Saturday, July 13, 2024

Dolce Far Niente: The Art of Doing Nothing


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Take a deep breath and imagine the aromas around you as you read the Sunday Shillong on this lazy day. In our relentless, competitive world, we’ve forgotten how to pause. It almost feels illegal to sit idle or slow down today. The hustle culture emphasises maximising productivity, ambition, and success over self-care, rest, and work-life balance. With the world at our fingertips, our devices, smartphones, and personal computers have turned the whole world into our office and cubicle. With this lifestyle, is it possible to have pleasant relaxation in carefree idleness or practise what the Italians call dolce far niente? Translating into the art of doing nothing or the sweet pleasure of doing nothing, we explore cultures like Lyadh in Bengali, Susegad in Goan, the Norwegian Hygge, Niksen in Dutch, or Boketto in Japanese.

These concepts often lack precise English translations. Lyadh, for example, in Bengali means being lazy but it goes beyond that. It is the art of being non-productive without guilt. No dictionary defines it exactly, but it can be described as “bhaat-ghum” or the afternoon siesta after a hearty lunch of mutton kosha (slow-cooked mutton). Another way to define it can be if you do all sorts of things and loiter around on a Sunday afternoon after you have decided to shower but you delay it for no reason.

Dolce far niente or pleasant idleness closely aligns with Lyadh. Enjoying something shouldn’t be forced. The concept was popularised by the 2010 film “Eat Pray Love,” based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s book of the same title. Italians have mastered the art of living in the moment with such joy and bliss that they are not constantly ‘looking forward’ to something else. In the movie, the main character (Julia Roberts) tells her Italian friends how guilty she feels for doing nothing but learning a few Italian words and eating during her three-week stay in Rome. An Italian explains, “Americans don’t know pleasure; you’ve to be told that you have earned it.” Essentially, if you want to take a break on a Tuesday afternoon, you should be able to, without guilt.

Goan culture, a blend of Konkani and Portuguese influences, embraces the laid-back lifestyle. The humid summer and clement winters leave them no choice but to slumber in the afternoon. There is a philosophy about it and if you are in the non-touristy side of Goa, you’ll find everything closed from 1 PM to 4 PM. They take it slow and spend hours fishing or gossiping with their family and friends. Post-meal naps are a must. Unaffected by the fast-paced life, the Goans follow the mantra of “Susegad”. Derived from the Portuguese word sossegado, which means “quiet” or “calm”, Goans use the word to convey a sense of contentment, fulfilment, and relaxation. It can also refer to a laid-back attitude towards life, such as living at a slow pace, taking one’s time, going for evening walks, cherishing the little things and feeling content with life, without burning out. No wonder we keep making plans for Goa all the time.

Similarly, the Japanese concept of Boketto lacks an exact English translation. The Japanese also take the art of doing nothing seriously. Boketto describes the act of staring out of a window or into space without thinking about anything in particular. Letting your mind wander is practising Boketto, a mental break from your to-do list. On the other side of the world, Norwegian Hygge and Dutch Niksen share similar sentiments. Denmark, consistently ranked as the happiest country in the world, perhaps owes some of its happiness to the hygge philosophy. Difficult to pronounce, hygge (hooga) is even difficult to explain. It revolves around taking time away from the daily rush to be with loved ones or even by yourself, to relax and enjoy life’s quieter pleasures (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark).

Incorporating these ideas into one’s life can help achieve a healthier work-life balance and experience a different essence of relaxation and contentment. The art of doing nothing, as exemplified by cultures around the world, can lead to a more balanced and fulfilling life. So what is your mantra of taking it slow?

— Jnanendra Das


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