Leisure, Screens, Work: Finding a Balance in Our Lives

November 3, 2020 Updated: November 3, 2020

A friend—I’ll call her Maggie—and I were recently talking by phone when the subject of leisure arose, along with questions such as: Once we’ve finished our work, which often seems unending, what do we do? And is there a difference between recreation and leisure? Spending an evening on social media, watching a televised football game, walking at sunset on a beach, carving out wooden toys for grandchildren: all offer a break from work, but are the benefits equivalent?

For Maggie, a wife, mother, and busy professional, cooking and baking provide a respite from the workplace. Her kitchen creations take her away from her computer screen and telephone, and bring her the satisfaction of creating tasty dishes with her own hands.

As for me, other than reading, which ranks just below breathing as one of life’s necessities, I have no real hobbies. I don’t draw or paint, I don’t collect coins or stamps, and I don’t take photographs of nature or spend my weekends hiking the many trails in my county.

After speaking with my friend, however, I realized that my favorite form of recreation is conversations with family or friends over a meal or a glass of wine. Unlike Maggie, who spends hours every day in contact with others, I live a life of solitude, and it’s a pleasure to spend an evening with others, talking over politics or literature or just everyday stuff.

But the questions raised by Maggie remained, so I set out to explore what we mean by leisure and recreation, and their benefits.

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In “Digital Minimalism,” professor Cal Newport encourages people to reclaim leisure through activities that “prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.” (Leszek Glasner/Shutterstock)

Digital Distraction

Like so many people, I spend hours a day on the computer. Most of that time goes to writing articles, but I also browse certain websites for news and for topics for my articles, and answer emails.

According to professor of computer science Cal Newport, this time spent on a screen, even on social media, fails to qualify as a form of leisure.

In “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” Newport points out that few of us would want to give up our electronic devices, “but at the same time, people are tired of feeling like they’ve become a slave to their devices. This reality creates a jumbled emotional landscape where you can simultaneously cherish your ability to discover inspiring photos on Instagram while fretting about this app’s ability to invade the evening hours you used to spend talking with friends or reading.”

So What Then Is Leisure?

My online dictionary gives three definitions for leisure: “free time,” “free time for enjoyment,” and “opportunity afforded by free time to do something.”

All three are accurate descriptions of how we view leisure. “Free time,” for example, might describe those hours of the evening when the children are asleep and Mom and Dad have a precious hour or two to themselves. “Free time for enjoyment” might involve watching “Jane Austen” or a football game on television, taking a nap, or poring over the latest Land’s End catalog looking for school clothes for the kids.

But it’s that final definition, “opportunity afforded by free time to do something,” that brings us closest to a classical meaning of leisure.

Stop and Smell the Flowers

Long ago, a professor had our philosophy class read Josef Pieper’s “Leisure: The Basis of Culture.” My memories of the book are vague, and little of its subject matter remains with me today.

Fortunately, Maria Popova at Brain Pickings offers an excellent analysis of this important work. Written in 1948, “only a year after the word workaholic was coined,” Pieper’s book is “a magnificent manifesto for reclaiming human dignity in a culture of compulsive workaholism, triply timely today, in an age when we have commodified our aliveness so much as to mistake earning a living for having a life.”

In her examination of Pieper’s distinction between idleness—he used the Latin acedia, or “despair of listlessness,” to describe this sort of free time—and leisure, Popova quotes a passage from Pieper that best summarizes the thrust of his position:

“Leisure is not the attitude of the one who intervenes but of the one who opens himself; not of someone who seizes but of one who lets go, who lets himself go, and ‘go under,’ almost as someone who falls asleep must let himself go. … The surge of new life that flows out to us when we give ourselves to the contemplation of a blossoming rose, a sleeping child, or of a divine mystery — is this not like the surge of life that comes from deep, dreamless sleep?”

Citing the work of four other authors at the end of her article, Popova sums up Pieper’s ideas of leisure in these ways: “the paradox of ‘work/life balance,’” “the art of stillness,” “the spiritual rewards of solitude,” and “reclaiming our everyday capacity for joy and wonder.”

Deeper Joy

In the light of these four qualities, we see that certain activities count as recreation or relaxation without qualifying as leisure in its most meaningful sense. Bill plays video games in his dorm every evening because they bring him some relief from the stress of his college studies. Katie works long hours as an attorney and spends her evenings sipping wine and watching old shows like “Cheers” on Netflix. Like Bill, she is practicing stillness and solitude, in a sense, but these will not endow either of them with a capacity for joy and wonder.

“Stillness” doesn’t necessarily mean assuming a lotus position or sitting motionless in a chair. Stillness is a calming of the interior, of the soul if you will, when instead of tapping away on a screen or making plans for the next day, we simply allow ourselves a time of interior reflection, pushing aside the weights of our world and letting tranquility and reflection take their place.

Likewise, solitude doesn’t mean that we must remove ourselves from others. Even amid the distractions of a coffee shop, for instance, we can find solitude and the stillness that accompanies it. With a little willpower, we can remove ourselves from our surroundings, and seek that “everyday capacity for joy and wonder” mentioned by Popova.

Recreation Versus Leisure?

Unlike Popova and Pieper, in “Digital Minimalism” Newport makes leisure synonymous with recreation, as long as the activity takes place away from a screen. In his chapter “Reclaim Leisure,” he encourages readers to “prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption,” to “use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world,” and to “seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.” These activities can range from baking to board games, from joining an exercise group to putting in a garden plot.

Perhaps the best distinction between leisure and recreation is this: recreation—a game of volleyball with friends, a special holiday movie watched with our family, a vacation at the beach—allows us an escape from work and in a sense, from ourselves. Sometimes we need that down time, that break from duty and obligation.

Leisure, or “deep recreation” if you will, not only removes us from work and duty, but also gives us a new pair of glasses with which to see the world. Leisure invites us to become like children again, looking with awe at a sunset over the ocean, taking delight from a toddler’s exploration of a sandbox, finding solace and love when standing over the grave of a loved one.

We need both recreation and leisure.

Reclaiming Our Humanity

All three authors—Newport, Popova, and Pieper—advocate for a balance between work and life outside of work, and in the case of Newport, life away from our screens.

Newport begins “Digital Minimalism” by citing the title of a 2016 New York magazine essay by Andrew Sullivan: “I Used to Be a Human Being: An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information users. It broke me. It might break you, too.”

Recreation and leisure allow us to mend those breaks, to step away from our work, and to connect more fully to our interior self as well as to the world around us.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.