Our American culture prides itself on extolling the value of work and productivity to an often-immoderate degree. Of course, most of us have to make a living, but life is more than just work, sleep, and mindless vegging out in between. Isn’t it?
The problem is that it can be difficult to prioritize leisure when there’s so much to get done — a career to build, a family to grow, money to earn, a body to build. Sure, leisure would be nice, but in the face of such pressing and important goals and responsibilities, how are we supposed to make room for it?
And moreover, when we’re so burned out from everything we’re holding together, often all we have the energy to do is watch Amazon Prime. If that doesn’t count as leisure, who has the energy for anything else?
Cal Newport, the Georgetown professor and New York Times best-selling author, has an interesting approach to this question. He examines our unnecessary and unhealthy attachments to technology in Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Newport’s novel approach, which he refers to as “digital minimalism,” entails not only significantly limiting technology use, but replacing that previously technology-ridden time with productive and life-giving practices to considerably enrich our lives.
So his argument is that leisure is an important weapon in our arsenal to live a meaningful life in the digital age.
It’s tempting to think that hours of binging Netflix series or thumbing through Instagram counts as leisure. After all, it doesn’t require any physical exertion, right? But Newport disagrees. By leisure, he means “high-quality” activities that demand intense engagement, use skills to produce value in the world, or require real-world social interactions.
In other words, leisure refers to the engagement of a meaningful activity for its own sake.
The good news is that the activities and hobbies that count as high-quality leisure are endless. They include learning a series of chords on an acoustic guitar, participating in an athletic endeavor to test your body and will, learning to cook an intricate but delicious meal, or playing a strategy board game with friends. Leisure constitutes activities that are done for the sheer joy and value they bring to us and others with a spirit of play and verve.
More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle recognized the inherent value and importance of leisure as well. In fact, he thought that in order to be fully human one had to spend time engaging leisurely activities. Similar to Newport, Aristotle’s definition of leisure wasn’t merely time of rest or inactivity. It referred to the engagement of some activity that allowed for human flourishing, such as discussing philosophical concepts, playing music, reciting poetry, and so on.
Newport admits that some activities that rely on modern technology could count as leisure — he brings up the example of playing online video games with friends — but he thinks that the fact these activities don’t require tactile craftsmanship and face-to-face social interactions diminishes their leisurely quality. Constructing a coffee table or learning calligraphy are analog and physical activities that seemingly draw a greater level of satisfaction and enjoyment because they are more concrete and visible than something accomplished purely in a digital medium.
When I think back to some of the most satisfying moments in my life, aside from time spent with family and friends, I think of attempting to strum a song without any mistakes, working to throw a curveball that drops right over the plate, or engaging in a competitive game of beach volleyball with friends. Activities like these leave me reinvigorated, satisfied, and refreshed.
I can’t honestly say the same about time spent “relaxing” on Facebook or Twitter. (To be clear, these technologies aren’t bad in and of themselves, but the point is that they we tend to use them excessively at the expense of other more fruitful and satisfying activities.)
But leisure isn’t important only because of its ability to refresh or enliven. The brilliant Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper unearthed the inherent value of downtime in his Leisure: The Basis of Culture. He claims that leisure is not merely something to fill the gaps between our work or provide restoration and energy so that we can be more productive — it’s fundamental to human culture for its own sake.
Pieper writes that truly leisurely activities help us contemplate the fullness of reality. Being absorbed in a leisurely activity, he says, is like the “tranquil silence of lovers.” When we lose ourselves in our leisurely activities for their own sake, we become more in touch with created reality and, therefore, become more fully human.
As Pieper explains, we aren’t here primarily to be productive citizens or loyal workers. We are neither animals nor machines. We are human beings endowed with wonderful capacities for creativity, skill, craftsmanship, and joy. When we engage in high-quality leisure we are doing something for its own sake and, therefore, emulating God’s own creative action.
Newport doesn’t make this more transcendent connection with respect to leisure, but he is certainly onto something by suggesting that we reclaim leisure in our lives. If we’re going to live richly and fully in this digital age, limiting our technology use is a good start, but it’s not enough. That’s just to remove the distraction — we should be intentional about filling that vacuum with healthy and meaningful activities and habits. When we incorporate leisure into our days, we’re tapping into a source of greater satisfaction and joy that makes us more fully human.