There was an Italian restaurant I frequented in Beverly Hills which has since closed. At lunch they would throw open the sliding doors and make it an indoor/outdoor restaurant. Random pigeons would wander in and out and pick up crumbs. I thought this was interesting to say the least, but no one seemed to think anything of it. The pigeons in the painting above reminded me of those long luxurious lunches in southern California. The painting is called Dolce Far Niente. It was painted by John William Waterhouse in 1880, and it inspired this post.
It shows the act of sweetly doing nothing. Dolce Far Niente is a phrase that conjures up lazy summer afternoons, pleasant idleness, dreamy days staring at the clouds and allowing your imagination to take flight.
The Opposite of Dolce Far Niente
When I worked as a managing editor in California, the hours I kept were long and fast-paced. When I got home at night, usually around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., I was tired and hungry. My food choices were not always the best, I relaxed for a couple of hours, actually did a little work every night at 9:00 because that was when our website refreshed, and then I did it all again the next day.
When I finally took some time off, I was so wound up I would get easily bored and not know what to do with myself. I had trouble relaxing. I had forgotten how to spend time not working.
For a while it was like a badge of honor. I was proud of how much work I could do, how much content I could produce, how much budget I could be responsible for at work. This went on for several years until I finally reached a breaking point. How could I not?
I eventually took stock of my life choices and made significant changes which included leaving the job and moving back to the East Coast where my family lived.
The American/Puritan Way
In America we have this concept that we should strive for work-life balance. But there is no balance to be found. You spend most of your hours and days at work. What we need to do is think of our lifestyle first and choose work that we enjoy doing, because it all blends together.
I love the Italian concept of Dolce Far Niente. Literally, it translates to “sweet to do nothing” It is the act of pleasantly doing nothing, being carefree and idle. In the middle of the day in Italy, everyone takes a break. Some may take a nap, some may stroll into a cafe and have a glass of wine, some may embrace their wives or husbands and enjoy a little sweet intimacy.
I write often about Italian lifestyle. My ancestry is Italian. Many Americans are the children and grandchildren of European immigrants. I am fascinated that we in America have deviated so far from their way of living. Sure we get 15-minute breaks during the work day, and we can take a lunch break. But it is all very rigid and usually unpaid time. I spent most of my days at the office trying to cram in a sandwich at my desk, not even taking a midday break. There was too much to do.
In the U.S. we have adopted a Puritan work ethic. We frown upon anyone who is in between jobs, or unemployable. We act as if they are taking money out of our paychecks. But when you embrace the rat race of the American workplace, that’s what you become, like a rat running through a maze to get to a crumb of cheese left by our masters. Our lives belong to a corporation. Our time is not our own, it is paid for by someone else.
I’m not suggesting we all leave our jobs and lie around eating peeled grapes. Arrange your time so that you live your life each day. The work will get done. You don’t have to punch a time-clock for your free time.
Americans try to cram their lives into weekends and a week or two of vacation time. We come home from a long day of work exhausted, we eat to fill an empty pleasure zone in our lives, all this while we watch other people live their lives on TV.
Decide what lifestyle you want and then try to make that happen while still earning an income. You don’t have to follow the rules that were written by someone else.
Try Dolce Far Niente
Try spending some time in sweet idleness. Turn off your phone, your television, and stay off social media. Enjoy lying on the couch, make love to your partner, have a glass of wine outside, read a book, listen to music. These activities seem like luxuries, don’t they? Well, they shouldn’t be. They should be everyday occurrences.
What happens when you pass time idly, does the world stop? No. It spins at the same rate. Time passes no matter what you do, so you might as well enjoy it.
We’re not used to being alone anymore, alone with our thoughts, or alone with people we care about. When you practice dolce far niente you may feel something unexpected. Let yourself feel everything. You may find tears on your cheeks, you may smile, you may doze off. Let it pass through you. Just be.
Let go of any guilt associated with idleness. We can’t live like trained circus animals performing on command.
At first you may find it difficult. Like on the first day of vacation, you don’t know how to relax and you get stressed out. I get fidgety and I wonder what I’m missing. But then I take a few deep breaths, allow my body to relax and enjoy it. I’m not missing anything. Everyone else is missing out on “me time.” Watch the sunset. Have a glass of iced tea.
My coaching philosophy is all about living la dolce vita, in whatever way that means to you. The film La Dolce Vita (dir. Federica Fellini, 1960) showed a more decadent side of life in post-WWII Rome. But some people miss the point of the movie.
Even though La Dolce Vita translates literally to the sweet life, filmmaker Federico Fellini said this was a misinterpretation. He meant it to mean the sweetness of life. The good, the bad, they all combine into a life that is a work of art.
Make your life a work of art. If you want some coaching around this topic, visit my Work With Me page to find out how I can help you design a life you love.