In a society that uses stress, exhaustion, and a busy schedule as currency, it's only natural so many of us are left feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, and completely depleted. In today's digital world, success is measured in humble-brag status updates and Instagram squares showcasing our highly curated (and exhaustingly filtered) "best" lives. In other words: the ability to do it all and excel in every aspect of modern life—all without burning out. Social media serves as a constant reminder of the things we could be doing and achieving when instead, we're just scrolling. After-hour office emails remind us there’s always work to be done. In many ways, we’re still taking home report cards.
I grew up (and have spent most of my adulthood) thinking I always had to be doing something. Something productive, something useful, something that got me one step closer to my longterm goals. As a child, if ever I was stuck somewhere with nothing to do, my mother would scold me for not bringing a book. From a young age, she instilled in me the idea that you should never say you’re bored—because everyone should be creating an existence that leaves no room for boredom. Throughout grade school and high school, my schedule was stacked with back-to-back extra-curriculars—piano, ballet, volleyball, figure skating, choir, dance—and I ate many meals while commuting between activities and completed several assignments in the minutes before they were due. My academic performance didn’t suffer, but this practice cemented the notion that any unused minute was something to be anxious about—and ashamed of. If ever I strayed from this laser-focused commitment, I'd be overcome by unshakable guilt.
Once in college, my Ivy League university was a hyper-competitive landscape where high school achievements suddenly looked like child’s play. The incessant desire to achieve and demonstrate perfection was the lifeblood of the student body. If I wanted to maintain my grades and have a chance at excelling—or even sliding by—I did have to be productive during every waking moment. Any negative feelings that might bubble up from not doing enough or being enough were compounded. Sometimes the guilt would consume me—further hindering my efforts and proving entirely counterproductive. What I learned was how to exercise unprecedented amounts of self-control and discipline, but what I should have learned is how to reevaluate the sky-high expectations we set for ourselves.
As an adult, this hasn’t changed. Societal expectations and social media permeate every corner of our existence. Before inquiring about passions or interests, we ask each other "What do you do?" Instagram, with its peacocking of personal and professional triumphs, further inflates our insecurities of not doing or being enough. It’s as if we’re all hardwired to accept this doctrine in which trying your best is the bare minimum. There is a tangible, collective fear of standing still while everyone else is buzzing about—of getting left in the dust while our peers accelerate toward the dream lives we’ve constructed on our Pinterest boards.
It wasn’t until recently that I’ve begun to eschew the idea that every second is an opportunity to grab life by the horns. As I've gotten older—but over the past year, especially—I've started to learn that empty time is just as important to my success and wellbeing. It took a job that left me burnt out to finally realize I'm not my best self—and can’t pursue my best life—when I don’t take care of myself.
Balance is a fairly new concept to me. I’m still playing with the scales, determining what ratio best serves my need to drive forward but also take the occasional pitstop. Even though our society celebrates hard work and success above all else, we can learn from other cultures that there’s beauty in taking a break. To no one's surprise, the Italians already have this down. Dubbed la dolce far niente, meaning "the sweetness of doing nothing," this Italian way of life encourages enjoying an existence free of routines and to-do lists. Live in the moment without stress or pressure, immerse yourself in idle time, realize the pleasure of nothingness.
As Americans raised on a puritan work ethic, we're taught to look down on this idea of leisure—even though it can prove to be so integral to happiness and satisfaction. Resisting the urge to always do doesn’t come easy, but hitting pause for good health might be just what the doctor ordered. I say give yourself permission to do nothing—and enjoy it. Making time for yourself doesn’t have to be a luxury. See it through the lens of optimizing your time management. When I don’t force myself into productivity every stray second of the day, I am worlds more productive during the time I do allocate to working. Relieved from the guilt and anxieties that used to plague my restorative downtime, I can fully and enthusiastically focus on the work at hand once I get to it.
The art of doing nothing doesn't have to be wisdom enjoyed by an enlightened few. It’s something practiced by many around the world. Unfortunately, those raised in America might have a gut-wrenching reaction to the idea of purposely doing less. We need to realize and accept that things don’t have to be of concrete use in order to add value to our lives. Looking around at the present, rather than always ahead to the future, can actually unlock our productive potential in new and exciting ways.
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