We are always told to be busy, productive and successful. But what if the key to happiness is actually doing nothing?
That’s what some experts and scientists are suggesting, based on the surprising benefits of boredom, idleness and daydreaming.
They say that doing nothing can boost our creativity, empathy and well-being, by allowing our minds to wander, explore and imagine.
And they have some unlikely role models to back up their claims: lazy ants.
Yes, you read that right. Ants, the insects that are famous for their hard work and cooperation, are actually quite idle.
According to behavioural ecologist Professor Dan Charbonneau, “If you look at a colony of ants, or bees, or any social insect really, maybe a little bit less than half of them are just standing around doing what looks like nothing.”
But these lazy ants are not useless. They are actually essential for the survival and success of the colony.
They act as a reserve workforce, ready to step in when needed. They also help regulate the temperature and humidity of the nest, by moving around or staying still.
And they may even have a secret function that we don’t know yet.
So what can we learn from these lazy ants?
Well, for one thing, we can stop feeling guilty or anxious about doing nothing.
Doing nothing does not mean being lazy or wasting time. It means giving ourselves a break from the constant demands and pressures of life.
It means letting our minds wander, daydream and imagine. It means being present, mindful and open to new possibilities.
Doing nothing can have many benefits for our mental and physical health, as well as our personal and professional growth.
Here are some of them:
- Doing nothing can improve our creativity. When we are bored, we tend to seek stimulation and novelty. This can lead us to explore new ideas, perspectives and solutions. Research has shown that boredom can enhance divergent thinking, which is the ability to generate multiple and original ideas. As psychology lecturer Dr Sandi Mann says, “When we’re bored, we daydream, and that has been linked to creativity.”
- Doing nothing can enhance our empathy. When we do nothing, we have more time and space to reflect on ourselves and others. We can become more aware of our own feelings, thoughts and values, as well as those of other people. We can also develop a deeper connection with nature and the environment. For example, the Whanganui people in New Zealand have a proverb: “I am the river and the river is me.”They view the river as an ancestor and a legal person, which means that any decisions have to be discussed with the river itself, via its legal representatives.
- Doing nothing can boost our well-being. Doing nothing can help us cope with stress, anxiety and burnout. It can also improve our mood, memory and focus. By doing nothing, we give ourselves a chance to recharge our energy, relax our body and mind, and enjoy the present moment. As author Celeste Headlee says, “It’s better to take a break, eat something, do nothing for a while. This would be time taken away from work, yes. But it will also allow us to work better and end up in increased productivity.”
So how can we practice doing nothing in our busy lives? Here are some tips:
- Schedule some downtime. Set aside some time every day or week to do nothing. It could be 10 minutes or an hour, depending on your schedule and preference. Use this time to disconnect from your devices, obligations and expectations. Just be with yourself and your surroundings.
- Set boundaries. Learn to say no to things that are not important or urgent. Avoid overcommitting yourself or taking on more than you can handle. Respect your own needs and limits.
- Embrace silence. Silence can be soothing and healing for our mind and body. It can also help us listen more deeply to ourselves and others. Try to find some quiet time every day, whether it is meditating, reading or walking.
- Be curious. Curiosity is the fuel of creativity and learning. It can also make doing nothing more fun and rewarding. Try to notice new things in your environment, ask questions, explore different topics or hobbies.
Doing nothing may seem counterintuitive or challenging in our fast-paced society.