The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure: and he that hath little business shall become wise.
When nineteenth-century Western colonists and researchers encountered supposedly “primitive” societies like the Samoans in southwest Polynesia, they marveled at how much free time the people seemed to have. “Time is plentiful in the South Seas, and cares are few,” wrote the American ethnologist William Churchill. “Life has no engagement so important that the islander will not cancel it at once on the plea of sport.”11xWilliam Churchill quoted in Hilmi Ibrahim, Leisure and Society: A Comparative Approach (Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown, 1991), 55.
This preference for leisure over work was hardly unique to Pacific Islanders. Urban and rural artisans in preindustrial England also took it as a given that more free time was better than work, even when more work promised greater monetary returns. When the prices they could command for their goods rose, they saw it as an opportunity not to amass wealth but to work less.22xAugustine quoted in Paul Heintzman, Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 66–67.
In this limited respect, they were much like the elites of antiquity and the Middle Ages. In the Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the idea of working beyond what was necessary was abhorrent. Likewise for the Roman elites, though their precise views on leisure differed from those of the Greeks. In both cultures, the word for leisure seems to have come first, with work and business framed as nonleisure—scholé versus aschole in Greek, otium versus negotium in Latin.
Similarly, in later centuries, following the rise of Christendom, religious thinkers generally favored leisure over work (vita contemplativa as opposed to vita activa), because that was how one drew closer to God. Work, after all, was punishment for humankind’s original sin. “The obligations of charity make us undertake righteous business [negotium],” wrote Augustine, but “if no one lays the burden upon us, we should give ourselves up to leisure [otium], to the perception and contemplation of truth.”33xAugustine quoted in Paul Heintzman, Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 66–67.
All were expressing a leisure ethic: a worldview in which a preference for free time and intrinsically motivated pursuits is accompanied by an understanding of how time can best be spent.
To most people today, the notion of a leisure ethic will sound foreign, paradoxical, and indeed subversive, even though leisure is still commonly associated with the good life. More than any other society in the past, ours certainly has the technology and the wealth to furnish more people with greater freedom over more of their time. Yet because we lack a shared leisure ethic, we have not availed ourselves of that option. Nor does it occur to us even to demand or strive for such a dispensation.
One reason for this is that the values and culture that created our current abundance may be incompatible with actually enjoying it. Sparta had the same problem. After mastering the art of war and achieving supreme domination, it could no longer preserve itself, because its citizens didn’t know what to do with the leisure they had won.44xAristotle, Politics, trans. C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2017), 44. In today’s economic parlance, they had been deskilled in the area that ultimately mattered most.
Moreover, free time, like money, is not equally distributed. Only the very rich can fully orient their lives toward leisure. The rest of us are left with only scraps of time (“weekends”) to devote to the efforts that real leisure—as opposed to idle entertainment—requires. Cultivating a rich appreciation of the art of filmmaking yields satisfactions that simply watching movies does not, but who has time for the former?
Earlier societies had a more clearly articulated understanding of how leisure ought to structure one’s life—it being the crucial space for character building, civic participation, worship, and so forth, depending on the historical context. By contrast, we today must find a glide path in what is otherwise an existentialist free fall. At least when we face the demands of work or other nondiscretionary time commitments, we don’t have to bother with the daunting question of what we should do with ourselves. Although the finitude of life ought to inspire an eagerness to seize the day, freedom, in this open-ended sense, can be agonizing, terrifying, overwhelming. Better to “keep busy,” to “have something to do,” and not to think about the fable of the horse that, growing tired of its freedom, allowed itself to be saddled, and was ridden to death.55xJ.W. von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, in Selected Works, trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan (New York, NY: Everyman’s Library/Penguin, 1999), 49. First published 1774 as Die Leiden des jungen Werthers.
Most of us are also risk averse, and so will seek meaning from culturally established, socially accepted, reliable sources. “Bringing home a paycheck” ticks all those boxes. It may not be ideal, but at least it is something. To find meaning without such structure requires more of what the philosopher Martin Hägglund calls “secular faith”: the belief that what you yourself have chosen to do with your limited lifespan matters.66xMartin Hägglund, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (New York, NY: Anchor/Pantheon, 2019), 49. Thinking through this process can be unnerving. We are skeptical, or perhaps even frightened, of what we will find once we have stopped going through the motions of everyday life and begun to imagine a realm of freedom that is less circumscribed than that which we have always known. While technology eventually could liberate us in such a fashion, there seems to be at least some part of us that does not want it to.
A return to the leisure ethic might show us what we are missing. By developing such an ethos, we might find new vistas of human potential and value while fostering a more harmonious relationship with nature and each other along the way.
The Effluent Society
How people spend their time is a fundamental mark of civilization, but it is a category that tends to be lost beneath a society’s scientific, technological, military, and material attainments. Rarely do we notice that, temporally speaking, the scope of human freedom is as circumscribed as it ever was—and in some respects, much more so. In the rich societies of the twenty-first century, most people spend their prime years locked in meaningless, unessential, work punctuated by meaningless entertainment.
The structure of the average day precludes what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being,” those rare experiences of authentic self-affirmation that stick with us, crystallized in memory. Although, as Woolf observed, “every day includes much more non-being than being,” that is all the more reason to attend seriously to the limited time one has.77xVirginia Woolf, Moments of Being, 2nd ed., ed. Jeanne Schulkind (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985), 70. The more harried one’s day—the more filled it is with banal busyness and fleeting frivolities—the scarcer the potential for authentic experiences becomes. The shorter one’s life becomes.
This realization has not been lost on us, but it tends to announce itself only during periods of tumult or crisis. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic invited a hard look at some of the basic facts of our own time, highlighting the shortness of life, the pointlessness of much work, and a broader crisis of meaninglessness. Though many who quit during the Great Resignation did so simply to switch to jobs with slightly better pay or working conditions, the implications of the trend were obvious: Even if your new job is marginally better than the one that came before it, that doesn’t make it worthy of claiming your finite time on earth. Why not try to eliminate toil altogether?
The “end of work” is not a new proposition. The online “antiwork” movement that gained momentum during the pandemic was implicitly longing for what earlier generations called the “leisure society.” A capacious and flexible proposition, a leisure society need not involve central planning, anarchist/socialist cooperatives, or Benedictine monastic communities. Nor should it necessarily exclude such arrangements. Its central premise is a steady and deliberate reduction in working hours to the point where work becomes secondary to leisure as an occupier of time, a source of identity, and an activity of esteem. Or, as sociologist Juliet B. Schor has put it, the point is to arrive at a “political consensus on the virtues of using productivity growth to reduce work time rather than to produce more goods.”88xJuliet B. Schor, True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2010), xii.
For decades, most people have organized their lives around the forty-hour, five-day week. What if it were fifteen hours a week? What if it were zero? What comes next is open to negotiation and experimentation, but the process would necessarily require what Nietzsche called a revaluation of values. The idea of work for the sake of work would become an insult to human intelligence and dignity. Lives dedicated to the insatiable pursuit of money or other zero-sum goods would come to be recognized as pathological. The culture of commercialism presumably would be curtailed, or replaced with new norms and institutions emphasizing fulfilling experiences over luxuries and stuff. The very idea of “unemployment” would cease to exist. Greater investments (of both time and money) in liberal arts educations and institutions would come to be seen as not only desirable but necessary for equipping people to lead fruitful lives.
Earlier in the modern industrial era, it seemed obvious that the point of economic and technological improvements was to create the material conditions for what Walt Whitman called “higher progress” beyond the economic and political struggles that had occupied past civilizations. Increased free time, labor historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt has shown, is the “forgotten American dream,” and leisure the forgotten corollary to the “pursuit of happiness” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.99xBenjamin Kline Hunnicutt, Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013), 40. As John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, on May 12, 1780, “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy.”1010x“John Adams to Abigail Adams, 12 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-03-02-0258.
But during the first half of the twentieth century, the idea of a coming leisure society generated much handwringing. Scholars from John Maynard Keynes to David Riesman and Hannah Arendt worried that the citizens of rich industrialized countries would come to have such an abundance of free time that they wouldn’t know what to do with it. As the American humorist Fred C. Kelly mused in the May 1925 issue of Harper’s, “Surely it must be evident to any thoughtful person that we need newer and better means for wasting time…. To keep pace with present-day conditions we must not only modernize but greatly amplify all known plans for frittering away golden hours in foolish or profitless pursuits. Golf players have the right idea.”1111xFred C. Kelly, “Our Need for Wasting More Time,” Harper’s, May 1925, https://harpers.org/archive/1925/05/our-need-for-wasting-more-time/.
In the event, all those who had warned about the “threat of leisure” need not have worried. Anticipations of the leisure society soon receded into the shadows, making way for our current age of vacuous workaholism. Writing in the mid-1970s, the social psychologist Erich Fromm looked out at the affluent West and saw “a society of notoriously unhappy people: lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependent—people who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying so hard to save.”1212xErich Fromm, To Have or To Be? (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 5. First published 1976. This bleak assessment has since been confirmed by decades of social research pointing to epidemics of loneliness, “deaths of despair,” narcissism, and all the other manifestations of alienation and ennui commonly associated with postindustrial societies. Viewed from the grand perspective of human progress, the situation leaves much to be desired.
The absence of a leisure ethic today is a product of both political economy and culture. The rise of industrialism and modern commercial societies demanded a work ethic and necessitated the destruction of “classical leisure.” With the decline of the liberal arts and the rise of career-oriented college majors, even elites are no longer furnished with the wisdom, or even the inclination, to lead complete and fulfilling lives. As leisure studies scholar Karla A. Henderson points out in an email to the present author, we cannot simply assume “that everyone knows how to handle their free time.” Rather, people need to be educated “for leisure, about leisure…how to leisure.”
In the Land of the Content Eaters
Seneca observed that “we do not receive a life that is short, but rather we make it so,” by dissipating it in “extravagance and carelessness.”1313xSeneca, Dialogues and Essays, trans. John Davie (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 140. How better to describe the contemporary leisure experience? Americans spend, on average, more than three hours per day—more than 60 percent of their “leisure” time—watching TV and scrolling through social media (often at the same time).1414x“Jeffrey Katzenberg Talks About His Billion-Dollar Flop,” interview with Kara Swisher, Sway (podcast), New York Times, September 16, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/16/opinion/sway-kara-swisher-jeffrey-katzenberg.html?showTranscript=1. “How Digital Technology Ushers in a New Entertainment Golden Age,” Joel Waldfogel interview with Knowledge at Wharton staff, Knowledge at Wharton (podcast), Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, January 23, 2019, https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/digital-ushers-new-entertainment-golden-age/. Catherine Hiley, “Screen Time Report 2022: How Much Time Do You Spend on Your Screen?,” Uswitch, June 15, 2021, https://www.uswitch.com/mobiles/screentime-report/. “All boats are rising here,” boasts entertainment mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg. “More people are watching more content today than ever before.”1515x“Jeffrey Katzenberg Talks.” According to industry analysts, we are in a “digital renaissance,” a “new entertainment Golden Age” that has been ushered in by a “tsunami of content.”
In bingeing on every passing wave of “content”—most of which is just as soon forgotten—we ourselves have become flotsam. Every fleeting moment of our spare time is surrendered to the superficial offerings of the attention economy, all of it designed for addiction, the goal being to monetize people’s experiences rather than create meaningful ones. If pressed, most participants themselves admit that these activities are ultimately unsatisfying.
Yet in the context of today’s work-life structure—with leisure fully subordinated to a fetishistic ideal of labor—such activities make a kind of sense. How one fills one’s discretionary time is heavily determined by the mentally and physically depleting effects of work, and by the imminent return to work after some invariably short period of respite. Leisure today exists for work, which means that it is not actually leisure at all. The more appropriate term is recreation, a mere means of recovery—re-creating the body—for the sake of doing more work. It is a window for “pastimes” and unwinding (the implication being that you will soon be wound back up).1616xOn the “political economy of time,” see Elizabeth F. Cohen, The Political Value of Time: Citizenship, Duration, and Democratic Justice (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
The standard rejoinder to any starry-eyed vision of mass leisure is that work is not only necessary but also more rewarding than the alternatives. One’s job, it is said, confers a sense of responsibility, as well as a daily structure. People want to work, it is said, so that they can “contribute to society” and “provide for their families.” For most people, work is considered one of the only viable sources of meaning, enjoyment, self-identity, and community.
Yet the greater a society’s affluence, the more tenuous such claims become. Although there may be value for some people in the structure that work provides, it beggars belief to claim that most people like working a job. No one prefers Mondays to Fridays, the former being the day when most suicides occur.1717xWill Stephenson, “The Undiscovered Country,” Harper’s, August 2021, https://harpers.org/archive/2021/08/the-undiscovered-country-death-by-suicide-prediction-suicidology/. There is a reason why television networks send promotional emails inviting us to distract ourselves from the “Sunday scaries”: They are exploiting the sense of dread that comes at the end of every weekend.1818xQuoted from an HBO promotional email to the author: “Distract yourself from those Sunday scaries with the Mare of Easttown premiere. Kate Winslet stars as a small town detective in the HBO Original limited series. Premieres Sunday at 10 pm ET.” These cultural artifacts disclose a basic truth that is confirmed in public polling: Only about a third of employees in the United States—and just 20 percent globally—feel “engaged at work.”1919xJim Harter, “U.S. Employee Engagement Data Hold Steady in First Half of 2021,” Gallup, July 29, 2021, updated April 8, 2022, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/352949/employee-engagement-holds-steady-first-half-2021.aspx.
Such findings are what one should expect, especially in historically rich societies like the United States, where consumption has long accounted for around 70 percent of gross domestic product. When a growing share of the economy exists solely to furnish ever more luxury consumer goods and services to an affluent consumer base, a corresponding number of jobs will, by definition, fall into the category of “nonessential” labor, and those who perform them will increasingly come to understand their contributions on those terms. Set aside those fortunate few who truly love what they do. For most people, it is rather disappointing to think that one’s purpose in life is to participate in marginal improvements to already high standards of living, or to “make a better mousetrap.” And many jobs cannot even be said to be doing that.
The late American anthropologist David Graeber argued that a significant segment of workers now doubt that their jobs make “any sort of meaningful contribution to the world.”2020xDavid Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2018), 6. But if we accept the credibility of those self-reported attitudes, we must do the same for all those who claim to enjoy their jobs. The philosopher Raymond Geuss thus proposes expanding Graeber’s concept of “bullshit jobs” more widely, “so as to include even pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious jobs that people who perform them think are highly useful, which they might actually enjoy doing, and with which they might even strongly identify.”2121xRaymond Geuss, A Philosopher Looks at Work (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 150. We might think of these as decadent jobs, serving no purpose beyond private profit or the maintenance of one’s own relative status over others.
If a shared leisure ethic were to take root, it would become much harder to rationalize meaning into otherwise superfluous or petty work, and harder still to do so for work that one suspected might actually be harmful, as in industries ranging from social media, tobacco, and fossil fuels to much of advertising and much of finance. Whatever meaning nonessential careerists do find in such employment, it is surely the product of a kind of bounded rationality, reflecting what is tolerable or conventional under the circumstances, rather than what is ultimately preferable.
A society that undertook to educate people for leisure would look rather different from our own. Its citizens would regard coerced labor in the same light as did thinkers from Aristotle to Marx: as a source of suffering. Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and great theorist of meaning making, showed that suffering can become a source of meaning only when it is unavoidable; otherwise, the real meaning lies in its alleviation.2222xViktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, trans. Ilse Lasch (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2006), 113. First published 1959.
This formulation offers a test for the value of work under the theoretical conditions of a postscarcity society. Insofar as nonvoluntary labor is itself a form of suffering, whatever meaning one claims to derive from it must be shown to outweigh the meaning that could come from replacing it with leisure. Doctors, nurses, teachers, sanitary workers, renewable energy engineers, and people in many other occupations doubtless would pass this test; many others would not.
The Leisure Ideal
But even when the work ethic reigns supreme, leisure holds a potent moral valence. Although we may not have much say over how we make money, we do have a choice about what we do in our free time. If work represents is, leisure represents ought: How we choose to use it will either embody our understanding of the good life or reveal the depth of our degradation.
What is time well spent? Philosophers and social critics have long pondered variations of that question and offered rather consistent insights over time, even across radically different eras. Many have extolled a leisure ethic, and none would say that time well spent lies in ambitious careerism or in drifting on a sea of addictive content. Most would agree that flourishing in time consists of free, active, thoughtful engagement with the world in accordance with one’s nature.
Such flourishing can best be achieved in activities pursued for their own sake during time that is truly one’s own. To the classical Greek philosophers (who generally had the luxury of knowing what true leisure felt like), time was best spent freely developing one’s own faculties, observing the world, and contemplating the universe. Hence, in the Theaetetus, Plato draws a distinction between a lawyer-orator, representing work (ascholia), and a philosopher, representing leisure (scholé).2323xKostas Kalimtzis, An Inquiry Into the Philosophical Concept of Scholé (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 27–29. Both use knowledge, but while the philosopher lives for knowledge itself, the lawyer-orator values it primarily as a tool for achieving some other end. The lawyer-orator’s time and intelligence are committed to a servile art. When he wakes up in the morning, everything he does is in the service of his clients’ demands, his own ambition, or some other insatiable appetite. He lives a life of means with no ends.
Leisure thus represents engagement with ends—the age-old sources of meaning in life. Ends are determined by the process of eliminating means: If the reason you work is to support your family, your job is a means and your family is an end. But ends can be truly valued only when you are unburdened by life’s stresses or compulsions within your own mind.
Following this distinction between means and ends, Aristotle suggested that work and all other useful activities should be ordered around securing leisure. Just as peace is the proper end or purpose of war, leisure is the proper end of work. It exists for itself and does not answer to any instrumental demands. There are tasks that everyone must do to survive and to sustain society, but a life devoted solely to such activity is glaringly incomplete—even degraded. Since the ability to think and reason is what makes humans human, Plato and Aristotle saw contemplation as the highest end. Entertainment and recreation were acceptable as means of recuperating from—and for—work, but they were not ends in themselves.2424xAristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2014), 185.
Contemporary readers may balk at such pomposity. Plato and Aristotle, after all, spoke from the vantage of a privileged position in a slaveholding society. Nonetheless, Aristotle, at least, allowed for the possibility that genuine leisure could someday be extended to everyone, noting that if the instruments of production were to operate on their own (what we now call automation), craftsmen “would not need assistants and masters would not need slaves.”2525xAristotle, Politics, 6. The kind of political project needed to bring about such an outcome is almost nonexistent today. But in a culture more attuned to the leisure ethic, such a politics might follow as a matter of course.
In any case, most people today would agree with the idea that we should not live to work; rather, we work so that we might live. Moreover, what Aristotle meant by contemplation was not as narrow as it may sound. A modern description of the same concept might be to think about what you are doing and then do what you love. Understood in this way, an Aristotelian leisure ethic impels us to commit the time and effort it takes to be excellent not just as rational beings but as friends, parents, sons, daughters, mentors, and citizens.
Should Life All Labor Be?
While variations of the leisure ethic survived well into the Christian era, things began to change with the Protestant Reformation and the rise of capitalism and then industrialism. Humankind was reconceived as a race of fundamentally laboring beings, with each individual subject to a “calling.” We must work sedulously to demonstrate that we are among the elect, avoiding idleness and leisure, for those are the roads to sin.
According to the new economic thinking, advanced by John Locke and then many others, value and meaning are to be found in industrious behavior—not in contemplating the world but in changing it. The systematic destruction of leisure, Adam Smith observed, is endemic to economic development and human progress: “A shepherd has a great deal of leisure; a husbandman, in the rude state of husbandry, has some; an artificer or manufacturer has none at all.”2626xAdam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Books IV–V (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1999), 285. First published 1776.
Though its golden age had ended, the leisure ethic quietly survived across a diverse array of thought, exhibiting the same commonsense appeal it had held for earlier thinkers. It is there in John Adams and in Schopenhauer, in Marx and Oscar Wilde, and in twentieth-century Christian thinkers, such as philosopher Josef Pieper and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer.
The American essayist and biographer Agnes Repplier saw leisure as necessary for the completion not just of individuals but of civilizations. Leisure, she noted, “has a distinct and honorable place wherever nations are released from the pressure of their first rude needs, their first homely toil, and the rise of happier levels of grace and intellectual repose.” She believed that every investment and allowance should be made to support a leisure class—a fortunati—not so that its members could consume conspicuously, but so that they could create a lasting and worthy culture.
Lamenting the “labor-worship which is the prevalent superstition of our day,” Repplier saw the best and the brightest pursuing only practical courses of study and closing their minds to everything that did not relate to business or work. “It would appear,” she mused, that in fin-de-siècle America, one of the wealthiest societies in history, “we have no fortunati, that we are not yet rich enough to afford the greatest of all luxuries—leisure to cultivate and enjoy ‘the best that has been known and thought in the world.’”2727xAgnes Repplier, Essays in Idleness (Boston, MA: Riverside Press, 1895), 100–103. The overwork that Repplier saw taking root would grow only more entrenched in the ensuing decades. After World War II, critical theorist Erich Fromm observed that the postindustrial West’s “kind of ‘pursuit of happiness’ does not produce well-being,” because it is dominated by an attitude of “having” rather than “being.” Someone in the “having mode” who comes across a striking flower immediately wants to pick it, to possess it (or, in a digital context, to Instagram it or mint it as a nonfungible token), whereas someone in the “being mode” is able simply to enjoy the experience, free from the pangs of acquisitive desire.
The having mode drives people to acquire more and more stuff—property, profit, power, tokens of status. The being mode, by contrast, leads people “to share, to give, to sacrifice,” Fromm wrote. Whatever fulfillment you experience after purchasing some new thing, it is qualitatively different from what you would feel pursuing some intrinsically motivated activity in leisure.
Wage labor and career climbing are obvious corollaries to the having mode, because in each, “time becomes our ruler.” How we occupy ourselves is dictated by clocks, calendars, schedules, deadlines, and algorithms, but rarely if ever by our own well-considered motivations. From the having mode follow all kinds of now familiar pathologies. In a society bent on securing possessions and status, everyone is perpetually insecure, stricken by a fear of losing what they have gained or of falling behind. There is a constant itch for the new, because everything gets old soon enough.
The key to success in such a society, Fromm concluded, is to transform yourself into a thing (or, in today’s parlance, into a personal brand, a unit of “human capital”). This is particularly true in the white-collar world, where the prospective employee is “forced to sell his ‘personality,’ his smile, his opinions into the bargain.” From this, complete alienation follows. People “do not even have egos (as people in the nineteenth century did) to hold onto, that belong to them, that do not change. For they constantly change their egos, according to the principle ‘I am as you desire me.’”2828xFromm, To Have or To Be?, 5–6, 62, 91–92, 109, 127. The leisure ethic that emerges in Fromm’s work calls for a revaluation of values—a recognition that the things we think we want may be bad for us, and that we should restructure our lives accordingly.
Around the same time Fromm was writing, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was pioneering a new method of studying people’s everyday experiences of being—both at work and in leisure. He later came up with the concept of “flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Flow states, or “being in the zone,” are a product of active engagement with the world, showing up rarely if ever during periods of either idleness or anxiety. Flow states arise when one confronts problems that are aligned with one’s own talents. Challenges that are either too easy or simply impossible offer no such rewards.2929xMihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2008), 5. First published 1990.
Among other things, Csikszentmihalyi’s findings show what is wrong with the typical elitist contempt for the craft leisure of the common man. Far more important than the content of the activity is its context. Wisdom, excellence, community, and truths about the human experience can be pursued as openly through motorcycle maintenance as through the study of Shakespeare.
But experiencing flow is not sufficient for achieving time well spent, since some people can lose themselves in activities that are frivolous or even evil. Another necessary ingredient in developing a leisure ethic is the notion of fulfillment, which should be understood as something separate from pleasure or mere satisfaction with yourself. Fulfillment, the philosopher Susan Wolf argues, issues from meaningfulness, which is “not reducible to or subsumable under either happiness, as it is ordinarily understood, or morality.”
Meaningfulness is a distinct category of the good life. It arises from devoting yourself to things that are both worthy of devotion and seen by others to be so. “A person who loves smoking pot all day long, or doing endless crossword puzzles, and has the luxury of being able to indulge in this without restraint,” might be happy, Wolf explains, but that “does not thereby make her life meaningful.” By the same token, caring for your child or visiting a loved one in the hospital might not be particularly enjoyable, but nobody would say that such activities constitute time poorly spent. The most fulfilling uses of time, Wolf suggests, occur in the moments when subjective preferences line up with objective standards of value—that is, when time is given over to a project you view as an end in itself, and that independent observers would also appreciate or recognize as worthwhile in some way.3030xSusan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 4, 9, 49.
The philosopher Kate Soper echoes Fromm in arguing for an “alternative hedonism,” which invites us to consider the possibility that reducing production and consumption would not entail even the least loss or sacrifice, because it would make us both happier and more fulfilled. She sees an opportunity to “advance beyond a mode of life that is not just environmentally disastrous but also in many respects unpleasurable, self-denying and too puritanically fixated on work and money-making, at the expense of the enjoyment that comes with having more time, doing more things for oneself, travelling more slowly and consuming less.”3131xKate Soper, Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism (London, England: Verso, 2020), 1.
And finally, scholar and essayist Zena Hitz has stressed the importance of viewing leisure as a life-directing ethic that requires “internal discipline” on the part of individuals. Reconnecting with the Aristotelian tradition, she points out that leisure—properly understood as the realm of ends, rather than means—is prerequisite to being human. Without it, we are something less.3232xZena Hitz, “Why Leisure Is Necessary for Human Beings” (lecture, University of Oklahoma, Norman, November 13, 2018), https://soundcloud.com/thomisticinstitute/why-leisure-is-necessary-for-human-beings-zena-hitz.
Time Well Spent
There are common threads running through these expressions of the leisure ethic. For starters, a society with a leisure ethic would systematically deprioritize work, regarding it merely as something to be endured—and busyness for the sake of busyness as something to be pitied or scorned. Once the necessities of life were attended to, those with a leisure ethic would occupy their time doing things they both wanted to do and would not regret having done upon later reflection.
For most people, an honest deathbed reckoning would return to long-held truths common to most philosophical and religious traditions. A life devoted to feeding insatiable desires (for wealth, status, success, followers), for example, will always ultimately disappoint. Indeed, most previous generations would have considered such an existence pathological. Insatiable desires are literally unfulfilling, by dint of their being insatiable. Moderation is key, “taking advantage of Fortune’s gifts, but not becoming their slave.”3333xSeneca, Dialogues and Essays, 87.
We can also say that, regardless of whether you dedicate yourself to contemplation or to some other project performed for its own sake, what matters is that you choose it yourself as an active participant in the world. To be passive is to be transformed from a subject into a mere object of other forces. Just as there can be alienated labor, so can there be alienated leisure, in which your free time is not your own because it has been commoditized or unwittingly surrendered. Just as no one ever looks back and wishes she had spent more time at the office, nor will anyone today later wish she had spent more time streaming videos and “twitching puppetwise” to the tugs of algorithms.3434xMarcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005), 12.
A feeling of control over your time is necessary but not sufficient for flourishing. Equally important is the faculty for appreciating leisure and its endless offerings. Such an attitude can be cultivated within everyone, but it does not come naturally; indeed, it is vehemently discouraged in today’s society.
Finally, we can say that we must resist the temptation to manage every facet of experience. The consumer goods, services, and technologies that allow us to extend our dominion over nature also tend to extend their own dominion over us. Even with them, the world will never be fully under our control. Nor should we wish that it was, because that would be a world without serendipity or joy. Fortunately, we may not need more Promethean control; rather, we need more free time and an ethos fit for the purpose.