The joy of doing nothing

It says something about the supersaturated, always-connected world we live in that some of us find the idea of doing nothing distressing

World changers: Einstein, Newton and Archimedes made breakthroughs while doing nothing. Photo: Apic/Getty

World changers: Einstein, Newton and Archimedes made breakthroughs while doing nothing. Photo: Apic/Getty

 

When people in today’s world are asked to do nothing for 15 minutes they dislike the experience so much that they’d rather submit to electric shocks, just to distract themselves from the living hell of sitting there and doing nothing. That’s according to an experiment by Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia.

Over the next few weeks, as we go on our summer holidays, many of us will be tasked with doing nothing. It says something of the supersaturated, always-connected world in which we now live that some people find this prospect distressing.

Don’t, by the way, confuse doing nothing with the New Age notion of mindfulness, “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness in the present moment while acknowledging one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations”. Lovely, I’m sure, but the two active verbs in that definition seem to defeat the purpose of mindfulness.

The Italians have a better term for it: la dolce far niente, or the sweetness of doing nothing. These rare few days of doing nothing are not only, doctors and psychologists tell us, vital for our mental and physical health but also offer insights into how to negotiate the hurdle race that is the other 50 weeks of the year.

Add the fact that Einstein, Archimedes and Newton all changed the world with breakthroughs made while they were doing pretty much nothing at all – playing with soap bubbles, lying in the bath and sitting under a tree, respectively – and you will see its munificent merits.

People insist on putting up a struggle, though: they swipe, click and post away their time off. Worse, they frogmarch their children off to Mandarin classes or summer camps to enhance their children’s CVs.

Growing up in today’s “stranger danger” culture has foreclosed the idea of the door being opened on children in the morning, with the only parental advice being: “Come home when the street lights come on.”

I was privileged to enjoy summer holidays of getting on my bike and cycling off with friends to search for haunted houses and challenging trees to climb. Stranger danger raised its head only once, and when that strange man approached us in a field, while we were busy fashioning bits of wood into arrows, we shouted “F**k off, strange man,” and threw stones at him until he did just that.

Being allowed to be as a child with other children meant that I didn’t learn anything per se – except the vital life lesson that when you do discover a haunted house you should approach it only when tooled up with bows and arrows. I am grateful that these are my childhood memories; the ability to conjugate a verb in Mandarin will never be a treasured childhood memory.

In an instructive new book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap, a former dean of students at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims, writes that “overnourishing” children by constantly keeping them occupied even when they are supposed to be on holiday can be as damaging to them as neglect.

“I see children and young adults who clearly have a lot of their life planned out for them, and are exceptionally good at doing what they are told, but don’t seem terribly familiar with their own selves,” Lythcott-Haims writes.

She points out that these overnurtured, always-kept-busy children are as anxious and depressed as incarcerated juveniles are.

Instead of laying the groundwork for future accomplishment this summer, maybe children should be allowed that great gift of la dolce far niente.

By doing nothing they might even learn something: that by attaching a really stingy nettle to the tip of your arrow you will have a bit more confidence as you tremulously cross the threshold of a haunted house.

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