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The lost art of doing nothing

By Dan Pool, Editor

It used to be something to do nothing. Now nobody seems to do nothing any more; everyone is too busy with something.

Allow me to elaborate.

In the rural South of the last generation an important part of most houses (from the nicest to the most meager) was the place  you went to watch traffic pass. Perhaps it was a rocking chair on a front porch, or a swing on a screened porch, or some metal chairs underneath a shade tree. Note, until recently Adirondack chairs were confined to the Adirondack region and the rest of the world used flimsy yard furniture with poorly constructed spring bottoms.

From your shaded vantage you watched traffic go by - especially in the evening. You weren’t waiting on anyone particular to pass nor trying to develop a new traffic plan. You didn’t expect anything to happen. You were doing nothing in all its glory -- either alone or in pairs or in small groups with light conversation mixed-in.

Traffic watching isn’t a popular hobby today. 

Front porches are now designed to be looked at by passing motorists rather than a spot for watching from. Nor do you find many sitting areas along the roads of subdivisions. If you left a bunch of  chairs under a tree in a gated community, you’d likely get a nasty letter from the POA. 

The idea of spending an evening watching traffic seems like something from another century even though older members of the community still maintain solitary watches. And they’ll still wave at you.

Imagine telling your co-workers you spent an evening with your wife just sitting there?

“So what did you do last night?”

“After dinner, sat on the front porch  until it got dark watching the traffic pass.”

“That’s horrible. Something wrong?”

One reason an evening spent doing nothing strikes people as so abnormal is the widespread belief that to be happy and successful you must be busy.

To be caught doing nothing, like sitting in a comfortable chair watching cars, would be embarrassing as it implies you aren’t important enough to have a calendar filled from morning to night.

A second reason you won’t catch people watching plain ol’ cars is because they can watch super-slick videos of dogs, funny accidents or uber-attractive people on their phones.

And rather than shooting the breeze with wife, uncle or neighbor, instant messaging allows us to communicate with hundreds of people who will probably tell us very important opinions and juicy gossip.

In the modern schedule there is no time to do nothing by yourself at home. You gotta be doing something and thanks to modern technology we can all do something all the time. From checking e-mails to shopping for a new gadget, there is no time for downtime. Especially if you want to keep up with the Zuckerbergs.

While we have evolved so that watching cars isn’t the social activity it used to be, we also report growing more unhappy; perhaps the two are related. Author David Foster Wallace wrote that boredom is the antidote to modern life but we certainly don’t tolerate boredom any longer.

A Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index found last year that Americans are the least happy they have been in a decade. The poll, which interviewed more than 160,000 Americans, found specifically those who were unhappy had “little interest or pleasure in doing things.”

That’s the problem in a nutshell, since the 1980s, we’ve been led to believe we need to do things. Seinfeld, a television show about nothing, is no longer on the air because people won’t tolerate a group of people who aren’t busy doing something.

Perhaps the researchers should have asked the 160,000 Americans their opinions on doing nothing. And then suggested they go do it on the front porch.