I began this inquiry as a response to a book that I found at the local public library in my community. I read the book over the course of a few days, expecting to find little other than a standard, light-reading, member of the trendy “wellness” self-help genre. My expectations were mostly fulfilled. But the book managed to extend slightly beyond those expectations, occasionally, to include some ideas that seemed to be genuinely worth exploring.
Olga Mecking published Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing in book form in 2021, though the original written material seems to be slightly older. The originating text appears to bear a 2020 copyright. This suggests, at least to me, that the book is at least partially a collection of articles that appeared previously in a different form. That’s OK by me.
The book’s title is reasonably explanatory of its contents – an exploration of “doing nothing”.
A few days after reading Mecking’s book, I learned via a search of Goodreads that no fewer than eight books dedicated to the matter of “niksen” have been published in recent years. At this time, I have no clear idea how many popular or academic articles on the topic may exist. Neither can I determine whether Mecking’s book is achieves anything more…(or less)…. than the others. For now, my exposure to niksen is limited to Mecking’s version and a very small sampling of other material.
As with my other Footnotes essays…(such as my Footnotes to Be Water, My Friend by Shannon Lee)… the following notes and comments are not intended to be a formal book review of Mecking’s book. There won’t be a detailed summary or regurgitation of the book. I won’t comment on the font, binding, style or other aesthetic features of the artifact. I won’t even suggest that my comments will reflect on all that the book may have to offer. Instead, I am merely taking note of certain ideas and themes as they relate to my own particular pre-occupations and interests.
On this occasion, I am curious about what it means to…do nothing.
Mecking has presented the word “niksen” as the Dutch term for a particular form of idleness. Mecking’s book and, by extension – the wider trend of niksen-oriented writing is based on a principle or argument that there are distinct kinds of idleness. And further that this particular version of doing nothing is beneficial to people. Perhaps even uniquely beneficial to people. A problem of approaching an idea like this is establishing a clear and precise description of this form of idleness and how it may be differentiated from other forms of idleness. Perhaps forms that may not be beneficial to people. In other words, what makes niksen qualitatively unique or different from: laziness, sleeping, watching TV, meditating or even in engaging in non-productive recreation?
This may seem to be a superficial and unimportant distinction on a superficial and unimportant topic. But I don’t think it is. Particularly as this distinction relates to that second component of Mecking’s argument – that “niksen” may be beneficial to those who engage in it. Niksen may well be a particular kind of idleness…but is that particular kind of idleness actually beneficial. And is it any more or less beneficial than other forms of idleness. This line of inquiry may provide valuable insights into contemporary life. Even if the insights turn out not to be staggeringly fresh, consideration of the role of rest in the maintenance of a healthy life is not unimportant.
Whether the Netherlands’ version of idle relaxation is any more or less of an art form is also a matter for consideration. But first things first.
Mecking acknowledges that she has critics who accuse her of attempting to capitalize on a trendy subject. And it may well be that that the current proliferation of niksen-themed material is all a matter of sustaining a trend out of nothing. Pun intended.
Indeed, Mecking cites several similar trends that have present similar or adjacent social phenomena: Wellness, Mindfulness, Zen, Hygge/Koselig/Gemutlichkeit, Konmari, Dostadning (Swedish Death Cleaning), Ikigai, Nunchi. These are all examples of trendy social and lifestyle practices that have been documented and promoted across various media.
But as Shakespeare’s Lear demanded,… “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” – we may need to do some further consideration to see if there is actually more to say about niksen.
The title of the book Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing carries a faint echo of one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as it attempts to establish how a central daily practice or ritual, and its underlying principles, may be perceived as an “art”. I might argue that Mecking’s use of “art” and Pirsig’s definition of “art” would be rather different. I expect Mecking’s definition to hove-to contemporary usage of art as defining a primarily aesthetic and appreciative practice rather than art as Pirsig intended the term. Pirsig used art as a term for the craftsperson’s creative procedures and practices. It is valuable to explore these types of distinctions as advocating a distinction is what the book attempts to do…a distinction in forms of idleness.
On page 28, Mecking explains that “niks” is Dutch for “nothing” and that niksen is a verb form of the same word. Niksen is therefore “to do nothing”. Mecking provides explnations of how niksen may be interpreted and provides connections to other concepts. Included in Meckig’s list of related concepts and conceptualists is the english world “idle” and the British movement of “idlers”. This is aa term I’ve already used in this essay and which has particular cultural and literary roots that I enjoy. As a sidebar, a few glances at the eighteenth-century The Idler essays may convince you that Samuel Johnson and essayists throughout the ages would have been thrilled with the blogging format.
What is Niksen?
In the first chapter of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, I can’t find any place where Mecking has provided a specific and concise definition of niksen. I was only able to locate that at the end of the book where Mecking provided a slightly campy manifesto advocating niksen as a lifestyle practice. But the definition is concise and worth quoting. Here it is: “Niksen is a Dutch lifestyle philosophy that emphasizes doing nothing without a purpose. Just because.”
There are some problems here that don’t actually help Mecking’s argument that her presentation of niksen is more than a merely a capitalization on a trendy lifestyle term. Maybe that’s why the definition was held back so long in the book. But I’m going to set that judgement aside in consideration of the potential value of the niksen activity itself.
From my own day-to-day life, niksen seems to be the term which would apply to… (particularly solitary)… time spent sitting on the porch. For me, that is a time when I do not actively engage in anything either internally…. (within myself)… nor externally (outside of myself). It is like meditation, but without the struggle of attempting to avoid actively engaging in my thoughts and without attempting to direct my attention as an observer of my own resting mental activity.
Is There Ever A Time When We Do Nothing?
Mecking spends some time in capitulation to the fact that there is never a time in one’s life when NOTHING occurs. There are always physiological processes occurring. However, there are times when an individual is not engaged in doing things. To present an alternate definition of niksen that establishes the activity in context of conscious activity, I suggest that niksen is “idle relaxation of a person’s physical and mental activity where the individual is in a process of disengaged nothingness.”
Is Niksen A Genuine and Universal Feature of Human Existence?
As previously mentioned, I have a relatively limited exposure to the available popular and academic literature on niksen. I think it is a reasonable expectation, however, that everything written about niksen will focus on the connections between the word and its roots and place in Dutch society. Mecking calls niksen a…Dutch Art.
Mecking certainly spends considerable effort in praise of the Netherlands. Mecking makes the argument that Dutch people are “happy”, to some un-specified extent, because of the presence of niksen in the Dutch culture.
The 2021 iteration of the World Happiness Report places the Netherlands in fifth place – solidly amid several other Nordic countries. Mecking doesn’t provide much proof that it is the niksen at work. It could be the snow. But the positioning brings forward a related question.
To what extent is this exploration of niksen (disengaged nothingness, idle relaxation) a “first world problem”? Or more accurately, a wealthy person’s problem? That is a valuable question. The person who needs to spend a considerable portion of their day figuring out basic survival may not have quite as much time to worry about the “wellness” benefits that may accrue via distinctions between “niksen”, “farting around on the computer”, “hanging out with friends”, or any other form of idleness one may wish to consider. This is a kind of extreme luxury for exactly how one spends resources not required to meet basic needs.
But there is the old story of a wealthy, ambitious person who worked hard to earn lots of money with the dream of travelling the world and meeting the people who live there. On one trip, this ambitious person sees a bunch of simple peasants sitting on a hillside and staring off into a glorious sunset over the ocean. The wealthy, ambitious person looks at these peasants, looks around at the poor farm and takes in the fantastic view. The wealthy, ambitious person says to them, “Look at this wonderful landscape and that view! You should get busy and build a resort.” One of the peasants asks, “Why would we do that?” The wealthy, ambitious person says, “In no time, you’d have visitors from around the world. You’d make all kinds of money and stop being poor!” The peasant asks, “And then what would we do?” The wealthy, ambitious person says, “Well you could sit back and relax and watch the sunset.”
According to the book, Mecking lives in the Netherlands and has many connections to the nation but is not Dutch. The book is a useful tool to identify a few features of Dutch culture that may be of general value. As far as I can determine, Mecking believes these to be: a) Be normal (i.e. not fake, exaggerated or artificially and gregariously excitable) b) Seek contentedness rather than happines c) Be direct in social interactions d) Be critical of ideas.
Is Calvinism to Blame?
The most interesting feature of the third Chapter is Mecking’s interest to pin the responsibility for the modern pre-occupation with being busy on Calvinism.
Mecking also enumerates the emergence of something called “New Thought” in the 19th century. She suggests this new thought allowed a move away from Calvinism and that one result of this break was the development of the wellness industry. Mecking further references Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and conspicuous consumption and eventually gets around to the irony of contemporary digital technology which promises individual liberty but actually undermines it.
This is interesting as a tracing of the philosophical tensions that arise as a result of considering “doing nothing for no reason at all.”
Chapter four is largely an argument in favour of disengaging and allowing the brain to continue to work on a problem while you’re attention is disengaged. Mecking makes an argument that idle relaxation works with a person’s brain.
There is also an appeal to intuition which is a growing and somewhat troubling trend as it can lead people to the conclusion that “doing nothing” (intellectually) has a high probability of an intuitive process producing a valid and reliable (ie. correct) insight or solution. This is problematic for those who may in fact be intellectually lazy and therefore fail to ensure that their intuitive processes have reliable information in the first place. Garbage in, Garbage out. This appears to intuition also indicates nothing about alternate biological drivers (determinants) that may produce intuitive outcomes that have less relation to a given problem than some other matter that the subconscious sees value-in.
As with Shannon Lee’s book, Mecking leans on Czikmentmihalyi’s concept of flow. It is a popular concept. There isn’t that much science in Mecking’s book and mentioning flow is an easy way to connect with other trends.
Mecking acknowledges that some concepts from other cultures won’t work because the necessary support is not there for the transplant. What may work for some people in the Netherlands may not work for a different group of people in your town.
Wellness books are targeted to individual action not a broad social structure.
Mecking’s conclusion is focused on busy-ness…overall the book is an argument that busy-ness is a problem to be solved. The origin of the busy-ness problem is (at least partially) pinned on Calvinism. Mecking also suggest that ambition and flawlessness as ideals are growing in the Netherlands. Mecking argues that niksen has arisen as a tool to manage the complexity and stress of a busy life.
Mecking’s version of niksen is an appeal for periods of reduced busy-ness…more idle time that is focussed on leisure. Mecking also argues that worth/value is not connected to the number of hours that a person expends on an activity nor what is produced. Interestingly, Mecking has not recommended that stress and complexity be eliminated. Only managed.
It would have been poignant if Mecking had concluded, “If anything I’ve described here makes sense, then do nothing.” Instead, Mecking asks for people to join her social media group. Modern life has its ironies.
Niksen is a word to indicate times of a particular form of “doing nothing”. In this essay, I am motivated to take seriously an idea that at least one book’s author has advanced but also repeatedly hampered. Babies. Bathwater.
In Surfing with Sartre (2017), Aaron James suggested that individuals would be better off, and that the the world would be better off – if more people were surfers who spent large chunks of time sitting on or near the water doing nothing much. Not being productive. While there are extremely reasonable objections to James’ opinion, the underlying notion is that disengaged nothingness is a certainly a valuable feature of human existence and possibly an essential one in the twenty-first century.
For Mecking, James and others, doing nothing is a necessary human process.
And yet, there are features of human existence which conflict with disengaged nothingness. Survival. Earning a living. Social structures, institutions and circumstances with their own requirements and agendas.
Disengaged nothingness (as exemplified by niksen) is different from engaged nothingness (as exemplified by meditation). One wonders if disengaged nothingness is actually a goal of engaged nothingness.
Sitting on a shady porch on a spring or summer day. Staring into a crackling fire on a winter’s day. Lying on the beach.
Niksen is a kind of rest. It is disengagement from urgent and non-urgent demands of life and living. It is freedom-from. I suspect we all need more freedom-from.
In Zen, the goal is “just sitting”. Kodo Sawaki said “Zen is good for nothing”. So zazen is a process to achieve niksen.
If you’re interested to learn more about niksen or the sources that I used while researching this topic, you may wish to visit the sources page on www.ericadriaans.com and search for this article.