• Woman smiles mischievously in a romantic setting and holds a cup in her hand.

    Sweet idleness – Better than its reputation.

    The fine art of indolence and why our thoughts need to take a break more often.

    Text: Rebecca Randak

The problem of sensory overload.

Thinking, the biggest task the human brain has, is also its biggest curse: as soon as it receives information from our senses it begins to organise, analyse and interpret it, whether we want it to or not. In an age where we spend every spare moment checking our Facebook feeds and fall asleep to Netflix this can quickly become a problem, as the brain is continually occupied with things which aren’t really all that important.

Woman lying relaxed on tree trunk.
  • Woman with sports bag is walking in park.

When do our thoughts get time off?

Can you remember when you used to have to search for library books by looking through huge card indexes, before the days of computerised reservations? Or when you had to make a special trip to the bank to transfer money? Or when you got lost in town in the days before Google Maps? There’s no doubt that the digital age is making our everyday lives easier, yet we still haven’t learnt how to deal with the torrent of information – and we can easily forget to take a time-out from our digital media and allow periods when our brains aren’t being bombarded by material it needs to process.

All things considered, it’s hardly surprising that after the yoga boom there is now also a growing interest in meditation. Meditating is all about observing your own thoughts and learning to bring the flights of the mind under control, even in everyday life. It’s a skill that is surely worth learning in a society characterised by burnout and sleep disorders.

Woman sitting lost in thought in romantic park environment.

Inactivity as an alternative to meditation.

Fortunately, it’s much easier to achieve a state of mental calm than people might realise. All you need to do is... nothing. As researchers from the Max Planck Institute explain in an interview with Psychologie Heute (Psychology Today) magazine, the brain automatically switches to an appropriate state – the “default mode network” – when it is not required for any other activity. This is the case during meditation. In this surprisingly active state of rest we become aware of subconscious processes, we reflect on past events and recuperate from the many impressions left by our everyday lives. We can decide more easily which thoughts are important and what doesn’t require our attention at the moment. We hone our sense of the essential. As easy as that may sound, many of us find it difficult to make time in our busy lives for short breaks.

The fear of negative feelings.

When was the last time you did nothing? When did you last lie in a meadow and stare at the sky, or sit on the sofa with a cup of tea without having anything else to do? The truth of the matter is that we enjoy keeping busy. But why is that so? The answer is that we want to prevent the emergence of thoughts which we would rather suppress: sadness, anger, boredom, or worse – the feeling of being worthless. Inactivity represents a certain risk, which we prefer to fend off by keeping ourselves occupied. However, if you are brave enough to devote some time to doing nothing you will be richly rewarded with rest and recovery.

Woman is lying on meadow and relaxing.
Woman jumping on trampoline in a forest environment.

The fine art of indolence.

Indolence, the “dolce far niente”, or “sweet idleness” in English, was once the preserve of the nobility and the clergy. For them it wasn’t a case of finding an antidote to a stressful life but of having pleasure, of indulging in “sweet idleness”. The term only acquired its negative connotations later. Now it is used occasionally in connection with laziness. This is primarily about putting an inner distance between ourselves and the pressure to perform imposed on us by society, and to gain more free time – time that’s been freed of all obligations. If you can manage to regain your self-determination in this way you will have a good chance of finding the inner peace we all yearn for so much.

The creative power of doing nothing.

The state of calm described here is also an important source of creativity: it stimulates the brain’s natural inclination to create links between perceptions and impressions. This fact is relevant mainly to people in creative occupations, whose stress-ridden working day is often an obstruction to new ideas. Even if your job doesn’t demand particularly creative inspiration under pressure of time, it is a good idea to incorporate regular periods of inactivity into your day. It would be a complete disaster if, amongst endless meetings, we lost sight of what was really important: our ability to order our own lives. So, next time you find yourself wondering whether you deserve a break, remember: inactivity is far more productive than it appears. Or do you imagine that the great thinkers and artists created their works during their 30-minute lunch breaks? Enjoy some time out and the kiss of the muse for a change.

Woman relaxes smiling on bench in park.