Washington Post editor Christine Emba has a good essay on our need to rethink the meaning and use of leisure. Americans “have lost our understanding of what leisure time should be and why it has value,” she argues. You can see this in our avoidance of vacations (a problem we share with Japan), our love-hate relationship with overwork, and our tendency to view “leisure” as synonymous with recreation (or even overstimulation). As Emma Seppala puts it, we “equate happiness with high intensity.”
As Emba argues,
We’ll need to regain a better understanding of leisure both to preserve society in a post-work world and to save it from an all-work one.
Of course, this is one of the things I’m trying to do in my book REST— help people look at rest differently, and understand how valuable it really can be in busy lives.
So what should leisure be? In classical philosophy, leisure is is lauded as essential to a fulfilling life. Aristotle stated that “we are un-leisurely in order to have leisure” — in other words, we work to have time for other things. But those other things aren’t just “doing nothing” or even resting up for the next workday. In a philosophical context, leisure is meant to be something else entirely: time in which we can be free to do things that matter to us, activities undertaken for their own sake rather than as a means to another end.
Indeed, I would argue (and I do so in the book) that when you look beyond how people in previous eras praised leisure, and look at how they actually worked and rested, you see that some very creative and prolific people actually spent a lot of time in what we would regard in leisurely pursuits– and their work was much better as a result.
There’s a bit of a discordant note at the end, where she notes that “leisure time has been on the rise since formal national time-use surveys began in 1965.” I think economists use the word “leisure” differently than philosophers or sociologists, and so while by one measure “leisure” in the sense of hours not spent at work are on the rise, “leisure” in the sense of time that is of a high enough quality as to allow us to be more creative or self-fulfilled is, arguably, just as scarce as ever.
However, this reflects an issue that many of us have with the concept of leisure, which is a tendency to collapse these two understandings together, to assume that all “free” time is equally valuable, and that if you’re not spending it reading Seneca in Firestone Library then it’s your own damn fault for wasting your life. In reality, the way you spend your free time is strongly influenced by how you work, and the expectations you have about how you spend non-work hours. This is why, for example, shorter working hours don’t necessarily lead to better work-life balance.
Still, disentangling these different meanings of leisure, and figuring out one that works for us today, is a big challenge. As I’ve noted before, it’s one we’ve been struggling with for a very long time. Bertie Charles Forbes worried about captains of industry working themselves to death a century ago. William James likewise diagnosed Americans as suffering from a pathological love of overwork in his great “Gospel of Relaxation.” If Emba’s essay can help push a few people to think more deeply about how they can best spend their free time, and use it to become better selves, well done.