il dolce far niente
the sweetness of doing nothing
I’ll admit, when I was first introduced to this classic Italian phrase, I was wrapped up on my couch in my pajamas in the middle of a Saturday afternoon eating ice cream. Last summer was the first time I had ever seen Eat. Pray. Love. — and that was me. A driven, divorced writer, discontent with the path of perfectionism and meeting external expectations. Like Julia Roberts’ character, I too had finally reached a point in my life where I had become more passionate about seeking authenticity than seeking approval. I was the classic American they described in the “il dolce far niente” scene (click to watch the one minute clip). I was always working, rarely resting, and clueless about the distinction between entertainment and pleasure.
I was exhausted—in every sense of the word—not remembering the last time I took an entire day off. One whole day. Since when did a single day off become a luxury? And I had to intentionally guard that time from things that would otherwise distract me from my day of literally doing nothing. But I did it. No work. No responsibilities with my children. Just me and my pajamas. And I needed it.
While it’s true I did nothing that day, there was no fulfillment from engaging in the sweetness of it. It wasn’t sweet. It was long overdue. I needed literal rest and sleep, and meaningless entertainment to disconnect my mind. Doing nothing when you are utterly exhausted from doing everything is not sweet. |Click to Tweet| It becomes a physical requirement because you are ceasing to function well. You are physically, mentally and emotionally shutting down.
The sweetness of doing nothing comes from pleasure, from intentionally slowing down and noticing life. The sweetness is derived from having energy enough to engage in recreation. Even if it’s an afternoon nap, sweetness can be the difference between a lazy hour on your swing or hammock versus collapsing on the couch in front of the TV out of exhaustion.
Sadly, at least in our American culture, we have become so driven that even the idea of il dolce far niente is scoffed at—as if leisure is somehow wasting time, being irresponsible or lazy. Or at best, it’s seen as a luxury that most of us just don’t have time for. As a result, we are a nation of people who are worn out, burned out, overweight, unhappy, and unhealthy. We suffer from high blood pressure, high divorce rates, and high stress levels.
Pleasure is not an indulgence. It’s not something we should feel guilty about or apologize for. But as a Type A myself, I struggle with the crazy need to justify taking time off—even a 15 minute coffee break in the middle of a work day. Like someone might see me and think I am being lazy. Really? I am an achiever by nature, so not producing enough checkmarks on my list each day literally creates anxiety. So as much as I want to slow life down, it is a daily struggle to accept that it is not only okay to do so, but it is actually necessary and fruitful. Pleasure is a requirement for healthy living. And quite frankly it adds a depth and warmth to my life that I am no longer satisfied to live without. Ironically though, I have to work for it…
Before you rush to dismiss it because you just don’t have the time for this sort of thing, consider how you could build in a little pleasure each week…just a little enjoyment, engagement, or recreation. I really want this in my life, and still I find it difficult to make it a natural habit and routine. So until I do, I have literally been scheduling 30 minute blocks on my calendar a few times a week for dolce—“sweetness.” Sometimes I miss the mark, but I won’t give up because every single time I engage in the sweetness of doing nothing, I reap immense rewards. Rest and recreation reduce my stress, making my body healthier. Leisure clears my mind, making me wildly more creative and focused when I work. And pleasure and appreciation make my life and relationships significantly deeper and richer.
So, if crashing in front of the TV in your pajamas is not the sweetness of doing nothing, what is? Well, what brings you pleasure? Not entertainment, but pleasure. What do you find yourself thinking you would like to do “someday?” Take a weekend drive. Plant a garden. Make a day trip just to eat at a restaurant you’ve always wanted to go to. Read more. Pray more. Spend time with family. Volunteer for an organization you feel connected to. While it’s true most of these things require doing something, look deeper. What are the qualities that these activities produce? Pleasure. Recreation. Reflection. Appreciation. Enjoyment. Engagement. Fulfillment. Even giving of oneself. Connecting with others. These are more than fleeting feelings and memorable moments. Physiologically, your brain and body produce chemicals when you engage in pleasurable and leisurely activities that combat the effects of aging and stress.
Producing those effects could literally be as simple as sipping a glass of wine on your patio before you go to bed, rather than closing your computer minutes before you close your eyes. It could be eating lunch away from your desk without your phone, rather than checking your bank account, texts, and Twitter. Perhaps you could take a 15 minute break to walk outdoors, rather than answering emails. Maybe you commit to leaving margins in your day for an actual coffee break or playing outside with the kids. Try holding hands and whispering face-to-face, rather than fingering through Facebook before you turn out the light. Il dolce far niente results in seeing, tasting, smelling, feeling, and hearing the life around us that typically gets tuned out. It makes us more fully present and genuinely grateful of life itself.
Il dolce far niente—the sweetness of doing nothing—is making an event out of the little things. |Click to Tweet| The sweetness comes when we make doing nothing an art—not a crashing and burning. And that’s what I am working toward, an intentional lifestyle of noticing and nurturing the beauty in my relationships, the world around me, and even my work. The sweetness comes when leisure is respected as a healthy part of our lives, not looked ahead to as a “someday” luxury, or looked down upon as a “waste” of time. It’s a paradigm shift from making work our driving force and absent-mindedly fitting in relationships, rest, and relaxation to making these “luxuries” a cherished part of our everyday lifestyle. To pull this off gracefully requires transforming our value system. And, that’s where I’m at…doing whatever it takes to live a rich life because that means I am actually living.