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Brigid Schulte studies how people spend their free time in her new book. (handout)
Brigid Schulte studies how people spend their free time in her new book. (handout)

Overwhelmed: Why we need to take back leisure time Add to ...

Brigid Schulte has often put off leisure time, like it’s something she needs to earn first. “Too busy to live,” is how she puts it.

Like many of the subjects in her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time, Schulte never used to slow down long enough to consider what true, unencumbered leisure time would do for her. Now, her book charts the strained relationship that so many North Americans have with their leisure time. Schulte argues that we are suffering from “time sickness,” and that our culture, our technology and our employers are making it difficult to experience anything but “contaminated time.” Health, quality of life, productivity and, not least of all, curiosity are taking a hit.

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Schulte cites contemporary complaints about how, for so many, time has shrunk to a life of work and caregiving. And that while technology was supposed to liberate us, it has instead created a sense of ceaseless responsibility and basically spelled the end of a truly work-free environment.

Still, for all the kvetching about having no time, she contends the sickness is partly our own fault: North Americans would rather achieve than relax. In a culture that worships work, busyness has become a badge of honour. “To be idle is to be irrelevant,” she writes, pointing out that many people mistake leisure for laziness and frivolity.

So just what is true leisure? Having studied everything from the relatively nascent field of time research to the ancient Greek philosophers, Schulte offers this answer: It involves being in the moment, cultivating yourself and connecting with people. The idea is to do something for its own sake, without obligation. It is meaningful human experience – refreshing the soul, if you will. The Globe recently spoke with Schulte, a reporter with the Washington Post in Alexandria, Va.

Why do we have such a hard time relaxing?

What is it about having open space on the calendar? It’s the one thing we say we want, but what’s become so clear in North America is that we are not only work-focused, we are work-devoted.

In the ’30, ’40s and ’50s, philosophers, economists and some of the greatest thinkers of the age described an era not far off when everybody would have so much leisure time: We’d only work 30 hours a week, four days a week, maybe half the year. Some were worried about that – what would we do to fill the time? Others believed it would be the next great advancement in human civilization: the things we could invent, the art we could create, the time we could spend with other people making relationships richer and life better.

Well what happened then? Why is it that we value work so much? If we don’t value leisure, or if we treat leisure as a time to ‘rest up’ so we’re better at our work, we’ve really lost the point of living.

At the same time we complain about how work conspires to ruin our weekends and our vacations.

We complain about how little leisure time we have but we’re humble-bragging, aren’t we? “I’m so fried.” “I’ve been working so hard.” We one-up each other on how busy we are or how much we work.

The complaint that you don’t have time is a way of showing your status. If we aren’t busy, we start getting nervous that maybe we aren’t important. When you have a cultural value, you start to create it, to look for it. You start to fill your time with busyness. Time-use researchers talk about the “harried leisure class.” Even if you’re very wealthy, to be harried and busy in your leisure is viewed as a sign of status. I would question the quality of that leisure.

What do North Americans tend to do with their free time?

When we get a square of free time we’re usually preoccupied and worried about the next thing we have to do, these laundry lists of stuff. We’re also tired. That’s how you get such huge TV-watching numbers in North America. We use our leisure to turn off rather than to prospectively choose to do something. True leisure requires freely choosing something. We’re not really making anything of that time.

What was your reaction to the women you interviewed who claimed their last speck of leisure time came when they read their toddler to sleep, or, seriously, the woman who said she experienced leisure during her last mammogram? Did you buy it?

To me this was an indication of, “Look how busy I am, I don’t even have time for myself. I’m putting myself last. Aren’t I a good woman?” But women’s leisure time has changed in both quality and quantity. For mothers, they spend almost all of their leisure time with their children. Pure leisure time is considered time for yourself, time to refresh your soul, time to do what you choose for you. That kind of time and also time spent with other adults have really fallen off the cliff in the past 30 years, particularly for women. If you have leisure time, it’s usually spent on the sidelines of a soccer game or schlepping kids around to music lessons or driving the carpool. It’s a very different quality of time.

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Follow on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

 

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