Bertrand Russell on the importance of leisure

Humans are obsessed with work. Work serves as the lens through which we, as individuals, societies, and nations, evaluate progress and development. And according to this view, leisure is a nuisance, that only serves to slow down progress. The importance of work over leisure is apparent in the literature from the past two centuries.

Technological advances of the past few decades have allowed human productivity to skyrocket. Working hours, at least in developed countries, have been on the decline since the industrial revolution. The time reclaimed from work, however, is spent doing more work or work-like activities; many seem to have lost the capacity for leisure.

This obsession with work has a cost. The need to occupy every second with “useful” work, causes us to seek distractions at the slightest hint of solitude and leaves us exhausted at the end of the day. And as result diminishes our capacity to appreciate and enjoy life: retired workers, bored with inactivity, unable to enjoy time with their families, parents, exhausted from work, are not present for their children.

This aversion to leisure is bewildering, especially when you consider that most significant contributions to human civilization, strange as it may seem, were products of leisure, not of work. The great and enduring works of art, science, and philosophy were the result of activities pursued by individuals in their own time, not commissioned, and to satisfy their curiosities, not for sustenance. This tension between work and leisure was the central theme of Nobel Laureate, philosopher, writer, Bertrand Russell’s essay ‘In Praise of Idleness.’

Bertrand Russell  [source: Wikimedia Commons]
To understand leisure, we need to understand why we work. We rarely think about what it means to work; our thoughts primarily defined by social and cultural norms. For many, work speaks to a sense of duty and moral obligation than with a sense of fulfillment or contribution. Says Russell:

The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own. Of course holders of power conceal this fact from themselves by managing to believe that their interests are identical with the larger interests of humanity. Sometimes this is true; Athenian slave-owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to civilizations, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good.
Leisure, to be sure, is not simply the act of whiling away your time. It is something that needs to be nurtured and developed.

 The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life will become bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer from this depravation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.
Another insistence of modern times is that every activity have a specified end, preferably, profitable. Take a class on photography? Then figure out a way to sell your photographs. Learn to program? Write an app and try to sell it on your favorite app store. The potential for rejuvenation or flow to be derived from the activity is replaced with the anxiety for a result; leisure becomes work.

 The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. Serious-minded persons, for example, are continually condemning the habit of going to the cinema, and telling is that it leads the young into crime. But all the work that goes into producing a cinema is respectable, because it is work, and because it brings a money profit. The notion that desirable activities are those that bring profit has made everything topsy-turvy.
Slowly, but surely, we are also losing the ability, willingness, and patience to participate, to build, and to pursue activities that take time to develop. Anything that requires active participation, even engaging with family and friends can be a chore. And of course, all our hobbies have turned into passive consumptions. Previously we used to play cricket and football, now we simply watch.

 The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.
And, having the ability to enjoy oneself results is more curious and kindly people.

 In a world where no is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possesses of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge in it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational potboilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach bu routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which many, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.

Above all, there will be happiness and joy in life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one percent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, have the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view other with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs the most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle.
Still not convinced of the importance of leisure? Then read about how Darwin was a slacker and Stefan Sagmeister’s year away from work.