Niksen – the art of doing nothing

Specialist Nurse Adviser for Mental Health, Bupa UK
18 September 2019

When was the last time you did absolutely nothing and enjoyed it without feeling guilty about it? When you break down your typical day, you’ll probably find that there isn’t very much time when you’re not ticking something off your to-do list. Maybe you’re multi-tasking, planning that holiday, keeping up with friendships, meeting that work deadline, scrolling your social media feeds and watching the telly – the list goes on, and on, and on.

An image of a man with a cat

Life is so full-on that it feels like we’re ‘always on’ too – never having a minute or more to pause for breath and enjoy…doing nothing at all.

It’s got to the point where many of us don’t quite know how to relax. And, if we do find ourselves with some rare time on our hands, we don’t know what to do with it – we fill it up in a mild panic.

Did you know….

  • In the UK, we check our mobile phones every 12 minutes
  • We use our phones for a total of two hours and 28 minutes per day
  • 40 per cent of people admit to checking work emails after hours at least five times a day

Switching off the niksen way

Switching off should be high on our priorities, and not just something we do when we turn in for the night and go to sleep. And the Netherlands may have the answer. Have you heard of the concept of niksen? It basically means to be idle – and while it may sound like just another new wellness trend, it’s something we could all be taking inspiration from.

Niksen is all about dedicating focused time to just sitting still with our own thoughts – to simply ‘being’. While Denmark’s hygge was all about cosiness, and Sweden’s lagom preached moderation, the Netherlands’ niksen takes the idea of ‘doing nothing’ as a self-care practice that can help us truly unwind.

The main principle of niksen is to enjoy things that have no purpose as such, like sitting in a chair and looking out the window. It could be sitting on your sofa and looking around at your living room, or just listening to music. The name of the game is to just let yourself ‘be’, not ‘do’.

Niksen challenges us to stop filling our lives up with ‘stuff’ and to get rid of the stigma that purposefully doing nothing is a sign of laziness and something to be viewed negatively. This can be hard because being busy has become the norm and almost seen as something to be proud of. Having a plan to do nothing almost feels shameful to share with anyone. And that in itself seems a shame – to neglect our need or forgotten desire to just…chill.

How a hectic schedule can impact our health

But actually, it’s more than that, a packed calendar and schedule can lead to burnout, stress and anxiety. In fact, burnout is now a recognised occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization, so we should definitely be looking into strategies to help us prevent it.

All this combined with living in an age of digital dependency has seen wellness rise higher on the agenda, with more and more of us turning to the benefits of yoga, meditation and mindfulness.

The benefits of niksen

The difference with niksen is that you don’t need to focus on the present moment; you just let your thoughts meander wherever they want. It's about spending time in a way that isn't directed towards being productive or achieving anything in particular.

It’s an encouraging thought in today’s ever-busy and switched-on world and could be an opportunity to really relax and help restore our mental wellbeing. Niksen is sometimes referred to as ‘the art of living’ and one of the benefits is that it gives you time to work out what sort of relaxation works for you. You can think of it as way of giving your brain ‘time off’ to rest while you’re awake.

Practising ‘down time’ could help us prompt our relaxation response – which is the opposite of our flight or fight stress response. When we are stressed, our bodies release a surge of hormones and we get all sorts of symptoms such as a racing or pounding heart, tense muscles and feeling alert. This is an automatic response our bodies developed to help protect us from danger. The problem is, the response gets triggered in situations that aren’t truly life-threatening. Though no one would deny they can be stressful and annoying – deadlines, queues, and traffic jams are just some of them.

Learning ways that we can bring ourselves back to relaxation is an important way to restore some balance. We can help to bring about the relaxation response by following some of the principles of niksen: taking a break, slowing down, breathing calmly and being comfortable in our bodies and surroundings. And importantly, taking the pressure off ourselves to always be ‘switched on’, productive and achieving all the time.

The art of relaxation

Practising something as simple as ‘doing nothing’ though, isn’t as easy as it sounds – especially when we’re not used to it. You may need to challenge yourself to stick with it beyond the first few minutes. So here are some ways you can give it a go.

  • Sit on the train on the way to work and just daydream out the window.
  • Put some music on and put your feet up.
  • Sit and do something that you know how to do automatically, such as knitting.
  • Go for a walk with no destination in mind.
  • Plan to have no plan one evening during the week or one day at the weekend.

Of course, it’s not advisable to do nothing for huge amounts of time – it’s about balance – giving yourself space to ‘be’ and having a fulfilling and satisfying active lifestyle. But if you know you’re someone who doesn’t find it easy to relax, practising niksen for a few minutes a day could be a step towards resetting that balance. Dare to daydream.




If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Caroline Harper
Specialist Nurse Adviser for Mental Health, Bupa UK

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Health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care.

    • A decade of digital dependency. Ofcom. www.ofcom.org.uk, published 2 August 2018
    • Logged on but can’t turn off? A third of UK employees say remote access to work means they can’t switch off. CIPD. www.cipd.co.uk, published 27 April 2017
    • Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published 28 May 2019
    • What is anxiety? Mind. www.mind.org.uk, last reviewed September 2017
    • What is stress? Mind. www.mind.org.uk, last reviewed November 2017
    • How could relaxation help me? Mind. www.mind.org.uk, last reviewed October 2017
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