“Happiness is leisure.” One of Aristotle’s most-quoted maxims, this terse sentence expresses one of the fundamental truths of human life. And it is a pretty simple one. For leisure is necessary for virtually any activity that makes us happy. Such an activity is intrinsically worthwhile, in the sense that we do it not for money or for the sake of any other burden, but because it is inherently good or satisfying. The only exception to this rule is that rare sort of work people actually enjoy, and which they’d do even if they did not get paid. This exception is something of a moot point, however, for there is effectively no difference between work and leisure if the former finds us doing what we want; that is not work in the commonly burdensome sense of the word.
Why are so many of us unhappy in this country today? There are many reasons, of course, far too many for me to cover in this article, but I have no doubt the common lack of leisure is a big one. Observe most people in any big city during working hours. They are endlessly harried. Commuting to work is an anxious hassle. Work itself is a frenetic and monotonous drudgery in which others—many of them quite base human beings—effectively stand over them shouting, “Produce!” Meanwhile, our society is wildly touchy, so that the slightest politically incorrect infraction, whether uttered in the flesh or posted on social media, may well get one fired. And all this is how it is for those who have relatively good jobs!
In Life Without Principle, Thoreau said “most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.” Are these words not more applicable to our time than they were to the writer’s own? I know many co-workers at my weekend bouncer gig who have full-time jobs in banking, accounting and other lucrative professions. Still, they wait tables or serve drinks on the weekend; some even do so during the week: and all for what? Is not all this throwing of stones—as it were—done for the sake of mere material ends; that is, so that people can pay their rent or mortgage, keep up their vehicle, buy the latest Apple product, and so on?
Yet I see that there is an immense non-monetary cost here: working so much, they are without sufficient free time to do the things that make them happy. Doubtless there are many people in this country today who do not even know what makes them happy (just as they do not know themselves in any deep sense); these good team members are so busy getting ahead that they have not learned to develop a variety of satisfying interests and hobbies, without which it is impossible to be a well-rounded human being.
To be sure, considerable blame here must fall on the powerful people who make life much more expensive than it has to be. But greed is nothing new in human affairs, and it is always a person’s own responsibility to make wise decisions. To live by debt is to devalue your leisure, and with that your very happiness.
From Diogenes to Socrates, the ancient Greeks thought that there is a sense in which you don’t just own your house: it also owns you, its care detracting from your leisure, which is really a synonym for freedom.
If you value your leisure, and if you want to be free, you must have the discipline to do without. I own much less than most people. But the good news, for me, is that I am a lot freer. My main expenses are rent, food and public transportation. Therefore, while so many others are working 60 hours a week or more, I can spend a lot of my time reading books, writing articles like this one (which I don’t do just for the money), exercising, or simply being happily idle. It goes without saying that while I do all this, I do not have a bunch of tiresome fools telling me what to do. It also goes without saying that I don’t have a wife or children, since the highly expensive domestic life is the most wretched trap around today.
Many people believe that “time is money.” I should rather believe that time is life, and that while we all need money, this need is really a simple animal one. If we look to history, we do not find that great and lofty spirits valued money above all else. They were out for glory, or excellence, or fame—at any rate, for much more than material wealth.
An utterly Philistine commitment to a life of moneygrubbing is sure to make a person boring, undeveloped and incomplete. By contrast, anyone who greatly values leisure—and who, therefore, achieves some competence or even mastery in a variety of pursuits over time—is sure to be quite interesting and exceptional.
Just how a person spends his leisure reveals a great deal about him. If a grown man tells me he spends most of his free time watching American Idol and playing video games, I simply will not consider him the equal of a man who devotes much time to studying a foreign language, playing the guitar, or tending to a garden. You can deem me an elitist, but in order to value some things, we must devalue others: the very notion of value—inherently comparative—vanishes if we are not willing to make certain distinctions.
In one of his dialogues, Plato says that the gods made man in jest, in order to laugh at him. From politics to the workplace to dating, I seem to meet with one farce after another today. Contemporary life seems to be the work of some cruel satirist. Yet I have no doubt that the endless spectacles of stupidity and vulgarity I see all around me would not be so prevalent if more of us had a sense of the value of leisure. More people would then spend time cultivating their minds, rendering them more intelligent and, I should also think, a bit more dignified. And, what is a value I can’t stress too much, they’d spend more time alone with themselves, understanding who they are and what matters to them. Who needs a trite self-help book or dope-pushing psychiatrist when you can examine yourself?
Still, it may be thought that human nature is fundamentally base on average. To draw on Plato once more, the great philosopher held that most people fall into the category of what he called “souls of appetite.” Interested neither in the pursuit of power (“souls of ambition”) nor the life of the mind (“souls of knowledge”), they basically live for pleasure, usually of the animal sort. And that most Americans would rather watch reality TV or post trivial thoughts on social media than read a good book or play an instrument does seem to reveal something significant about human nature itself on average. After all, this is what people choose to do when they are free to do what they want.
Anyway, you need not be like the crowd. Value your leisure: sharpen your mind and nurture your spirit; contemplate yourself and character. For to value leisure is ultimately to value yourself.
Read more: Why You Should Become A Minimalist