Book review: A guide on how to do nothing

Today’s always-on, franticly busy lifestyle isn’t working, suggests philosopher Byung-Chul Han. We should all learn how to do nothing

By Marilyn Wright

Marilyn Wright is a journalist based in London

15 Nov 2023

There seems to be a backlash against busy: a new wave of opinion is pushing against the idea that every hour must be crammed with activity. These days, claiming to be “busy, busy, busy” is less a badge of honour and more a sign that you’re doing it all wrong.  

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. In 2014, the Johns Hopkins Health Review identified a trend for people to equate a packed schedule with success. The “cult of busy”, as they called it, was a way to signal your worth to others.  

Celebrities were particularly keen to jump on the busy bandwagon. In 2016, researchers analysed thousands of tweets from famous faces and found that about 12 per cent were ‘humblebrags’ about being busy and “having no life” or needing a holiday. The studies, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that an overworked lifestyle, rather than a leisurely existence, had become an aspirational status symbol. 

Now, the tables have turned. A resistance to the dominance of busyness is building, and in his latest book, Vita Contemplativa, Byung-Chul Han argues the case for inactivity.  “Without moments of pause or hesitation, acting deteriorates into blind action and reaction,” writes the South Korean-born philosopher and cultural theorist, now living in Germany.  

If we lose the ability to be inactive, we resemble machines that must simply function

“When life follows the rule of stimulus–response, need–satisfaction and goal–action, it atrophies into pure survival: naked biological life,” he warns. “If we lose the ability to be inactive, we begin to resemble machines that must simply function.” 

It’s a compelling argument, and one that has taxed the minds of philosophy’s heavy-hitters over the centuries. The term ‘vita contemplativa’ translates from Latin as ‘the contemplative life’, and has been associated with the teachings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. 

For Han, “life receives its radiance only from inactivity”. But in our hurried lives, he says, we are losing the ability to be inactive. Human existence becomes fully absorbed by activity – even leisure, treated as a respite from work, becomes part of the same logic.  “Leisure time lacks both intensity of life and contemplation,” Han writes. “It is a time that we kill so as not to get bored. It is not free, living time; it is dead time.” 

Han’s book is described as “an ode to the art of being still”. But his definition of inactivity may surprise you. Han challenges the belief that inactivity is the same as laziness. Instead, he presents it as a powerful tool to engender creative thought. “Inactivity is not the opposite of activity,” Han insists. “Rather, activity feeds off inactivity.” 

To expand on this, Han refers to Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher. “Benjamin raises inactivity to the position of midwife to the new,” Han writes, before going on to quote another German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche: “Inventive people live altogether differently from active ones; they need time, so that purposeless, unregulated activity occurs, experiments can take place, and new paths can be taken.” 

For Han, inactivity is not a weakness or defect but rather an “intensity”, which he feels is undervalued in today’s society. His view is that, because we often look at life from the perspective of work and performance, we class inactivity as a deficiency that must be overcome as quickly as possible.  

“We have forgotten that it is precisely inactivity, which does not produce anything, that represents an intense and radiant form of life,” Han suggests. “To oppose the compulsion of work and performance, we must create a politics of inactivity that is able to produce genuinely free time.” 

There are indications that Han’s way of thinking is gathering momentum. After the lifestyle pause imposed by Covid-19 restrictions, people now seem less willing to measure their value based on how busy they are.  

book cover

In April 2021, New York Magazine ran a feature about ‘The People Who Don’t Want to Return to Normalcy’, quoting a man named William who felt the pandemic had given him, for the first time, “a great excuse to do nothing ... It was the best. I feel guilty saying it.” 

It’s precisely this feeling of guilt that Han is keen for us to shake off. The nub of his book is that the current crisis in our society calls for a very different attitude to life. He urges us to bring our ceaseless activities to a stop and make room for the “magic” of inactivity.  

Don’t be fooled by the occasional lapse into mystical language, however. Han’s message about the importance of recovering the art of contemplation amid the frenzy of modern life makes a serious point: if we stay on the hamster wheel of activity, we risk self-destruction.  

It’s a theory that should provide food for thought for all those working in Europe’s political institutions. If your job is a carousel of commitments, your out-of-office time a myriad of obligations, and your to-do list more of an infinite scroll, perhaps it’s time to try another approach.  

But even inactivity requires some effort. “Inactivity is time-consuming,” Han concedes. “It requires a long whiling, an intense, contemplative lingering.” Not easy to pull off in today’s go-go-go environment.  

“The consumerist form of life prevails,” writes Han. “Every need must be satisfied at once. We are impatient if we are told to wait for something to slowly ripen. All that matter are short-term effects and quick gains. Actions are reduced to reactions. Experiences are diluted, and become events. Feelings are impoverished, and become emotions or affects.” 

The future of humanity depends not on the power of people who act but on the resuscitation of the capacity for contemplation

So how do we make the shift from frantic activity to a more contemplative state? If you’re hoping for Han to provide a 10-step plan, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, he’s crafted a nuanced and carefully researched overview in which he quotes from – and questions – the theories of a swathe of thinkers, from ancient Greeks to more contemporary figures.  

For instance, there are frequent references to the work of Hannah Arendt, a German-born American historian and one of the most influential political theorists of recent times. Arendt’s book, The Human Condition, first published in 1958, investigates the vita activa – the active life – which she condenses to labour, work and action. Han is not afraid to unpick Arendt’s theories.  

“Arendt is wrong,” he says towards the end of a chapter entitled The Pathos of Action. “The future of humanity depends not on the power of people who act but on the resuscitation of the capacity for contemplation – that is, on the very capacity that does not act. If it does not incorporate the vita contemplativa, the vita activa degenerates into hyperactivity, and culminates in the burnout not only of the psyche but of the whole planet.” 

A sobering thought. In a society where even sleep has taken on active connotations – ‘power nap’ anyone? – Han’s pleas for us to embrace inactivity are hard to ignore. Of course, no one’s suggesting we opt out of all responsibilities and just stare into space. But if your current lifestyle is leaving you feeling overwhelmed, a break from busyness could be the reset you need. Particularly if, as Han says, inactivity “is the basic formula for happiness”.  

Author: Byung-Chul Han  
Publisher: Polity

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