Leisure shouldn’t be about productivity – let’s enjoy our free time for the sake of it , writes Oliver Burkeman
One of the sneakier problems with treating time solely as something to be used as well as possible is that we start to experience pressure to use our leisure time productively, too. Enjoying leisure for its own sake – which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure – comes to feel as though it’s somehow not quite enough. It begins to feel as though you’re failing at life, in some indistinct way, if you’re not treating your time off as an investment in your future.
Sometimes this pressure takes the form of the explicit argument that you ought to think of your leisure hours as an opportunity to become a better worker (‘Relax! You’ll Be More Productive,’ reads the headline on one hugely popular New York Times piece).
But a more surreptitious form of the same attitude has also infected your friend who always seems to be training for a 10K, yet who’s apparently incapable of just going for a run: she has convinced herself that running is a meaningful thing to do only insofar as it might lead towards a future accomplishment.
And it infected me, too, during the years I spent attending meditation classes and retreats with the barely conscious goal that I might one day reach a condition of permanent calm. Even an undertaking as seemingly hedonistic as a year spent backpacking around the globe could fall victim to the same problem, if your purpose isn’t to explore the world but – a subtle distinction, this – to add to your mental storeroom of experiences, in the hope that you’ll feel, later on, that you’d used your life well.
The regrettable consequence of justifying leisure only in terms of its usefulness for other things is that it begins to feel vaguely like a chore – in other words, like work in the worst sense of that word.
This was a pitfall the critic Walter Kerr noticed back in 1962, in his book The Decline of Pleasure: ‘We are all of us compelled,’ Kerr wrote, ‘to read for profit, party for contacts . . . gamble for charity, go out in the evening for the greater glory of the municipality, and stay home for the weekend to rebuild the house.’
Defenders of modern capitalism enjoy pointing out that despite how things might feel, we actually have more leisure time than we did in previous decades – an average of about five hours per day for men, and only slightly less for women. But perhaps one reason we don’t experience life that way is that leisure no longer feels very leisurely. Instead, it too often feels like another item on the to-do list.
And like many of our time troubles, research suggests that this problem grows worse the wealthier you get. Rich people are frequently busy working, but they also have more options for how to use any given hour of free time: like anyone else, they could read a novel or go for a walk; but they could equally be attending the opera, or planning a ski trip to Courchevel. So they’re more prone to feeling that there are leisure activities they ought to be getting round to but aren’t.
We probably can’t hope to grasp how utterly alien this attitude towards leisure would have seemed to anyone living at any point before the Industrial Revolution. To the philosophers of the ancient world, leisure wasn’t the means to some other end; on the contrary, it was the end to which everything else worth doing was a means.
Aristotle argued that true leisure – by which he meant self-reflection and philosophical contemplation – was among the very highest of virtues because it was worth choosing for its own sake, whereas other virtues, like courage in war, or noble behaviour in government, were virtuous only because they led to something else.
The Latin word for business, negotium, translates literally as ‘not-leisure’, reflecting the view that work was a deviation from the highest human calling. In this understanding of the situation, work might be an unavoidable necessity for certain people – above all, for the slaves whose toil made possible the leisure of the citizens of Athens and Rome – but it was fundamentally undignified, and certainly not the main point of being alive.
Extract adapted from Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman (The Bodley Head). Buy a copy here.
Oliver Burkeman is a special guest on A Drink with the Idler on Thursday 20 January at 6pm London time. Register here – it’s free for Idler members.
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