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Holland Is the World’s Fifth Happiest Country — Here’s Why (And How You Can Jazz Up Your Joy Quotient)

Practicing the art of doing nothing is key.


In the World Happiness Report, a research project tracking the happiness of people around the world, the Netherlands consistently ranks near the top. Why? The country is known for its thriving economy and strong social safety net, including a minimum income, generous childcare policies, and universal healthcare. Meanwhile, Americans frequently report being overworked and underpaid, and parents often aren’t given the time and resources needed to care for their children.

The U.S. focus on ambition stands in stark contrast to the Dutch embrace of what they call niksen, which loosely translates to “doing nothing.” It’s a philosophy that many psychologists believe is responsible for Holland’s heightened happiness. Whether or not you agree with this attribution, what’s for certain is that doing nothing every now and then is important — in fact, vital — to one’s mental health. Below are a few easy ways to add some niksen to your life. Heb een fijne dag!

Enjoy the moment.

When treating yourself to coffee, a warm bath, or any other little indulgence, pause and think about how much you’re enjoying yourself in that moment. A study in Clinical Gerontologist found that taking time to savor positive experiences during the day can lead to more restful sleep at night. Appreciating joyful moments improves your mood, which makes you less likely to lose sleep due to stress.

Take a whiff of citrus.

Inhaling the scent of bitter orange essential oil for 5 minutes twice a day may also reduce tossing and turning at night. A study in the International Journal of Community-Based Nursing and Midwifery found that the scent significantly improved the sleep quality of postmenopausal women. The aroma’s compounds reduce anxiety, helping you drift off.

Gaze at the stars.

A study in Frontiers in Psychology found that looking at things that inspires awe — twinkling stars or falling snow, for example — tames stress, increases patience, and boosts focus, which in turn boosts productivity and reduces procrastination.

Think about your friends.

Stumped on what to bring to your neighborhood potluck or how to decorate your new bookshelf? Instead of getting right to work on brainstorming, pause to think of a few happy moments you’ve spent with your best friends; for example, a recent brunch you enjoyed with them. According to a Frontiers in Psychology study, basking in these memories helps us feel more positive and creative. Being reminded of the people who care about and support you increases self-confidence, making it easier to generate new ideas.

Hold a ball of yarn.

Whenever you need a fresh idea for a fun project, hold an object that reminds you of the task at hand — a ball of yard, for instance, if you’re knitting a sweater for your grandchild’s birthday. The “touch it once” rule touted by productivity experts claims that as soon as you get your hands on an item related to your project, you become noticeably more excited about it, thus sparking your imagination and allowing you to act on it more quickly.

Take time to daydream.

When you’re feeling stressed, imagine a peaceful scene, such as lounging on a beach or watching a sunrise. In a Psychological Science study, those who followed wandering daydreams and “task-unrelated thoughts” improved their “working memory” (defined as the ability to remember important daily tasks). So don’t be afraid to daydream — it just might help you stay on track with your to-do list.

Listen to music.

Listening to your favorite music may have a mild painkilling effect. A study in Frontiers in Psychology found that listening to music eased symptoms in those suffering from chronic pain. Songs you love capture your attention and activate pleasure centers, which may interfere with pain signals sent through the body to tame discomfort.

Take breaks.

A study published in Cell Reports determined that you don’t need endless hours of repetition to learn something new. Instead, the findings suggest that taking short, relaxing breaks at regular intervals while practicing a new skill helps learners acquire relevant knowledge faster. As you rest, your brain replays the information you’ve just learned. This act of niksen helps store it in your longterm memory bank so it’s easier to recall.

Lay in the sun.

Take your embrace of niksen outside by carving out a few minutes to sit outdoors on a sunny day or relax in a sunny room. Research has found that UV light ups production of memory-boosting glutamate.

Soak your feet.

A Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine study found a warm footbath isn’t just relaxing, it may also lower your blood pressure. Warming your feet dilates arteries and relaxes muscles surrounding blood vessels, boosting blood flow.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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