Leisure and laziness

Image credit: Nu au divan, Gustave Caillebotte, 1880-82. 

What is leisure? Leisure is meaningful activity that we enjoy. Leisure is not work because work has a purpose in mind. Work is a means to an end e.g. money, opportunities, etc. People have elaborated on the great benefits of leisure – it is a means of unwinding, contemplation, reflection, and renewal. But it is not to be treated as merely a means to an end (refreshment or otherwise). It is an end in itself.

We are made to feel like we don’t deserve leisure if we have not worked. We work so we earn the play – but these are never in equal ratios. I quote Maria Popova: “I often find myself saddened when people talk of “work-life balance” — a notion that implies we need to counter the unpleasantness we endure in order to make a living with the pleasurable activities we long to do in order to feel alive.”[1] The two poles of activity in life are leisure and work and they come together. If you have leisure without work, you are lazy/a burden. If you have work without leisure, you are not alive.

Some people might hold the view that work is a meaningful activity that they enjoy. In my opinion, this is the best synthesis of work and leisure. It is the equilibrium of working and leisure not found by balancing the ratio of work/play, but rather, dissolving the clear boundaries between the two.

However, not everyone is so fortunate to meld work and leisure so nicely together. In my view, the toxicity stems not from being unable to find that synthesis of work and leisure. Rather, it stems from the meaning of ‘leisure’ being tagged to notions of idleness, as well as prestige being attached to the label of a ‘modern workaholic’.

Image credit: @laurieliptondrawings via @illustrarts, instagram post.

Capitalist modes of order and output push us to equate purpose with productivity. It has become a modern sin to be unproductive (doing little), let alone doing nothing. Even within ‘leisure’, certain modes of leisure are seen as more acceptable uses of our time. Respectable forms of leisure are when we do things attached to certain notions of benefit, other forms get tagged with negative connotations like ‘lazy’ or ‘guilty pleasure’. We do sports, read, go out, and attend parties. We live a life constantly on the move, shuffling from one activity to another. Why is playing football looked upon more favourably than sitting on your sofa staring into space as a warm body of pure awareness? Why are we made to feel guilty and ashamed for certain forms of leisure? To sit and to simply be is to yield concern – “Why are you just sitting here like that?” or “Can’t you put your time to better use?”

Consider Pieper’s definition of leisure—leisure is non-activity not in the absence of physical action, but rather, “an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, [and] an ability to let things go, to be quiet.” If this is true, “leisure is not necessarily present in all the external things like ‘breaks,’ ‘time off,’ ‘weekend,’ ‘vacation,’ and so on — it is a condition of the soul.[2] This means that leisure can be action-based – You can play football and Frisbee and spend your entire weekend on the dance-floor… but action for action’s sake is obscuring the true meaning of ‘leisure’.

It has come to a point where leisure has become part of our to-do list. We are vehicles for action and our identity as an individual revolves around a collection of these actions. Have we lost our way because we no longer know how to be with ourselvesWhen did the meaning of (non-active, non-productive) leisure become conflated with lazy, and when did work (in copious doses) become seen as worth celebrating?

Above all, as a condition for the soul, leisure is non-compulsive.


[1] Maria Popova, “Why we lost leisure: David Steindl-Rast on purposeful work, play, and how to find meaning in the magnificent superfluities of life”, https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/22/david-steindl-rast-leisure-gratefulness/.

[2] Josef Pieper quoted in Popova, “Why we lost leisure: David Steindl-Rast on purposeful work, play, and how to find meaning in the magnificent superfluities of life”


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