The Lost Art of Idleness

This post is inspired by the radio show The Art and science of doing nothing.

Look around and all you see are people being asked to produce more, work harder and make every moment count. At every turn we’re pushed to do more, faster, and more efficiently: That drumbeat resounds throughout our wage-slave society. Multitasking is not only a virtue, it’s a necessity.

The latest neuroscience suggests that while our brains are wired for action and intensity, our brains need time to rest if we are to be at our best on a sustainable basis. Being busy all the time can actually create problems for our mental and our physical health.

We seem to hate idleness, believing it is such a waste of time.

During Confucian times, idleness was an important part of Chinese culture. A Confucian gentleman grew long fingernails to prove that he did not have to work with his hands.

Confucianism actually “idealized leisure and effortlessness”.

And Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English writer, wrote a number of essays on the benefits of being idle. Idleness, he claimed, “may be enjoyed without injury to others”. Johnson saw idleness as “a silent and peaceful quality, that neither raises envy…nor hatred”.


For more on the lost art of idleness, read Andrew Smart’s book Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. The author argues that the brain needs idleness, he has used latest findings in neuroscience to argue that doing nothing leads to happiness.

“Recent research is revealing that some forms of self-knowledge may only appear to us in idle states,” writes Smart. In our frantic chase for gain, we suppress “our brain’s natural ability to make meaning out of experience”. Idleness is especially important after taking in new facts or skills. “If you relax for a while, the hippocampus more or less writes these memories to your neocortex, which houses your long-term memories… So the best thing to do after learning new information is to take a nap, or at least be idle.” Be happy, be clever, be idle.

Moreover, ‘doing nothing – really and truly nothing – actually makes your brain function better’. The key, as with most things in life, is achieving balance between activity and idleness. One without the other is, in the long run, neither productive nor healthy.


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