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Leisure: When It Becomes an Unexpected Curse

“Ennui” by Walter Richard Sickert (At Tate Modern)

“It’s what Irving Babbitt meant when he wrote that happiness is to be found in work if at all. Or why John Adams would write that he was happiest on days he felt most purposeful.”

There used to be a band called the Talking Heads, and, in 1979, they wrote a song called “Heaven.” The interpretations of the song vary. But I have mine.

The lyrics and melody alike convey the hollowness of an afterlife where everything is perfect. Although, in the words of David Byrne, the band’s lead songwriter, “everyone is trying” to get there, perhaps they’d have reason to reconsider. As the song progresses—with its words sung almost from a distance—it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than there is something unbearably repetitive, excruciatingly dull, about a place where everything is exactly as one might want it to be:

Heaven is a place

A place where nothing

Nothing ever happens

When this kiss is over

It will start again

It will not be any different

It will be exactly the same.

The world conjured by Mr. Byrne is one that is utterly lacking in the uncertainty and sense of toil that mark the lives we currently inhabit. These are the things that, although we may bemoan them day in and day out, may be all that keep life from becoming intolerable. There’s something, it appears, terribly sad about perfection.

The Talking Heads wrap their heads around an idea that at first glance might seem counterintuitive. School children routinely dream of how they will spend their summer days, freed from the obligations of their homework and piling assignments. Workers can drag themselves to the office on the days they least want to with the consolation of a retirement free of bosses and deadlines distantly in mind. They strive alike to reach this empty reservoir of time where obligations are non-existent, and freedom reigns.

In many respects, save for a few tufts of the sparsely-populated historical aristocracy, this, in any form other than the hypothetical, is a uniquely modern problem. In his essay “The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” published in 1930, John Maynard Keynes anticipates that because of technological progress and the rapid accumulation of capital, those living in the twenty-first century would enjoy sufficient wealth so as to render long days of work no longer necessary. Although this hasn’t exactly come to fruition, there are some signs there has been some progress in that direction.

According to one study by Kristie Engemann and Michael Owyang, prepared for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the number of hours an average American works in a year “has fallen by about 550 hours” annually. The average American adult spends 7.8 hours more per week on leisure in 2003 than he did in 1965. We haven’t gotten nearly to the state where work has all but slid away, but it seems that, ever-so-slightly, we’ve been headed in that direction.

Keynes wasn’t alone in anticipating the unexpected drawbacks of freedom from plentiful work and toil. Decades after writing, “..there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread,” Keynes would be joined in concern by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the “gentleman from New York,” when the latter noted that, “In an industrial world that has not yet come to terms with the question of leisure, men without work are deprived of an essential condition of human dignity.”

It’s nearly taken for granted by economists and lay observers alike that the accumulation of leisure time is something to be worked towards. But, in reality, to paraphrase Keynes, it seems that the striving is as important as the “enjoying.” It’s what Irving Babbitt meant when he wrote that happiness is to be found in work if at all. Or why John Adams would write that he was happiest on days he felt most purposeful.

Spending leisure time in a worthwhile way ought to be considered as sizable a challenge as work itself. After a short period of time, lounging about and engaging in amusements, rather than meaningful exertions, can lead to a restless and anxious state of checking one’s email account every few minutes, gossiping about the neighbor’s new car, and walking aimlessly from one room to the next: lying on a couch saying, “I can do whatever I want,” and, in the end, doing nothing. It’s the unexpected paradox of abundance.

There is a famous story from Plutarch (alluded to by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments) intended to mock the concept of striving, and it features a King who wants to conquer land after land. The King is asked what he will do once he has conquered all of these new territories, when all of Italy is his. The King replies: “We will leave at ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.” The King is left with little to say when his conversation partner, Cineas, asks: “And what hinders Your Majesty from doing so now?”

Although clearly intended to trivialize the King’s interest in toiling to conquer these lands, perhaps the ambitious King was not as foolish as the anecdote intends to portray him. Rather than just milling around trying to enjoy oneself with foods and games, there is some aspect about the process of acquisition and struggle that provides an even greater satisfaction than do the so-called diversions. They are, as the name suggests, precisely that: diversions from work, after all.

It’s what Virginia Woolf meant when she described what makes ennui so grim: the lack of “crisis.” And it’s an idea acutely understood by Aldous Huxley in the 17th chapter of Brave New World when “the Savage” can no longer stand living in a world of constant comfort, a place that might be mistaken for an economist’s utopia, where the government has accumulated sufficient abundance to ensure that the “haves” of the society never experience anything remotely distressing.

Leisure certainly has its benefits, and it is, arguably, an essential component of a life well-lived, but to view it as a singular thing—rather than a partner of work—is to misunderstand it. Rather, it is best enjoyed as an opposing force to work, appreciated with the recollection of work done and work still to come, just at the edge of the frame. But our culture seems to suggest, time and again, that the goal ought to be the opposite.

To live in a world—where everything is arranged just as you might want it to be—is to live in a world that falls short. Or as another musician, Conor Oberst, put it: “When the planets align, there will be no planets to align.

Erich Prince is a Co-founder at Merion West.