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Cursed Leisure

January 8, 2021
- Sagnik, Kushagra , Riya , Akshara

“Leisure and curiosity might soon make great advances in useful knowledge, were they not diverted by minute emulation and laborious trifles.” - Samuel Johnson

Do you often experience an unusual sense of panic and discomfort when suddenly faced with a surplus of free time? Can you remember the last time you just lazed around in the sunshine on a beautiful Sunday afternoon without feeling guilty later? Do you generally succumb to your temptations quite quickly, taking frequent breaks between your hectic schedule, probably binge-watching an entire season of that favourite TV show of yours, or maybe playing soccer the whole day, only to fret about it later at night? Or are you one of those who can be consistent at work, staying rigid to a pre-planned routine but often dwell deep into some philosophical questions about yourself - wondering whether ultimately your life equates to nothing but work, progress in career, and the financial returns, all at the stake of your hobbies and those extravagant dreams that your childish and carefree self had for themselves.

Generally speaking, it’s pretty evident that over time, people have become more and more reluctant to the idea of dreamy languor; the very act of spending some leisure time incites feelings of insecurity and repent in most people, affecting them to various degrees. However, this might not be the case with every person as it very much depends on the age, ambitions, and the psychological temperament of an individual. For example, the toddlers and the aged population are less likely to detest leisure, but on the other hand, a more significant section of the community - a generation of ambitious and young-blooded individuals perceive leisure quite differently. Most of them see it as a waste of their precious time, which could instead be utilised in doing something “productive” or “fruitful.” While we neither intend to advocate a “no-work-all-leisure” principle nor the other way around, we do wish to discuss a range of ideas regarding the perception of work and leisure, and its implications. What’s worth analysing is how the concept of leisure has, over the last few decades, gradually shifted from being perceived as a boon to being considered a liability to one’s daily routine. We will also try to understand how this has altered the present generation’s approach towards their lives, and ultimately, the impact this change has had on people’s lifestyles, mental health, and attitude.

In the course of this article, we have also incorporated a few interesting results from a survey which was shared with the IITR-Junta, to get a better insight into how they tend to perceive and deal with their work schedules and leisure cycles.

Some definitions to begin with

Before beginning with our discussion, it is essential to understand what the term ‘work’ really signifies. Work could be defined as the completion of a particular set of tasks to achieve some desired result, but such a definition lacks concreteness concerning a practical scenario where there are technically no limitations to the “tasks” one has to finish. Unlike traffic rules or constitutional laws, which are meticulously laid out by formal legislative bodies, no such institution or authority exists, which specifies the ‘ideal’ duration of time that must be dedicated to working. As such, one would expect there to be some level of flexibility available to every person when it comes to their working hours - to each his own. But when we look around ourselves - at labourers working all day long at tiresome construction sites, frustrated factory workers and employees regularly attending work, struggling entrepreneurs sacrificing every last bit of their social life and recreation for the sake of their ambitions - to name a few, does it really seem that an active choice lies with the people? In fact, most of them today are not driven by a genuine passion for their work but by the sole need to earn. Today, this school of thought has become highly prevalent among the general masses, so much so that it has changed the way people tend to think of work. Instead of having a specific task-completion approach, more and more people are turning into workaholics, with their primary goal being optimising every possible second of their available time. This attitude has inculcated in a small section of people, a weird, masochistic obsession with deliberately pushing themselves hard, as if the very act of “struggling,” irrespective of the outcome, ought to deliver some grand success in the future. Failures do not matter anymore, and people do not wish to quit at any time, even if their efforts lead them nowhere. Not only this, but these delusional metrics of success evoke a sense of pride and pseudo-satisfaction in them, and today it’s not uncommon to find struggling, unsuccessful people bragging about the efforts they’ve put in, broadcasting themselves on their seemingly top-notch LinkedIn profiles. However, it’s interesting to note that this herd mentality did not come to the surface until recently, making us wonder what has been responsible for such a transition, after all.

A majority of the respondents claimed that they prefer to maintain a balance between their work and leisure which reflects that most of them value its importance. However, what’s more interesting to note is that there are also many who have already given up on leisure, taking special note of the fact that most of the respondents were freshmen, who are yet to enter the hectic corporate world.

A desire for productivity

The world has witnessed immense rates of development in various fields in the last few decades, and with a major breakthrough in the revolution of technology, today, the world is bustling with tons of resources and opportunities to explore and utilise. There are hundreds and thousands of career options, part-time job opportunities, and a whole lot of online content, including informative websites like Wikipedia, and online courses for learning new skills, all thanks to the ever-growing, easily accessible Internet facilities. These resources are made all the more glamorous by impressive advertisements and are thus able to attract the attention of people. This is largely responsible for generating in them an obsessive compulsion of being involved in “praise-worthy” and “productive” activities, instead of wasting the same time on seemingly less important recreation. The notion of turning into productive assets for the society, and being attributed with a high degree of value and respect, which requires nothing but investing some time and effort, is just too appealing to let go. As a result, today, society is all about glorifying productivity and celebrating the culture of hard work and prosperity.

Due to an ever-increasing crowd of smart and skilled individuals, competition is getting stiffer day by day and has been responsible for intoxicating the very purpose of work. The cut-throat competition in a standard peer group at any workplace or institution evokes a person’s sense of urgency of staying involved in learning or doing something productive. People are becoming restless and conscious of everything they do. While sitting idle, the very thought that their peers might be spending this time doing something constructive is enough to poke at one’s insecurity. It makes them feel at every moment of their inactivity as if they are losing their lead in the big (rat) race of life - the race to success, hence instigating them to return to their “life-saving” work as soon as possible. Peer pressure has always been, and continues to be a prominent factor in pushing people to do their job against their own active will. This constant urge to maximise productivity has intensified to such an extent that it has led to the development of FOMO in most people - not the usual FOMO we know of (fear of missing out on all the fun and frolic), but the fear of missing out on learning new stuff and opportunities instrumental for career upliftment.

The Hustle

Added to the fear is the constant uncertainty of the future that most people struggle with for a major portion of their lifetime. Nobody could question the fact that every person, consciously or subconsciously, yearns for an ideal future for themselves. Stable career, financial security and a decent living standard are some of the common highlights in every person’s list of aspirations; however, what’s apparently absent, is a well-defined means of attaining the same. The only thing that can be said about with absolute certainty, is that there is only a limited amount of time available to each person, passing away with every tick of the clock, and also, there is no end to how much a man could achieve for himself. As a matter of fact, this notion has been very much responsible for having gradually turned humans into machines working 24/7.

All in all, it’s pretty evident from what we have discussed so far, that people have developed what could be termed as “hustle mentality,” where they always feel the compulsion to stay involved in doing some productive activity or the other. The quasi-motivational satisfaction derived from the belief that they’re treading the ideal path towards success, as taught to them by the conventional societal narrative, supersedes any degree of physical and mental exhaustion. While we have had some insight to how people tend to perceive work, it would be interesting to extend our analysis to the entire concept of leisure as well.

In accordance with our discussion throughout the article, the responses to this question were not too unexpected. A whopping figure of 80.7% claims to feel guilty when they are not involved in doing something productive. What’s worth noting is that while 71.8% of them regarded the importance of leisure, a much larger proportion fails to actually enjoy their leisure time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has evidently aggravated leisure phobia in people. With more spare time available to oneself, leisure is naturally deemed as “too much”, and hence the subsequent phases of guilt and self-coerced work sessions.

The Solution(?)

Leisure by its virtue, is a very subjective topic. For some, work itself may be a pleasurable experience while to others, no leisure activity could provide peace. However, every leisure activity tends to have a few elements in common. One exercises such pursuits in their free time, and they are free from deadlines. The activity is not undertaken with a specific goal in mind, but is rather done just for the sake of it. One engages in leisure, not for any extrinsic value they may obtain from the activity, but for the intrinsic value, they might gain. However, the value that one obtains from their leisure time differs from activity to activity. This was observed by a certain Jay B. Nash. He studied 10,000 ‘happy’ individuals, asking them about the activities they found enjoyable and categorised four levels of use of leisure time. These levels were the Nash’s Pyramid.


Nash’s Pyramid.
Activities are arranged such that one obtains more leisure at a higher level.

An interesting inference is the fact that higher levels of the pyramid clearly require more engagement. A game of basketball or composing a poem takes up more time, to give much more value of that time.The pyramid gives an essential insight into the present-day situation. When one gets overburdened by work, whether by personal choice as a result of hustling, or work pressure, they tend to return exhausted. The more the work, the less likely it is for one to go for an activity that requires more energy and creative input. Thus they tend to take the easy way out, and satisfy themselves with activities at the lower levels of the pyramid, like by binging TV or movies.The problem that comes with these activities is lower engagement, while activities at higher levels mostly require higher skill, and pose a larger challenge. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this experience as a flow state and has been linked directly to higher levels of gratification. Flow is more likely to occur when one is wholeheartedly performing a task or activity for intrinsic purposes. Passive activities, like taking a bath or watching TV, usually do not elicit flow experiences as individuals have to do something to enter a flow state actively. The time you spend while making a sculpture, or playing a great video game, is enjoyable because you experience flow. When work pressure increases and the time dedicated to leisure decreases, it becomes imperative for people to choose low skilled and less challenging activities. While they may bring some form of relaxation, they tend to be far less gratifying and far more boring than more active uses of leisure time. They put the person in question in a vicious cycle, where stress piles up from work but is not rectified in the slightest by leisure. Hence, the busy, urban crowd naturally tends to perceive leisure under a negative light. But, is it true that leisure is nothing more than a curse to our lives? Or is it just that most of us are being misled into believing so?

As evident from the above responses, most folks at IITR prefer to just sleep away their free time. This clearly shows how the busy, career-oriented environment in a university doesn’t allow students to spare much time or energy for themselves to get involved in more challenging and enjoyable forms of leisure activities.

Leisure is undoubtedly not a vice, it’s a boon. People who develop “leisure phobia” are very likely to experience frequent panic attacks, and anxiety and become frustrated with their daily routines. Over time, as a result of continuous hustling between several activities on a regular basis, they become restless and impatient. Such people generally go down a path of toxic self-criticism and self-doubt, especially when they aren’t able to meet their high expectations, which leads to chronic depression and other mental illnesses. Leisure is an essential component of a cheerful and healthy life; spending time in leisure activities helps in the holistic development of one’s personality and mind. Sitting idle helps you to become self-aware, and improve upon your efficiency in your daily tasks. Instead of running helter-skelter like a rat, trying to achieve some vague, materialistic purpose of life, you become more intellectually sound, a better human with practical aspirations, and can derive the maximum pleasure from life. Sitting idle doesn’t always go in vain; it helps you wonder about what’s going around you, making you more aware of your surroundings. You get more time to introspect yourself and draw meaning out of your life. Frequent breaks from work enable you to savour the many small and beautiful elements of life like religion, romance, philosophy, the beauty of nature - which otherwise become lost in a world judged by metrics of work and productivity.

Some Coping Strategies

There are a number of strategies one could adopt to break oneself free from this leisure phobia. Preparing a proper timetable and prioritising different activities, preferably under the supervision of a responsible elder, could prove helpful. One can always talk to their family members and friends when feeling low due to excessive workload. However, family upbringing also plays a crucial role in influencing a kid’s perception of their priorities. Family elders consumed by principles of productivity and perfection, always having prioritised success and financial prosperity over everything else, often go on to shove down the same ideologies down their children’s throats. In most cases, these elders are those people who themselves weren’t able to live up to their expectations, and hence, try to fulfil their aspirations through their children’s lives. In such a case, a child may require immediate psychiatric help. One should invest their free time wisely, by taking up an active hobby. Activities near the top of Nash’s Pyramid can make for more fulfilling and longer lasting satisfaction, be it writing, painting or anything else. Ironically, for the ‘antidote’ to stress and work pressure, one must undergo extra work to rectify habits and pave the way for active hobbies, just for that antidote to be effective enough to be significant.

While most of the respondents claimed that they prefer to maintain a balance between their work and leisure, a large number of them are actually not able to stick to their stringent routines, which could be a probable reason for feeling guilty during leisure time.

Leisure phobia has become very prevalent in today’s generation, and the need of the hour is to bring this issue under the limelight since it is affecting millions, yet mostly going unnoticed. It is important to gradually change the narrative for better, allowing individuals to savour their free time without any subsequent guilt or doubt. Media and pop culture, which play a detrimental role in shaping people’s opinions on various issues, can also help to a large extent in improving the present situation.

It’s never too late to bring about a change in one’s habits and lifestyle. If more and more people realise the importance of leisure and incorporate it into their regular routines, the world will be a much detoxed and happier place to live in.