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doing nothing, hanging out, dr. manvir singh

The lost art of doing nothing.

We seem to have forgotten how to perform one of the most popular behaviors throughout human history, nothing. The closest we come to it these days is sleeping or resting. But when was the last time you did absolutely nothing?

When was the last time you stared out of a window for a long period of time? Can you remember the last time you sat in a park and just looked around? Have you ever just laid on your back and looked deep into the sky?

We live in a world where something is expected of us every moment. Either we’re working, socializing, cooking, cleaning, eating, drinking, traveling, scrolling through social media, or watching television. We’re always going somewhere or trying to get something.

We live in a culture that abhors doing nothing which is evident in our frantic work schedules and constant need to be entertained.

Imagine if you had the monk-like peace of mind to just put a stop to all of the doing and lived completely in what Eckhart Tolle calls “The Now.” Seems impossible, right?


In the “Tao Te Ching,” philosopher Lao Tzu challenges people to balance all of the something they’re constantly up to by also learning to embrace the nothing. “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone,” the philosopher famously said.

Dr. Manvir Singh, a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse and a Ph.D. from Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, called attention to our inability to do nothing on Twitter recently.

Dr. Singh shared a tweet thread that highlighted a study from the ‘70s and ‘80s in small-scale non-industrial societies where researchers noted activities people engaged in throughout the day. The shocking fact—at least from today’s perspective—is that idling or “doing nothing” was one of their favorite activities.

The tweet thread was an eye-opener for many people who’ve been birthed into an existence predicated on productivity.

Ready to get started doing nothing? I’ve found that one of the healthy byproducts of regular meditation practice is learning to appreciate doing nothing. A simple mindfulness meditation practice (which you can easily learn here) teaches you to set aside ponderous thoughts and to feel fulfilled existing in the moment without having to be productive or entertained.

In the Western world, we are constantly searching for a sense of fulfillment. In the Eastern philosophy of Taoism, a person can only be filled if they are first empty. So by taking the time to empty ourselves of sensory input, ponderous thoughts, or the desire to go somewhere or do something, we are opening ourselves up to new possibilities of fulfillment.

As the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu once said:

Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;

It is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes which make it useful.

Therefore profit comes from what is there;

Usefulness from what is not there.

Albert Einstein

One of the strangest things about being human is that people of lesser intelligence tend to overestimate how smart they are and people who are highly intelligent tend to underestimate how smart they are.

This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect and it’s proven every time you log onto Facebook and see someone from high school who thinks they know more about vaccines than a doctor.

The interesting thing is that even though people are poor judges of their own smarts, we’ve evolved to be pretty good at judging the intelligence of others.

“Such findings imply that, in order to be adaptive, first impressions of personality or social characteristics should be accurate,” a study published in the journal Intelligence says. “There is accumulating evidence that this is indeed the case—at least to some extent—for traits such as intelligence extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, and narcissism, and even for characteristics such as sexual orientation, political ideology, or antigay prejudice.”

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