The urgent importance of leisure

Don't let life whiz past you while you are busy stuffing your days with ever-more activities, both at work and off it. Slow down and experience true leisure that has the power to not just help you recharge but also rediscover yourself...

Man relaxing on the beach

Like it or not, too many of us, out of desire or necessity, choice or chance, put too much time in on the job. We have made a fetish out of work. We have become addicted to the promise of work. Work promises we will get ahead. Work promises power, money, and influence. Work promises we will be accepted, respected, successful. And so, we work. We work because we want to, because we need to. We work out of habit and desire.

We work to occupy time. We work to establish our place in the pecking order, to guarantee status and prestige. And, too often, we work because we simply don’t know what else to do with ourselves, because we think we must and should.

Love it or hate it, work sets the pace and establishes the rhythm for everything else we do in life. Even when we‘re not at work, when we’re not on the clock, we consume time by constantly doing things and staying busy. Weekends are whirlwinds of activity. Vacations often resemble a blitzkrieg of organized movement with every moment of the trip preplanned and orchestrated for maximum efficiency and, of course, pleasure! For example—“Twenty-one countries in 14 days: Airfare, ground transportation, guides, lodging, meals, wine but not cocktails, and all tips included!”

James Gleick, in Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, reflects on why Americans [and, increasingly, the world] work and play as hard and intensely as they do.

Gleick suggests that we are now manic about speed. The world now seems to operate on five-minute intervals. We are rush freaks. We are time obsessed. “Lose not a minute” is the motto of the age. We are always making haste. Multitasking isn’t an option, it’s a way of life. Hyperactivity is the norm.

It has simply become standard to respond to the conventional salutation of “Hello, how are you?” with some version of the refrain “I am so busy!” Unfortunately, we say this to one another with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy and our ability to keep going a mark of real character. As theologian Wayne Muller has pointed out: “The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others.” Sadly, to be busy, to be unavailable, has become the model of the successful life.

Here’s the problem. When life becomes an Olympic endurance event [“the Everydayathon”], when the stopwatch is always ticking, when are we supposed to have fun? When will there be a time to be human? As Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, professor of leisure studies, so aptly put it, “Having to go so fast to keep up, we miss stuff—our existence is truncated. Some things simply cannot be done going full speed: love, sex, conversation, food, family, friends, nature. In the whirl, we are less capable of appreciation, enjoyment, sustained concentration, sorrow, memory.”

I think, we all do too much or try to do too much. My mother used to accuse me of having “eyes bigger than your stomach.” She told me that I both literally and figuratively put too many things on my plate. “Alfredó,” she’d say, “You do too much. Slow down, take smaller bites, or you’re not going to enjoy anything. “Piano, piano arrive sano!” [Slowly, slowly, and you’ll get there surely, safely!]

My thesis is a simple one. Even if we love our jobs and find creativity, success, and pleasure in our work, we also crave, desire, and need not to work. No matter what we do to earn a living, we all seek the benefits of leisure, lassitude, and inertia. We all need to play more in our lives.

The urgent importance of leisure

Crowd in the station
We are time obsessed. “Lose not a minute” is the motto of the age. We are always making haste

According to the Harvard Health Letter, leisure time has dramatically eroded in recent decades, down to approximately 16.5 hours, per person, per week. A recent surgeon general’s report declared that the lack of “leisure-time physical activity” has become a serious health threat. The most hazardous work-related illness says Joe Robinson, editor of a vacation magazine, is “vacation deficit disorder” or “vacation starvation.” Robinson and the surgeon general are not alone in their warnings regarding the lack of leisure and vacation time and potential health issues. A fourteen-year study of 12,866 men published in The Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine found that annual vacations sharply reduced the risk of death in middle- aged men.

Similarly, a twenty-year study of 749 middle-aged women by the Centers for Disease Control found a direct link between a lack of vacations and a higher risk of heart attack and death. At the University of Essex, England, researchers found a link in women between working more than 48 hours a week for more than three years and high blood pressure, as well as ailments of the arms, legs, and hands.

Finally, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health claims that demanding jobs that give employees little control over their work increase the risk of heart disease.

Conclusion: “Vacations may be good for your health.”

Albert Speer, Third Reich minister of technology and armaments, argues in his memoir, Spandau, that intentions and ideology aside, Hitler’s chief failings as a military leader were overextension, overexertion, and fatigue. Hitler, said Speer, especially when the war began to turn against Germany, never seriously rested or recreated or could find any downtime, away time from the all-consuming particulars of the war. He took on too much, said Speer, and micromanaged too much. He got lost in the details, and his fatigue often blinded him to the obvious logic of the situation.

Fatigue and the frenzy of overstimulation can block objectivity, delimit perspective, and often deaden our ability to calculate and evaluate logically. Vince Lombardi, NFL coach and football legend, is reported to have said that “fatigue makes cowards and fools of us all and more often than not results in mediocrity.” Another American legend, Gary Cooper, in a less than-legendary 1953 film, Seminole, perhaps put it most succinctly: “Never decide or do anything when you’re tired.”

As the reclusive philosopher Baruch Spinoza suggested, in order to gain perspective, we need to step back; insight and wisdom are very often best achieved in moments away from the task at hand.

Even when you love the job you’re doing, you can’t do it all the time without losing something. To do almost anything well, you must have time off from it. Time away from constantly doing it. Time to recover and relax. Time to do something else. Time to just forget about it.

All of us need to “vacate” ourselves from our jobs and the wear and tear of the “everydayness” of our lives. All of us need to get absorbed in, focused on, something of interest outside of ourselves. All of us need escape, if only for a while, to retain our perspective on who we are and who we don’t want to be. All of us need to gain some feeling for, some knowledge of, the differences between distraction and insight, merriment and meaning, entertainment and recreation, laziness and leisure, rest and inertia.

If we are what we do, then to a great extent, as adults, we are defined by our work and our play. Both of these basic patterns of behavior influence not only how we define ourselves but how we understand and interpret reality and how we make ethical choices about our lives and our interactions with others. Therefore, depending upon who we want to be, and how we want to be known, we must be careful in our choices of what we do for a living and how we choose to play.

All of us need to vacate ourselves from our jobs and the wear and tear of the everydayness of our lives

Vacation on wheels

Woman sitting outside on the vehicle
We are constantly trying to reach someplace; never stopping even for a moment to appreciate the beauty of the journey

In Latin the word for vacation is vacare, “to be empty, nonoccupied,” “to suspend activity,” “to do nothing.” Work represents the everyday routine, and vacations are temporary interruptions.

On vacations we turn aside, go in the opposite direction, vacate ourselves from our usual course or purpose. Vacations connote downtime, choice, freedom, personal discretion, and activities an individual engages in for his or her own purposes and pleasures. Vacations are seen as an antidote to work. They are medicine, a remedy for counteracting the effects of labor. The psychologist Wayne E Oates believes that vacations offer us an opportunity to “empty ourselves of our multiple roles in life.” Vacations allow us to be away from the job, to change the patterns of our day, to alter our routine, to reconfigure our actions and habits, to rediscover ourselves.

Although it is not true for everyone, we commonly associate vacations or vacationing with traveling. In traveling, we take ourselves outside of ourselves, our normal life, our usual patterns. So where do we all go when we go on our private or familial odysseys? Not so surprisingly, an awful lot of us are pretty pedestrian in the use of our vacation time. It has been my experience that if you randomly survey a hundred people about how they spend their vacations the answers you will get are not scientific, and not always exactly the same, but they conform to a strikingly consistent pattern. Ten percent will gleefully report about doing something incredibly exotic: flying to Cape Town, South Africa, to go cage diving with great white sharks; sixteen days trekking through Tanzania; or a rafting trip down the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. Another 10 per cent will report that they did nothing on their vacation. That is, due to lack of interest or lack of funds, instead of taking an exotic trip, they did some chores around the house, took a trip to the zoo, took in a few museums, and spent a long day and night at their closest Six Flags amusement park.

About 40 per cent of those polled will tell you that they had a wonderful time on their vacations even if their destinations of choice were not sites “where no man has ever gone before.” These are the people who try to make it to Europe every third year. These are the hard-core vacationers and tourists who make detailed plans and carefully manage their budgets so that they can take an annual vacation.

And then there’s the surprising 40 per cent of us who report visiting family and friends on their vacations. Going to see loved ones has historically always been a major reason for traveling. And now, given the fluidity of our lives, our mobility, our multiple job changes, more and more of us live away from our families and our friends because they are scattered about everywhere. So naturally, our vacation time may be the only opportunity we have to get together.

Going to see grandma and grandpa, or spending a week with your brother or best friend from college, does not, of course, mean you do nothing else but spend time with them. Visitors usually end up doing a lot of the stuff that tourists usually do—dinners out, shopping, a little sightseeing. The main problem that was reported to me by a number of people who regularly take “family-visit vacations” is what one of them called “vacation- interruptus” or “vacationincompletus!”

That is, going to see family and friends is a vacation of sorts—you’re someplace else, you’re doing things, you’re having fun—but you’re constantly trying to balance your wants and desires with those of others. Because of all this and the sheer numbers involved in the project, the first casualty is usually the possibility of anything resembling “spontaneity” or “adventure.”

Moreover, the concepts of silence, solitude, and rest rarely enter into the equation.

Putting aside my limited survey, I have also found a growing number of people for whom vacations are anything but pedestrian. The past few decades have seen the rise of adventure travel, ecotravel, and archaeological travel, and now there are vacations that “take you to the limit”—extreme sports vacations.

What defines an extreme sport? While there is no exact definition, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that all of them have an above-average propensity to result in death, injury, or maiming. Here are just a few examples: rock climbing, bungee jumping, white-water rafting, base jumping [B-A-S-E, an acronym for parachutists jumping off buildings, antennas, spans (bridges), and earth (cliffs)], bridge swinging, street luge, downhill roller blading, surfing in typhoonlike swells, skiing/snowboarding in avalanche country, and aerobatic parachuting.

Although extreme sports can be a local weekend activity [e.g. parachuting], many of them require time and travel [mountain climbing, skiing] and therefore, most extreme sport athletes dedicate their vacation time to their sport of choice.

Extreme sports is about pushing boundaries, taking risks, leaving safety behind to leap into the void. Extreme sports is about a radical rush of adrenaline. It’s about forgetting about standards of safety. It’s about not being cerebral. It’s about not having control over the elements. It’s not about winning, it’s about not losing, not dying. It’s about elevating risk to the extreme. It’s about living through the experience. Simply, it’s about the afterglow pleasure of survival. Clearly, extreme sports vacations are not for the faint of heart.

I do understand why so many of us are drawn to it: it’s a combination of the thrill of the unknown, novelty, dancing with danger, and the irresistible possibility of the joy of play—no matter what the downside. We are, after all, curious creatures and thrill seekers. According to Eric Perlman, a mountaineer and filmmaker specializing in extreme sports: “Every human being with two legs, two arms is sometime going to wonder how fast, how strong, how enduring he or she is. We are designed to experiment or die.”

My problem is not with what we do on vacations, or where we go on vacations, or how much we spend on vacations. My problem revolves around the issue of what most of us don’t get out of our vacations—the opportunity for solitude. We just don’t do nothing well!

Shopping and sports as leisure

Shopping has literally become a leisure activity in its own right. Going to the mall [malling] and hanging out a the mall [mallratting] is a common Friday or Saturday night’s entertainment not only for teenagers, who seem to live and breed there, but for adults as well. Shopping has become the most popular form of family weekday-evening out-of-home entertainment.

We busy ourselves with shopping to demonstrate skill, talent, and taste; to fulfill the expectations of others; to mask inadequacies and flaws; to overcome boredom; and, to mask unhappiness. We consume as an antidote to stress and despair, and to compensate for whatever is missing in our lives. But whatever our reasons for our various prize purchases, the bottom line is the same for everybody. What we buy speaks volumes about who and what we are. Because, like it or not, in this society we “communicate with commodities”.

We love to shop, we want to shop, and, at a very basic level, we need to shop and consume. The desire to consume is not wrong. This issue is not consumerism per se, but shopping as an addiction, a fetish, a diversion, an obsession, a metaphysical orientation toward life. Shopping as a substitute for living.

Sports at every level, professional or amateur, is how more and more of us, as spectators or participants, spend our time, money, energy, and attention. For some they are a form of release, recreation, and relaxation. For others, they can become an addiction, a form of escapism, and an obsession.

Sports are something we do or view “for the love of it,” “for its own sake alone,” “for the joy of the doing.” At their best, sports offer a benign distraction, simple entertainment, an escape, or a buffer against the realities of the everyday world. Sports are a hobby we can supposedly safely and easily devote ourselves to. Theoretically, one doesn’t have to take a lot of time off, travel a great deal, or spend tons of money to engage in or be a spectator at a sporting event. The words supposedly and theoretically, of course, are open to wide interpretation.

Our collective passion for sports, and our use of sports as a means to achieving leisure and escape, is not hard to understand. The universe of sports allows us to find a niche, establish a place, and create order in an often chaotic and unwelcoming world.

Weekends: Thank God it’s Monday

Woman relaxing herself in the garden
All of us need escape, if only for a while, to retain our perspective on who we are and who we don’t want to be

A few of us, who are really good or just plain lucky in our financial and vocational choices, get to take the whole summer off. Some of us, with sufficient seniority, get a month. Most of us have the standard—but by no means guaranteed—two weeks off a year. Many of us make due with the occasional “four-day-quickie.” And a lot of us take our vacations or what leisure we can find on the weekends—if there is a weekend that week!

It’s been my experience that weekends in most family households are anything but leisurely or restful. In fact, I would suggest that the management of weekends in most “double-income with some kids households” [DISKS] can best be characterized as an experiment in controlled chaos.

Think about it, although you don’t have to go into “the job,” Saturdays are usually just another workday. A “honey-do list” is drawn up, chores are assigned, and you’re both off and running. Take the dog to the vet. Drop off Carla at ballet classes and Jason at little league practice. Pick up the dry cleaning. Stop at the hardware store. Vacuum and dust. Get Carla and Jason, bring them to swimming classes.

Go grocery shopping. Pick up kids again. Take Carla to the mall, drop off Jason at the cineplex. Get the dog. Do a load of wash. Start the sauce for dinner. Get the kids. Finish making dinner. Have dinner. Clean up after dinner. Drop off the kids at friends. Pick up two videos “not suitable” for family viewing. Fall asleep halfway through the first one. Totally forget to pick up the kids until they call looking for you.

And then there’s Sunday [You know the routine. Fill in the blanks as you deem necessary.] Church…lawn and yardwork …Little League game…wash the car…clean out the garage …have dinner with the in-laws…check the kids’ homework …check e-mail for work Monday…and—in the words of the late Sonny and the ever-rejuvenate Cher—”the beat goes on.”

Pop critics and commentators on the workplace keep telling us that the song that best reflects workers’ attitudes about the job is “Thank God It’s Friday” sung in celebration of the end of the week. That well may be so, but after a long weekend of kit, kin, and chores, there are a lot of people singing a slightly different tune—“Thank God It’s Monday!”—in celebration of the end, finally, of the weekend!

Although you don’t have to go into the job, Saturdays are usually just another workday

According to philosophers, pundits, pollsters, and politicians alike, weekends ideally are about freedom. The freedom to let go and let be. The freedom to explore your life, your world, and yourself. The freedom to stop, look, and listen. The freedom to examine an idea, pursue a dream. The freedom to think hard, to be serious, to ponder great ideas. The freedom to be a dilettante. The freedom to be whimsical, play hard, have fun. The freedom to be open to newness or nothing at all. In fact, practically speaking, we spend our weekends in a variety of different ways depending on who we are, what we do, where and how we live, and how much we make and can afford to spend. For most of us, the weekends are usually a mixed bag of relatively mild and pedestrian activities and experiences.

They usually start with the simple pleasure of sleeping in. [Which means, if you are over the age of forty, waking up at the usual workday time but forcing yourself to stay in bed until the deliciously decadent time of 7:15 A.M.!] Weekends mean being able to linger over breakfast, coffee, and the paper. They include a few [if you are lucky] household chores and repairs, as well as a little shopping. Weekends mean a walk, a run, a workout. Taking kids to the zoo. Watching a game. Playing catch in the backyard. Weekends mean turning off the phone, never getting out of your bathrobe, and watching the Sunday TV. Weekends mean breaking up the patterns of the week. Weekends are about going out for lunch or dinner, and maybe taking in a film.

For too many of us, concludes Witold Rybczynski in Waiting For the Weekend, weekends represent a different and sometimes a more pleasant way of staying busy and consuming time. But, he says, genuine free time, real leisure, must remain just that: “Free of the encumbrance of convention, free of the need for busyness, free for the ‘noble habit of doing nothing.’ And clearly, “doing nothing” does not describe the modern weekend!

Did you know?

The weekday-weekend cycle is now an almost universal institution in the modern world. Our everyday lives are divided into the rhythmic cadence of five days of work and two days off work. But it has not always been so. Although the seven-day week is now culturally ensconced, it is neither a natural nor a necessarily logical way to calibrate time. A twenty-four-hour day is the duration between one dawn and the next. The month is the amount of time—with some minor adjustments—it takes for the moon to wax, become full, and wane. The year is one full cycle of seasons. “But what,” says Witold Rybczynski in Waiting For the Weekend, “does the week measure? Nothing. At least nothing visible. No natural phenomenon occurs every seven days—nothing happens to the sun, the moon, or the stars. The week is an artificial, man-made interval.” The seven-day week became a definitive part of the Western calendar sometime in the second or third century A.D., in ancient Rome. Before that the Egyptians broke up the month into ten-day periods. The Babylonians had sevenday weeks that were punctuated by one- and two-day miniweeks to compensate for the movement of the moon. The Chinese had a formal cycle of individually named days that added up to sixty-day weeks. And, the Mayan culture had a thirteen-day week to commemorate the Thirteen Gods of the Mayan upper world.

There are a multiplicity of explanations, both practical and magical, to explain why and how the seven-day week became the universal standard.

To begin with, there were many “sacred sevens” in the ancient world. There were the “seven wonders of the world,” “the seven pillars of wisdom,” and the “seven labors of Hercules.”

Or how about a plausible scientific explanation? Modern biology, suggests Rybczywski, has identified seven natural rhythms of the body—the so-called circaseptan rhythms [heartbeat, blood pressure, oral temperature, acid content of blood, calcium levels, and the amount of cortisol in adrenal glands]—that roughly follow a seven-day cycle of fluctuations. And let’s not forget about “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the “Seven Seas,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “7–Up,” or “7–Eleven Rybczynski argues that whatever the reason or reasons behind the structure and length of the week, we needed some way to cluster days into manageable bunches to better organize our lives, and we simply somehow settled on the number seven.

Genuine leisure is what you need

Man near the beach
Leisure is time given to contemplation, wonder, awe, and the development of ideas

Because too many of us live in a world of total work, we think that leisure is at least minimally achieved by the mere absence of work. Because we are so eager to escape the burdens of work, we think that any form of nonwork—quiet time, downtime, doing no-thing in regard to a job time—constitutes some form of rest, recreation, and/or leisure. Well, we’re wrong. To be idle, to be without a task, to be doing no-thing are prerequisites but not sufficient conditions for the achievement of genuine leisure.

According to the psychiatrist Leonard Fagin, the concept of control is the crucial psychological distinction between work and leisure. What characterizes leisure is the feeling, if not the reality, of greater control over one’s activity; leisure implies doing what one wants to do with one’s “free” or “non-work time.”

Englishman, Winston Churchill, had a few eccentric passions. Churchill was both an accomplished painter [on canvas, not walls] and a bricklayer. At Chartwell, his rural estate, he built two cottages, a playhouse, and several walls. Both Churchill and Fagin were convinced that leisure meant time free of the encumbrance of convention, free from “business-busyness,” free of the constraints of social obligation and duty.

Josef Pieper, in his cult classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture, argues that leisure is a necessary condition for both individual and communal survival, growth, and progress.

For Pieper, leisure is not simply a form of recreation or diversion, nor is it the natural result of rest, relaxation, or amusement. Although, it is necessary to be free of the toil and moil of the everyday burdens of work for it to occur, according to Pieper leisure is primarily a mental set, a psychological orientation, a condition of one’s soul or spirit. For Pieper, leisure is an attitude of nonactivity, of not being busy, of inner calm, a commitment to silence, meditation, observation, and letting things be. Leisure is a way of life and not just the inevitable by-product of holidays, spare time, weekends, or a vacation.

Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality…For leisure is a receptive attitude of the mind, a contemplative attitude…

Leisure, like contemplation, is of a higher order than the vita active [active life]…It is only in and through leisure that the “gate of freedom” is opened and man can escape from the closed circle of that “latent dread and anxiety”…the mark of the world of work.

To be leisurely, said Josef Pieper, is a choice. To be leisurely is to be disengaged from the tedium of tasks—to be open, observant, and receptive to issues outside of self and one’s immediate needs. Leisure is time given to contemplation, wonder, awe, and the development of ideas. Leisure is about creativity, insight, unregulated thoughts. It is about intellectual activity, but not intellectual work or utilitarian problem solving. It is about desire, wonder, and unbridled curiosity.

But we just don’t do leisure well. We rarely deliberately devote ourselves to idleness. Although I know it sounds like a Zen paradox, we almost never slow down enough to experience the experience of not doing anything at all. We rarely attune our inner ear to the needs of our inner self. We usually stay too busy, we usually do too much, and in the doing insulate ourselves from ourselves. As a friend once told me: “Most of us will take time off, but very few of us want to spend time with only ourselves. It’s too boring and scary. It’s a lot easier to do something and just keep busy.”

We just don’t do leisure well. We rarely deliberately devote ourselves to idleness

In an almost completely forgotten book [who’s got the leisure to read anymore?], Solitude: A Return to the Self, the English psychiatrist Anthony Storr speaks to a profoundly neglected human need: the need for solitude. The Random House Dictionary defines solitude as “the state of being or living alone.” Although optimum solitude can occur only in the physical absence of others, the general state of solitude can be achieved in the presence of others. Just as it is possible to be lonely in the company of others, it is also possible to achieve solitude, of a kind, in the company of others.

The state of solitude is about calmness, centeredness, and focus. It’s the ability to get “lost in the present.” It’s about being able to rivet our attention, getting in touch with our deepest thoughts and feelings. It’s about being able to ruminate without distraction, to meditate, to idly muse, to become totally absorbed in thought.

Of course, a lonely mountaintop is always preferable, but solitude can be had about anywhere.

Achieving solitude is easier said than done. As William James pointed out, reality is a “booming, buzzing, confusion.” The excessive busyness of our multitasked lives and the constant overload of outside stimuli are much more conducive to the production of migraines than to the pursuit of meaning.

Nevertheless, suggests Storr, “finding down-time,” “time outside of usual time,” “time to reflect on time,” is a sine qua non condition for emotional and intellectual stability.

Parting shot

It is my hope that we will learn or relearn two complementary and fundamental truths regarding the human situation. [1] Adults need work in the same way that children need play in order to fulfill themselves as persons. [2] Adults need play in the same way that children need play in order to fulfill themselves as persons. An overworked man is an unimaginative one, at best dully completing a routine, at worst making serious mistakes. Far from benefiting his company, he is very likely creating problems rather than solving them—and so making work for other overworked men to boast about. We get new ideas when our mind is allowed to roam in a free and relaxed way around a problem—and for that we need a reasonable amount of leisure and thus a decent annual vacation.

Maybe the European practice of five weeks paid vacation goes too far—but not by much! [John Sullivan, columnist, Chicago Sun-Times, January 1, 2002]

The ability to play, to go on vacation, to take long walks, to have a quiet weekend, to have time to think, should not be perceived as a perk or privilege. We need not always be doing. In fact, we must all try to studiously do less, in order to be more.

P.S. To maintain sanctity of the source, this article follows American English.
Excerpted with permission from The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure, and Vacations by Al Gini; published by Routledge.


This excerpt was first published in the April 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here