Rethinking Leisure in the Age of Total Work

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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

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The Work and Leisure Series: A Philosophical Examination

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Is there more to life than work?

Are our identities totally subsumed in our job titles and ranking within our companies’ social hierarchies?

Of course, through work we can find meaning and purpose. We feel useful knowing that we are effectively contributing to the smooth functioning of society.

However, we must ask, has our obsession with efficiency and productivity gone too far. In modern societies, we are seeing rising rates of anxiety and worker  burnout. In a digital world, the boundary lines between work and home life begins to disappear.

Paradoxically, as ‘busyness’ has become some what of a status symbol, those in the higher economic and social classes are not those who live lives of leisure, but rather who are completely consumed by their jobs.

In this series I want to discuss the philosophical dimension of work and leisure.  For my older readers, don’t fret, I am not promoting a lifestyle of laziness or complacency. Hard work is important and should be valued.

Nonetheless, my argument is that we need to reclaim a life outside of our professional occupations. A culture’s obsession with work poses the risk of losing the richness and beauty that the world can offer. Further, an individual who lacks an interior life of meaning and purpose, can slowly fall into the trap of hedonistic consumerism – caught in the treadmill of living exclusively for the purposes of working and consuming.

The psychologist Erich Fromm put it bluntly as he observed that modern individuals,

have little interest (or at least consciously) in philosophical or religious questions such as why one lives, and why is one going in one direction rather than another. They have big ever-changing egos, but none has a self, a core, a sense of identity.    

Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be

In this series I want to look at the aspects of human existence that we have lost, and explore how they can be reclaimed. Some of the topics I will be looking at include:

  • Status anxiety and our identities beyond our job titles
  • The value of doing things for intrinsic rather than instrumental value
  • A review of Josef Pieper’s essay Leisure the Basis of Culture
  • A look at value beyond the confines of the market

Hope you find this series of interest, and a gentle reminder to cultivate a greater work-life balance.


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