Today’s consumer market offers individuals an unprecedented range of goods and services that aim to maximize “free time.” Companies like Task Rabbit, Amazon Prime, Blue Apron, and FreshDirect make it possible to literally purchase the time typically spent on doing household chores, cooking meals, and running errands. Given the availability of such modern luxuries, it’s a wonder that, as a culture, we seem to be stressed and depressed as ever.
This paradox is proof that the problem facing Americans today is not an issue of how much free time we have, but rather how we spend it. It’s symptomatic of a society that has forgotten the importance of leisure.
A case for leisure
Because leisure is (by definition) economically unproductive, many mistakenly infer that no value can be derived from it. It is dismissed as a luxury only afforded to the independently wealthy or retired. The truth is, however, that leisure is something worth prioritizing in order to be more productive, happier, and healthier.
“A respite from toil and chores is a prerequisite for contemplation and deepening of consciousness that allows for cultural advance,” AEI political economist and demographer Nicholas Eberstadt explains in his newly released book, “Men Without Work.”
In “Men Without Work,” Eberstadt cites the late German philosopher Josef Pieper, whose 1952 work, “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” anticipates the modern crisis of our busybody culture. Pieper asserts that leisure — something the Ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans valued greatly — is “the first foundation of any culture.” If we ignore this, and instead glorify labor or “productivity” as the ultimate good — replacing leisure with “hectic amusements” — culture will surely collapse.
When society doesn’t value leisure, free inquiry and religious contemplation get replaced with common mindedness and vice. Why is this? Because when we don’t carve out the time needed to meditate on topics of great importance (e.g. faith, philosophy, politics), we gradually lose our appetites for these things. The result is the loss of humanity that comes from what Pieper described as a slave-like approach to labor.
Leisure vs. idleness
The reason so many Americans fail to recognize the importance of leisure, “Men Without Work” notes, stems from the dangerous modern tendency to equate leisure with idleness:
“Successive generations in our consumer era appear to be ever less aware of the age-old distinction between leisure and idleness in the spending of free-time. Bluntly stated, leisure refines and elevates; idleness corrupts and degrades.”
In today’s busybody culture, where people have more “free time” available to them than ever before, there is a tendency to fill every spare pocket of time with either more labor … or with idleness. The array of goods and services designed to save us time end up making us feel like we haven’t “produced” enough, and because of this, we create more tasks for ourselves that leave us feeling more stressed and overloaded. When we can’t check off every box on our task list, we get burned out.
As a culture, we’re so riddled with this combination of guilt and stress that when we finally do have some free time, we fill it with “mindless” activities that serve little purpose other than to help us temporarily forget our never-ending list of to-dos. After all this, we are left wondering why we experience exhaustion and a lack of fulfillment.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
If leisure is so vital to civilization and human happiness, why did we ever stop valuing it in the first place? Why is it that today, reading great literature, learning a new skill such as a foreign language or instrument, going for a long walk, or meditating/praying are all seen as “extras” that we seem to never have time for?
As the German philosopher Pieper mentions, one of the greatest assaults on leisure in recent history is the glorified view of work. Our modern culture affirms our personal sense of pride by telling us we need to account for every moment of free time. And while it’s wrong to squander this time by being idle, it is equally harmful to neglect intellectual, physical, and spiritual pursuits for the sake of feeling “productive.”
Unlike idleness, labor is a necessary and valuable element of life. There are times when work must take precedence over leisure. But to view labor as the only thing worthy of our time and energy is to live like a slave. When we ignore the manifold benefits of leisure, our culture suffers.