What Role Should Leisure Play in Our Lives? And What Counts?

A classic text's relevance

Posted Oct 13, 2016

Leisure: The Basis of CultureJosef Pieper’s examination of the role leisure has played in history and in our modern culture, is a classic. Reissued a few years ago, the original, from 1952 and written in the author’s German, made a big splash at the time.

The Chicago Tribune wrote of it: “He has theses that are so counter to the prevailing trends as to be sensational.” And, helpfully, the style he writes it in is “memorably clear and direct.”

What counts as true leisure, and what is matters, are certainly questions still relevant today. I would argue especially so given recent changes in how we spend our time. According to researchers, most of us now watch far more media that we ever did before. We work a bit less, and watch a bit more. This trend seems particularly noticeable in working-age men. 

As Ana Swanson of the Washington Post put it a few weeks ago, "Even as the unemployment rate has fallen to low levels, an unusually large percentage of able-bodied men, particularly the young and less-educated, are either not working or not working full-time."

The White House Council of Economic Advisors issued this report on "The Long-Term Decline of in Prime Age Male Labor Force Participation."  It tells us that, "The largest difference in how men in and out of the labor force spend their time is in time spent on leisure activities—socializing, relaxing and leisure, with nonparticipating men spending almost twice as much time on these activities than those prime-age men overall, and more than twice as much time watching television. Together, these patterns suggest that men are, on average, not dropping out of the labor force to specialize in home production or to invest in skills to improve their future labor market opportunities." 

Is the trend worrisome? Or does it merely mean we are more at leisure? Would this make us happier? And is this a good thing?

At a certain point the questions become quite philosophical. 

Pieper would suggest that to not be at work is potentially leisure, but he has further criteria. Leisure, he argues, is a crucial human good best understood as a mindset. It is not just “time off work” or a “break.” It is when we are active, not just idle, but not “employed” in “work.”

The mindset required is one where you become at peace with yourself and the wider world. The best example he can give of leisure is religious celebration and community festivals.

And so, the updated question would seem to be this: is our use of media capable of matching his description of what is necessary to our full humanity?

Or is it but anxious idleness?