How Obsession With Work Killed Our Connection With Leisure

More than two thousand years ago, the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca wrote a letter to his friend Paulinus, urging against a certain type of rest:

I do not summon you to slothful or idle inaction, or to drown all your native energy in slumbers and the pleasures that are dear to the crowd.

That is not to rest;

Yet this is how we now think of leisure. People call this “time off” because work is the central pursuit of life of which we base our concept of time around. We think of leisure as laying around on the weekend catching up on sleep, playing video games, watching Netflix, or a vacation. Bertrand Russell noticed that in the 1930s that work was draining the energy of the average person such that they had nothing left beyond what they gave to their job:

The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.

By 1948 the German philosopher Josef Pieper called the this domination of work over our lives “Total Work” in his book “Leisure: The Basis For Culture.” He was shocked that even after World War II, when the world narrowly escaped destroying itself, people couldn’t wait to restart their old habit.

As an antidote he argued that people should reach back into history and adopt the more ancient version of leisure:

Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative, beholding, and immersion — in the real. In leisure, there is, furthermore, something of the serenity of ”not-being–able–to–grasp,” of the recognition of the mysterious character of the world, and the confidence of blind faith, which can let things go as they will; there is in it something of the ”trust in the fragmentary, that forms the very life and essence of history.

He put it even more simply:

We mistake leisure for idleness, and work for creativity.

In a world of “total work,” there is no space for contemplation or rest. There is no need for people to be in “harmony with themselves” as long as they are employed. To “know thyself” is a secondary concern, and any sort of break from work is merely in the service of doing more work. As Pieper put it:

The simple ”break” from work — the kind that lasts an hour, or the kind that lasts a week or longer — is part and parcel of daily working life. It is something that has been built into the whole working process, a part of the schedule. The ”break” is there for the sake of work. It is supposed to provide ”new strength” for ”new work,” as the word ”refreshment” indicates: one is refreshed for work through being refreshed from work.

The case for an old definition of leisure

Image for post
Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

In the book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Pang examined how challenging it still is to actually take time for leisure:

If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.

This lack of rest is not necessarily adding to productivity. Pang also makes the case that some of the most successful people in history did not work that much. Their lives were filled with leisure, activity, and rest.

Charles Darwin, for instance, did most of his work in a few hours a day in the morning. Here is how his day looked:

8:00: Work

9:30: Read mail and write letters

10:30: Tend to birds, greenhouse, or perform experiments

12:00: Take a long walk

1:00: Lunch & answer some letters

3:00: Nap

4:00: Take another walk

4:30: A little more work

5:30: Dinner

Depending on how you slice it, on a typical day, Darwin did about 2.5 to 5 hours of work, took a nap, and went for a couple walks — yet he still had plenty of time to publish 19 books.

One of the more compelling stories in Pang’s book is about a study from the Illinois Institute of Technology. In the 1950s, the study’s authors surveyed scientists about the number of hours they worked. What they found was that productivity was not linear — those who worked the most hours were not necessarily the most productive.

Instead, the most productive scientists worked between 10 and 20 hours per week. The scientists who worked the most hours were somewhat more productive than the other scientists but were still not as productive as the ones who had more rest and time off in their lives.

Our modern mindset around “hustle” equates hard work with success. More hours equals more results. But Pang showed in at least one environment and with many successful people throughout history, that this is not always the case.

As Pang concluded in his book:

The ancient Greeks saw rest as a great gift, as the pinnacle of civilized life. The Roman Stoics argued that you cannot have a good life without good work. Indeed, virtually every ancient society recognized that both work and rest were necessary for a good life: one provided the means to live, the other gave meaning to life.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

1 thought on “How Obsession With Work Killed Our Connection With Leisure”

Leave a Comment