Doing Nothing isn’t a Competition but South Korea is Winning

Just wait till you hear what this is.

Just wait till you hear what this is.

Here’s a story for the ages:

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, about 70 people gathered at Ichon Hangang Park in Seoul, South Korea, to do absolutely nothing. There was not a smartphone in sight, no texting or taking selfies, and no one rushing to get anywhere.

The crowd was taking part in South Korea’s annual Space Out Competition, a contest to see who can stare off into space the longest without losing focus. WoopsYang, the visual artist who created the event in 2014, said it’s designed to highlight how much people have been overworking their brains and how much they stand to gain by taking a break.

So first off, this is an awesome thing and is downright inspiring to me.

It makes me think: What if there would be some way to have this kind of event in America?

Imagine if you could organize this type of event somewhere in a big city like NYC and get literally thousands of people in some very public place and show people that you don’t have to rush around all of the time.

Especially in a city like NYC, “The city that never sleeps” this could be a great social message that is easy to do and accessible to many people all at once. And the best part is that the set up for such an event wouldn’t be very difficult and we already have a template of how it works and what rules to go by.

For example:

…a full-on pageant with a panel of judges and a set of strict rules—no phones, no talking, no checking your watch, no dozing off.

During the 90-minute-long event, contestants are banned from doing anything other than spacing out. If you fall asleep, start laughing, or use technology, you’re disqualified. Contestants’ heart rates are checked every 15 minutes to ensure that they are in a state of chill; the person with the most stable heart rate wins. There’s a live sportscaster who narrates the event to onlookers. If contestants feel discomfort—say, if someone gets thirsty or needs to use the bathroom—they can hold up one of several cards to make a request.

A few things worth noting is that in only two years of this contest starting it has already attracted 2000 people to sign up just so they legitimize the act of doing nothing. Quite often we feel like we’re doing something wrong when we do nothing by ourselves but this contest helps us construct a social ritual (a game!) around the concept of doing nothing.

The ever-present critic and skeptic in me can’t help but notice that this unfortunately turns the act of doing nothing into more of a specialized, ritualized performance than something we should try to maximize in as many contexts as possible. But on the other hand, this could be a great first step towards accomplishing that by legitimizing the practice.

What I would find interesting is researchers taking a look at this contest and monitoring participants mental health and how their behaviors changed before versus after they participated in this event. That way we could have a better idea about how effective this contest is at actually changing people’s health and their daily behaviors.

And the contest extends even to China!

Problems associated with stress, anxiety, and overworked brains are not unique to Seoul, so WoopsYang hopes to eventually expand the competition worldwide. Last year, there was an international Space Out Competition held in Beijing, which had roughly 80 chilled-out contestants.

In addition WoopsYang (one of the lead organizers of the event) has a similar idea to my NYC application:

Besides the competitive element, WoopsYang says she also sees the event as a piece of performance art. The competition is held during a busy part of the day (this year, it was on a Monday morning) in a busy part of the city (the first one was held in Seoul’s city hall; this year, in a large public park) to highlight the contrast between a group of people doing absolutely nothing and the chaos of the city surrounding them. “The best way to view this competition is from one of the surrounding tall buildings, looking down,” said WoopsYang. “You’ll be able to see a small patch of stillness amidst all the hectic movement.”

WoopsYang also encourages contestants to come wearing outfits that represent their vocation—suits or lab coats or uniforms—so that the group of people gathered together looks like “a miniature version of the entire city,” she said. The point is to demonstrate how burnout can affect anyone, but everyone can benefit from spacing out. “I also try my best to choose the most diverse pool of people possible during the final stages of the qualifying rounds, in the hopes that it’ll allow every group in the city to be represented,” she said.

Honestly, I try not to quote too much from the articles I am referencing unless I am engaging in dialogue (i.e. not enthusiastic approval) but there’s so much good stuff in here. The whole article is worth reading of course but on the other hand I’ve quoted most of the important bits, which as I said, I try not to do.

I’m seriously considering what it would take to do an event like this in America. What would be a good city to start it in? NYC still seems like the optimal choice but is there another option I’m not thinking of?

Other interesting questions arise about what demographics tend to come out to these competitions. Is it the people who are working at offices 40+ hour a week? Students? The unemployed?

I think this competition is rife with opportunities for social research so we can get a better handle on how much public displays of laziness can shape and change the discussion around work itself. And not only that but how those same public acts can help the people who are involved with it.

Now I really want to visit South Korea.

Which isn’t a sentence I thought I’d be typing out today.

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