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Rethinking Leisure in the Age of Total Work

If you are losing your leisure, look out! –It may be you are losing your soul

Virginia Woolf

In modern society, work has come to dominate almost all aspects of our lives. One’s identity becomes subsumed by their job title. Days become filled with endless tasks and checklists. Ever increasing productivity seems to be our guiding principle. In a highly competitive global economy, efficiency trumps all other values. Technology and gadgets marketed as making our working life easier, only serve to deepen our attachment to the world of work.

In his book Leisure as the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper coined the term ‘total work’ to describe our current situation in which a human being primarily exists for the sake of work. That is, it becomes the center piece of our lives – all consuming, all encompassing. Consequently, through this lens everything is converted into some sort of utilitarian calculus. The intrinsic value of life or of the natural world is lost to cold and disheartening economic analysis. Our social lives become a status game mediated through the prestige of our LinkedIn profiles.

What is lost in this attitude or way of thinking is an appreciation of the spontaneity, creativity and mystery of life. A deep relationship to the world, and a capacity to be filled with a sense of wonder and awe.

Pieper makes an important distinction which contrasts his conception of leisure from idleness or laziness. Leisure doesn’t imply passivity. It is not the mere absence from work. Rather it is a mental attitude, disposition or way of being in the world. He traces his ideal of leisure back to the ancient Greeks, namely to the philosopher Aristotle. The goal of this notion of leisure is to work towards a state of inner contentment. To reflect on the state of one’s life and aim to cultivate virtue and improve one’s character.

Pieper emphasizes that leisure should be seen as a state of being in which one is open to the joy of the present moment. 

Leisure, it must be clearly understood, is a mental and spiritual attitude—it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul, and as such utterly contrary to the ideal of “worker” …….. Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity, leisure implies (in the first place) an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being “busy”, but letting things happen

Josef Pieper, Leisure as the Basis of Culture

This view of leisure is not to be thought of as primarily as a rest. Recuperating from a long week at work by binging a Netflix series doesn’t fit the bill. This is because mere relaxation treats leisure as a ‘means to an end’. Rest for the sake of work. However, the individual is still confined to looking at everything from the standpoint of the working world.  On the contrary, for Pieper, leisure must be something intrinsically valuable to someone tied to no immediate external goals or aims. Something sought after as a ‘end in itself.’

So in a world of endless ‘to-do’ lists, in which each minute of our time is tracked and filled with chores and tasks, how can we embrace this view of leisure?

I think we can take inspiration from the Judeo-Christian notion of the ‘sabbath’ which asks us to set aside a day of the week for reflection, worship and contemplation. On the sabbath, production, work or consumption is prohibited. The day is meant to offer us an opportunity to break free from our identities as workers. Through this, we can bring ourselves into greater harmony in our relationships with ourselves, others and the natural world.

The idea of a ‘Digital Sabbath’ leverages this idea and adopts it to modern secular society. The goal is to avoid screens (television, cell phones, computers etc.) or at least limit your screen time for one day a week.  Think of the stillness and peace of mind you can achieve by turning off your phone one day a week. We can re-establish face to face human relationships, spend time in contemplation or immerse ourselves on long walks in nature.

Unless we are lottery winners or are lucky enough to have large fortunes, work is unescapable. However, we can always prevent it from taking over every aspect of our lives.

We need time to pursue leisure and engage in activities that provide us with genuine meaning and purpose.

If we don’t carve out time to examine our lives and our values we will simply live on auto-pilot.

Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves

Josef Pieper

This post was originally posted on my personal blog: A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life – In Search of Inner Freedom

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16 thoughts on “Rethinking Leisure in the Age of Total Work

  1. This was an excellent read. So many people are consumed with work, including me occasionally. I love the view of leisure as “letting things happen” and also that it is an end in itself- not a recovery/prep period for more work.

  2. Awesome read! You described 90 percentage of the people on the planet, myself included. This blog has me rethinking. Keep up the good work!

  3. Work is a necessity, no getting around it. Also a necessity is doing the housework and prep for the upcoming week. I count a weekend as very productive when I carve out time to take a long walk, weather permitting, and to work on my hobbies. That’s a great weekend! If I see my daughter and grandkids, bonus time!!

  4. What a great post Andrew. I think this focus on work has been around in some form since the industrial revolution when people had to work 16-18+ hrs daily, without holiday, sick pay etc. The protestant reformation and the protestant work ethic have also, historically contributed to our relationship with and attitude to work. Society’s attitude are changing, but it takes time. The nature of work had also changed and many people thrive on their work, they don’t take time to unwind or to follow non-work leisure. This is why I agree with you, in todays world where work can contact us 24/7 through technology and social media etc it can be very difficult to detach from work. Simple things like many of my colleagues have their work email on their phones … I refuse to do this.

    For me, Covid and remote working was the trigger to change my work-life balance. I rarely work at the weekends any more, pursuing leisure activities and just time for me. I think the work ethics is so ingrained in many of us, that it’s difficult to change our thinking and behaviours instilled since childhood by our parents/family and society.

    1. Thank you for the deep reflection. The lockdowns kind of incentivized me to take things slow, more walks more reflection, meditation. I kind of miss having the extra time to do those thingss

      1. I guess for me, it gave me time to reflect on how my life changed for the better during the lockdowns, not just in terms of time, but the quality of life, standard of health etc, so I became determined that I wasn’t going back to the way I was beforehand. Its something I have to guard against, but I’m succeeding, which is good.

  5. Your post made me think of how organised and full our children’s ‘out of school time’ frequently is. It seems they hardly ever have time to themselves, to just be, to explore, or even to get bored. No wonder many of them are stressed! Then the stressed children grow in to stressed adults.
    Great post Andrew. 🙏🏼

  6. I met today during a training on self care a colleague who defines herself as workaholic. She wouldn’t know how to live without her work. At the end of the session she approached the trainer asking for a personal follow up. finally she recognized that her life couldn’t go on like that. Our employer, the EU Commission, takes work-life balance and staff wellbeing very seriously. I was happy to see that today’s training could be useful to someone (the total work pattern doesn’t apply to me, I value leisure very much). I think that also your article will help someone Andrew, at least to reflect on one’s life.

  7. I agree. Government routinely spouts this thing for instance about how more and cheaper childcare will free up women and parents more generally to spend more time at work, as if being with your children has no intrinsic value. It’s all about growing the economy!

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