We’re masters of work but are clueless when it comes to leisure. We’re so bad at it we look to agencies to make us packaged trips and itineraries for our holidays, the whims and wicked motives of media networks for ways to spend our evenings, and social media — which is itself driven by empty and insipid thoughts and impulses — to help absorb every other moment we find ourselves unoccupied.
To say, then, that we need to cut down our working hours to just four and practice more leisure seems like it would be a recipe for disaster. But this is exactly what Bertrand Russel, in his 1935 essay In Praise of Idleness, suggested was necessary if we were to find meaning and harmony in our lives and society.
He knew it wouldn’t be easy. Even though it was nearly a century ago, it was already clear that, “men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four.”
And today, in our workaholic society where the typical image of leisure is to passively binge-consume food and Netflix, we would have even less of a clue where to begin. This is because, as Russel stated, the problem is not just that we don’t know how to practice leisure, but that we also think of it as a bad thing.
If you’re not out earning your daily bread, i.e. sitting in an office and pretending your busy, you’re seen as worthless in the eyes of society. As a result, we’ve come to rest on work for bringing a sense of meaning into our lives to the point we even define ourselves by the jobs we do and careers we pursue.
This is a precarious idea that will only last as long as your mind is stable or the robots are contained. Work, as Russel knew, is only one facet of living a meaningful life. And leisure — intrinsically enjoyable and meaningful activities — is not only useful in helping juxtapose work, but vital for instilling a deeper and more lasting sense of meaning and fulfilment into our days.
Here’s a few of Russell’s ideas about leisure along with some tips on how you can take back your free time and spend it much more wisely.
“We think too much of production, and too little of consumption. One result is that we attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and that we do not judge production by the pleasure that it gives to the consumer.”
Money has no inherent value in and of itself; it’s only valuable when used as a means of exchanging your time, energy, or resources for something else of more value or necessity.
Yet, people like to collect it as if they were stockpiling food and water for an upcoming apocalypse.
Russel saw this as a huge problem in how we think about and use money. We fail to recognise that gaining and spending is one transaction, not two. And, therefore, that 1) Thinking that getting money and spending it is bad is absurd, and 2) How you spend your money is as, if not more, important as how you acquire it.
In our money-orientated society, the bigger your paycheck and savings pot, the more wealthy and successful you believe you are. Russel exposed this act as being as stupid as thinking keys are good but keyholes are bad. The person of true wealth is one who spends their money, and spends it well. That means not on ego-boosting and unnecessary signs of status and power, but on things that actually bring more value to how you live.
“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level.”
When Russel talked about reducing working hours to four a day, he did so not so he could spend more time smoking his pipe and listening to the miracle of radio, but to schedule in enough time for things that would enrich and enlighten his life.
One of these things was education. As long ago as the early 20th century, Russel saw the social system was ill-equip to provide adequate enough education and that learning should be thus carried further by oneself throughout their later years. He believed this is how one cultivates tastes or passions and becomes able to practice leisure ‘intellectually’
Leisuring intellectually doesn’t necessarily mean spending your free time taking on the unsolved mysteries of the universities between games of Sudoku. It means engaging in activities and events that are stimulating and meaningful to you. Ideally, these will be beneficial to your personal and professional development — too many video games is off the cards — and society on the whole.
“The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare.”
Today, our leisure time is packaged into neatly organised bundles that are easy to enjoy and even easier to Instagram. Russel stated how this efficiency — which has bled over from our culture of work — has stripped leisure of any capacity for real light-heartedness, play, and spontaneity, and made it become just another thing we consider as a means to an end.
In large part this is due to how our active energies are all but emptied by work, leaving us will little desire to anything else but passively consume movies, sports, podcasts, social media, etc. But Russel made a crucial point; the very impulses that existed in early humans which often erupted in song and dance are still very much alive in us today, and, as such, the energy is either being suppressed or manifesting in often different — and harmful — ways.
Spirit and novelty is what real leisure is all about — like going out with your friends as a kid with no idea what you were going to do past playing tig or having a mudbomb war (just me?). Leisure should be so free of boundaries and constraints that it opens a space in which creativity and originality and joy can flourish.
For Russel, with these circumstances, we could begin to free ourselves from the standards of convention and elders, become kinder and less sceptical toward each other, develop good-hearted natures, and even make war a think of the past.
If only we can put down the devices and avoid the distractions for long enough, we might just have a chance.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.