The Joy Of Idle Living
By Sohini Das Gupta and Charu Sudan Kasturi
“To do nothing doesn’t have to mean nothing! It can mean doing things that you love, and savoring it,” quips my Italian colleague, Valerio. Ambushed by my quest to understand the art of idling, the San Francisco resident remembers vacations spent at his grandparents’ house in beautiful Abruzzo, where time seemed to expand. “In America, time is much more compressed,” OZY’s creative director observes.
It’s not just America. Many countries around the world function on workweeks in excess of 40 hours, and a significant percentage of employees clock in 50 hours or more. Karoshi, Japanese for “death from overwork,” has crept into the world’s lexicon despite the country’s own attempts to recalibrate. How did we get here? What can we do? Today, we ask you to stop and smell the rosé. And if that doesn’t work — just drink it.
Society & Idling
Advocates for Idling
Ages before you could, 19th-century author Charles Lamb expressed his indignation at having to laboriously justify one’s existence in his poem Work: “Who first invented work, and bound the free . . . ?” he asked, plaintively. Years later, Karel Čapek was contemplating the purpose of stillness — “to be like a stone, but without weight” — while Bertrand Russell in 1935 predicted the looming dangers of workaholism, a term coined 36 years later. Both lobbied for leisure in separate essays with identical titles: In Praise of Idleness. Fast-forward to today and with our cities more crowded and noisy than ever before, medical experts are encouraging us to get away from it all and indulge in shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. But can you afford to? One might argue that the ability to shut off or slow down suffers from a socioeconomic gap, a sentiment reflected in labeling “the idle rich.”
No Idling? No Wellness
If you doubt the poets, here’s some cold, hard data. According to a Work Happiness Index poll conducted by Indeed, Japanese workers, with their no-room-to-idle worldview, have fared as the unhappiest among developed nations. Closely linked to this is the concerning phenomenon of inemuri, workers sleeping at their desks out of exhaustion. Their productivity too has ranked low among G-7 nations, something the country is trying to change with its proposal of a four-day workweek. Meanwhile, countries like Finland and Denmark boast shorter workweeks than America. The greater work-life balance is considered one of the factors behind the five Nordic nations being some of the happiest in recent years. In Sweden, six-hour workdays have boosted productivity and energy. The lesson: With fewer work hours comes more time to pursue sweet nothings. A time that if spent wisely (read: idly) might just hand you the key to happiness.
Idling Across Cultures
Dolce far Niente
No matter how you feel about Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 book, introduced “dolce far niente” to the world. The mellifluous Italian phrase became a pop-culture signal for an entire generation of human hamsters, whose biggest act of rebellion was to try and embrace “the sweetness of doing nothing.” But in her memoir, Gilbert doesn’t do nothing. A closer look at our existential, idling heroine reveals a woman who has learned to relish her carbs and consonants without shame, to make friends with strangers and eventually with herself. Which brings us back to my colleague’s claim: Doing nothing is really just doing a few things well. What Valerio does well when he’s back home are lengthy breakfasts with friends, lingering over glasses of Amaro del Capo. “But we don’t drink to get trashed. We take time to taste the wine,” he says.
Niksen, Hygge and Lagom
It’s not just the Italians who are masters of embracing leisure time. Niksen, a Dutch import, literally means to “do nothing” and is about embracing the moment. It’s a philosophy that encourages you to just stare at nature, laze around or listen to music . . . you’re fine as long as you’re not looking for any purpose. And if you look farther to the north, there’s the Danish concept of living, hygge, that’s become a wellness fad of its own. That’s unless you’re Swedish and embrace lagom, roughly translates to “finding joy in moderation.” In fact, such is the traditional rivalry between the neighboring Danes and the Swedes that hygge and lagom have become stereotypes of the two cultures, Tobias Toll, a Swedish physicist at the Indian Institute of Technology, tells OZY. “Lagom is the soul of the Swede that originates from ‘rule of the law.’ Hygge, on the other hand, epitomizes the Danes’ love for coziness and comfort.”
To be clear, lyadh is not a wellness concept. But for many Bengalis, especially those living in the Indian city of Kolkata, a frequent serving of lyadh — ideally over the weekend — is essential to living well. Think of it as lush lazies that come unannounced to hypnotize you, mind and body, into a state of inactive indulgence. Don’t resist, for surrender can be sweet. I have felt it many times: On a Sunday after a particularly spectacular lunch of fish curry and rice, or on mornings when I’m supposed to wake up and head out, but the quilt clings to my drowsy soul. If you’re unlucky, this rogue feeling might even visit on work afternoons, when napping is not an option. The trick, if you ask me, is to embrace it so it can pass. And hey, if the Italians and Dutch are right, it would only add to your spiritual wealth.
Type A personalities, this one will be hard for you. Yet tightly wound control freaks might be the ones who end up benefiting the most from the Taoist philosophy of wu wei. Roughly translated from the Chinese, it upholds an alchemic paradox of nature: “actionless action” or “doing without doing.” What that means in layman’s terms is to respond to situations organically, without exerting additional force, a mindful version of “go with the flow.” To cultivate wu wei, which for most can take years, you have to lean into a moment the way a tree bends with the wind. Or how a twig moves with the current of the river, never against it. The idea of (apparently) not being in control is scary for most, but once achieved, it establishes a relaxed state of awareness — putting you in perfect alignment with life.
Slow-Living Hot Spots You Didn’t Know
Life in China over the past three decades has been defined by rapid urbanization, soaring dreams and the constant search for wealth. Now a new generation is tired of that approach, especially after a pandemic that has exposed consumerism’s pitfalls amid an economic slowdown. Instead, more than 100 cities and counties are now embracing “slow living,” setting development limits, throttling down traffic and restricting fast food.
The Cerrado savanna is one of Brazil’s most ecologically diverse regions. But in recent years, it has lost half of its native vegetation to giant agribusinesses that produce everything from beef and palm oil to corn and cotton. To counter this, Indigenous communities, conservationists and even celebrity chefs are banding together to form a slow food movement focusing on traditional and local food to promote the region’s native agri-products, such as the guava-like gabiroba, the baru nut and the macaúba coconut. Their goal? To get Brazil and the world excited about native Cerrado food and protect this wilderness at the same time.
Yes, Japan, the country where long working hours and little sleep have traditionally been viewed as a virtue, is changing. Amid alarming numbers of people dying at their desks, Japan’s government has in recent years been pressuring companies to cut their employees some slack. But the biggest evidence of the shifting mindset lies in the response to another federal initiative that preceded COVID-19. Since 2009, Japan’s government has paid the country’s youth to relocate from cities to the countryside to revive dying villages. Coupled with improved internet connectivity in recent years and the hunger to get away from stressful city life, the initiative has proven successful, helping once-dying villages double their number of residents.
In the 1990s, the U.S. flooded the Caribbean country with low-quality food products after pressuring Haiti to lower tariffs — which then-President Bill Clinton eventually apologized for in 2010. Now, despite recent upheavals of the political and natural kind, Haitians are rebuilding their agriculture industry by adopting the slow food movement that focuses on reviving dying food cultures. From traditional artisanal rum to the country’s first fair trade cocoa business, Haiti is building a new farm future rooted in its own traditions.
Are You Zen? Quirky Ways to Idle
Well, goat yoga had to move over at some point to make room for something bigger . . . and more content: cows. Cow cuddling, a Netherlands staple that has emerged as a wellness trend in the U.S. in the last two years, is self-explanatory in terms of what you’re expected to do. Go on a relevant farm tour, find a cow that will have you and cuddle it. Koe knuffelen, literally “cow hugging” in Dutch, has all the logical benefits of a healthy human-animal snuggle. Recline against your genteel friend as unobtrusively you can. Its big, comforting body, warmer temperature, slower heartbeat and, should luck favor, a few validating licks should work together to relax you. Unless the price of this unusual therapy is what gets your goat; in Arizona and New York, bovine love goes for $75 an hour.
Here’s something you don’t need to pay for: frittering away hours watching ebru art. This stunning technique of painting on water using special pigments that dissolve into dyes is popular in Turkey and Central Asia. It requires a water-based solution, some uncommon tools including an awl and serious hand control. Ebru typically involves plenty of swirls and streaks, which gives it its visual richness as well as its nickname: paper marbling. Check out Van Gogh’s Starry Night — on water!
If you grew up in the countryside, especially around water, this chilled-out pastime will be second nature. You’ll need to plant yourself near a calm lake and far from distractions. Look out for boats, swimmers or waterfowl, and once their absence is confirmed, find a medium-sized stone, ideally flat with rounded edges. Aim and release from your hand the way you might backhand a frisbee, but put some spin on it with your forefinger and watch your stone skippity-skip, once, twice or thrice across the water! Whether you’re a pro or practicing to better your technique, stone skipping embodies the gloriousness of doing things that thankfully add up to nothing.
Before you accuse me of pulling a Gwyneth Paltrow, sound bathing is nothing but allowing certain pleasant sound vibrations to wash over you. Think of it as a meditative experience similar to chanting “Om” or bee-breathing. In short, it’s about listening to sounds with a notable resonance that ground and center you. At first glance, it might sound like a New Age concept, but those who have been privy to the sound of bells in Hindu temples or gongs in Buddhist monasteries will know it’s rooted in ancient practices. Crystal singing bowls, chimes and didgeridoos may not be things you have lying around at home, but there’s always the internet. If the for-free sessions leave you craving for more, you can book a virtual concert for your soul. Alternatively, visit a sound bathing studio near you.