent coinage. I somehow don’t feel it would have been in the vocabulary of the great Dutch artists Vermeer, Rembrandt or Van Gogh, who all argued for the relentless pursuit of intense activity. It is peculiar, though, that this unusual verb (“to nothing”) surfaced in a country that generally regards itself as Calvinist and atheist. Like Hamming, Dutch friends all mumble about Calvinism when I bring up niksen: this branch of 16th-century Protestantism was fervently embraced in the Netherlands. And John Calvin’s values of hard work, frugality, self-discipline and “straightforwardness” are still highly evident.

Take the Dutch approach to window blinds and curtains. They don’t use them. When I was walking around The Hague attempting to nonchalantly do nothing, I found it odd that whether people were doing nothing or not, you can see straight into their houses. Openness, too, is a Calvinist hangover: “Look at me. I have nothing to hide.” It is a fascinatingly contradictory cultural impulse: be buttoned-up and follow the rules at all times but also be completely transparent. It’s a weird mix of being required to be regimented but also laid-back at the same time. No wonder you might want to introduce niksen into that mix, to give yourself a break. And no wonder niksen feels “not Dutch” but also somehow belongs here.

Perhaps because of the inherent tensions of the Calvinist past, the topic of “burnout” is prevalent in the Netherlands. Last year, a wellbeing study by a health insurance company was widely cited in the Dutch press. The Cigna Healthcare Vitality Study was based on 10,000 respondents in 12 markets across the world, including the US, Kenya, China and five European countries. The Netherlands came out top. Even though 90% of Dutch employees say they are burnt out, with 27% of people feeling tired and drained as a result, they were still the least stressed of all employees in the study. Although 64% of Dutch respondents experienced stress, this was significantly lower than Belgium, where the figure was 81%. Ruud Wassen, the chief marketing officer of Cigna, who is also Dutch, explains that stress levels are high across Europe after the pandemic and the Netherlands is consistent with that. However, “Dutch employees experience relatively less stress when it comes to worries about the cost of living, personal finances and uncertainty about the future.” When it comes to the main reason for the stress, though, the Netherlands is just the same as everywhere else, he says. “Too much work.”

“Burnout is not a uniquely Dutch phenomenon, but it is a growing problem in the Netherlands,” says Roel Fransen, a human resources manager at Oval, a company promoting workplace engagement based in Tilburg. A 2023 study by the Dutch not-for-profit research organisation TNO found that one in five workers in the Netherlands suffers from symptoms of burnout. “This is a significant increase from previous years,” says Fransen. “And it is thought to be due to a number of factors, including the increasing demands of work, the rise of the gig economy and changing attitudes towards work-life balance.”

So it’s not that the Dutch have the highest rates of burnout globally – their rates are lower than most. It’s that the very idea of burnout really stresses them out. “There are a number of responses to burnout that seem rooted in Dutch culture,” says Fransen. “For example, the Dutch have a strong sense of social solidarity, and this can help to reduce the stigma associated with burnout. The Dutch are often very ambitious, and many of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed. Dutch people may also be reluctant to take time off from work, even when sick. Additionally, the Dutch culture of gezelligheid (conviviality) can sometimes lead to social pressure to attend everything while trying to keep up with work and neglecting your own needs.” See what I mean about contradictory? Don’t stigmatise anything. Push yourself. Don’t take time off work. Attend all social gatherings and be convivial at them. Keep your curtains open at all times. It does sound to me that it is incredibly draining to be successfully Dutch.

What niksen most strongly illustrates, though, is the pull towards philosophies that come from other countries. We live in an age where many of us can do almost anything we want, more so than at any other time in history. But it turns out what we really want is for someone who knows what they’re doing to make it OK for us to follow our instincts. Hygge is a real thing and the Danish arguably do it best. But they do not have the monopoly on cosiness or candlelight. Fika is a beautiful tradition. But Sweden is not the only place in the world where you can eat cake and drink coffee. Similarly, you don’t need to be Dutch or know the word niksen to do nothing, you can just … do it. And there’s no way of doing nothing the wrong way. Completely predictably, I discovered that my definition of nothing is pannenkoeken (pancakes) after all.
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Credit: The Guardian

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