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The Art of Doing Nothing

Why Italians, not Americans, get this right.

The Italians have a concept for piddling around known as “La Dolce Far Niente,” which means "the sweetness of doing nothing." I learned about this concept while watching Elizabeth Gilbert’s masterpiece Eat, Pray, Love the other day. The scene is set in a barbershop in Rome. Julia and her newfound friend are scarfing down napoleon’s while the men of Italy are educating them on the ways of the Italian.

As one of the male characters begins his diatribe about how Americans’ ideas of “relaxing” are working themselves to the bone all week just so they can lay around in their pajamas on weekends, drink six-packs of Miller Light, and watch other people live their lives on TV, he presents to the audience the concept of la dolce far niente, or the sweetness of doing nothing.

The character goes on to explain that Italians may wonder home after a few hours of working to take a little nap, they may be inspired by a nearby cafe and sit down to have a glass of wine, or they may just go home and make love to their wife. Although it may be a bit unrealistic for some of us to just cut out of our jobs in the middle of the day to go take a nap, the scene was still compelling.

The idea that “doing nothing” is actually an event in and of itself. The idea that we no longer run on a treadmill of activity from getting the kids ready for school, to brushing our teeth, to conference calls, to picking up kids, fixing dinner, and bed- only to start over again. The idea that our actions day to day become influenced by our instincts and no longer by routines, shoulds, and musts.

Thoreau spoke of this in Walden when he said, “When I go out of the house for a walk, uncertain as yet whither I will bend my steps, and submit myself to my instinct to decide for me, I find, strange and whimsical as it may seem, that I finally and inevitably settle south-west, toward some particular wood or meadow or deserted pasture or hill in that direction.”

How different would your quality of life be if you made time throughout the day to experience la dolce far niente? Instead of using your free moments to catch up on what housewife bought what SUV on Hulu, instead of checking your email one last time to see if anyone else is needing you to do something, instead of using your free time to check your bank accounts or pay that cell phone bill—what if you just did nothing?

Fighting that urge to just do, that puritan work ethic instilled in all of us at an early age, is just as much effort as going to the gym and doing the stair climber. Yet the results of our restraint are well worth the hassle.

The kind of relaxation we are looking for, and we all yearn for, does not exist on the side of a volcano, in a rare flower, or on a desolate island far away. That kind of relaxation exists within each of us and is ours for the taking if we’re willing to put in the effort.

That kind of relaxation. The la dolce far niente. The sweetness of doing nothing and enjoying where we are in the present moment is the greatest thanks we can give for the lives and blessings we have.

All the noise—the Facebook, the reality TV, the latest and greatest no-one-can-get-in-there-without-calling-a-month-ahead restaurant—it all fades away when we can just do nothing. What surfaces is life—our feelings at the moment (whether it be grace or despair), our ego vanishes and our true self emerges.

What if instead of Facebook, emailing, DVR catching up, or video gaming tonight, you just did nothing? What if instead of saving up seven vacation days out of 365 to finally enjoy life, you spread those out in hours among each day? What if you didn’t look at Saturday/Sunday as your only day to cut loose and chill out?

Maybe you sit and read a book. Maybe you stare out the window or balcony and listen to your favorite musician. Maybe you learn how to whistle, meditate, stretch, lounge, or (gasp!) nap. What can you do today to begin doing nothing?

Dr. Colleen Long is the author of Happiness in B.A.L.A.N.C.E; What We Know Now About Happiness as well as Meditation Medication; follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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