Mind & Body

In Defense of Leisure

We've mistaken entertainment for real leisure
TIMEDecember 5, 2021

One way to categorize time is into two buckets: work and leisure.

When we’re doing an activity that requires effort and achieves a clear purpose, then we’re doing work. Pretty much everything else is leisure.

I think the idea of leisure has fallen on hard times, and I’d like to make a brief defense in the words that follow.

In Defense of My Defense

Now at this point, you might be thinking, “Does leisure really need a defense?” And by one definition of the word, you’re probably right. Activities such as watching TV, social media, and browsing the internet have nearly taken over our waking lives.

I’ve seen a few studies that say we collectively spend something like 5 hours of discretionary time each day on our screens. In other words, leisure seems to be doing quite OK without my defense.

It’s certainly the case that “screen time” is the main form of leisure for many people. But I think this kind of leisure, which I’ll call “media consumption” or “entertainment” is just a narrow slice of what leisure was meant to be in a flourishing life.

I know personally that I long for something much richer. And I feel that I was made for more than filling my days with just work and entertainment. There’s a part of me that was made to play and create and explore.

A Richer Definition of Leisure

I think there are richer forms of leisure. These types of leisure leave me feeling energized and alive. They have three components.

They are activities that …

  1. are done without a clear productive goal,
  2. are intrinsically enjoyable,
  3. and require my active participation.

It’s the last item, “require my active participation,” that separates the richer forms of leisure from mere entertainment. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with entertainment—I enjoy my fair share of it. I simply believe that passive entertainment and media consumption have engulfed too much of our leisure, at the expense of the truly good stuff.

Leisure Is Life

Because most people only think of leisure’s passive forms, they subconsciously adopt the mindset that leisure’s only real value is as a break from work. Real life is work, and leisure is the rest we give ourselves to keep going. The result is that we begin to see non-productive leisure as a distraction from “real life.”

I’m guilty of this mindset myself, and it shows up in subtle ways:

  • When I’m doing yard work and one of my kids wants to play, I too often tell them “not now,” and never get back around to it. Playing feels like an interruption—something I should only squeeze in at the margins of my day.
  • When I’m choosing a book to read before bed and go with something in the personal development category, rather than a novel I’ve been wanting to read. This mindset reinforces life as an ongoing project to make yourself into a better person, and every non-productive act is a missed opportunity.
  • Or finally, when I’m tempted to make my blog about “growing an audience” rather than the simple joy of writing publicly. It seems I’m always looking to find something to measure myself against, to prove that my time is being put to some “productive” use.

You’ll notice that neither choice in the examples above is right or wrong by itself. It all depends on the context of your life and responsibilities. But when a pattern emerges that diminishes the value of life-giving forms of leisure, I think it reveals something that’s going on deep inside.

The Art of Leisure

My main point is this: modern life seems intent on turning us into some kind of machine that is either “producing” work or “consuming” entertainment. Both of these things, work especially, are part of the good life we seek. But because they are so easily quantified and monetized, they have a tendency toward taking over.

The part of life that gets downplayed (and hence my coming to its defense) are the richer forms of leisure that add meaning, depth, and memories to our life. From “hanging out” with friends, playing games, and reading books, to writing blog posts, exploring a new town, or puttering around on a Saturday afternoon—these are all parts of real life too.

If you think about it, the kind of leisure I’m describing is actually a form of work anyway. This kind of leisure involves building things like friendships, families, memories, art, and more. We may not go into them with a clear end goal in mind and they might not feel like work, but they are nonetheless a real contribution to the world and to those around us.

Expand your definition of leisure. Let go of the constant need to justify every hour. And be grateful that we were made to play, to explore, and to create simply for the joy of doing so.

This article was originally published on This Evergreen Home.

Mike Donghia
Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.