Even When They’re Not Busy, People Hate Idleness


Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Tim Kreider says that fancy-pants professional types spend too much time being busy and what people need is more idleness:

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

One natural thing to wonder is whether paid work is crowding out idleness, but if you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Time Use Survey data (PDF) on leisure time it turns out that people hate “relaxing and thinking.”

And indeed if you look elsewhere in Kreider’s piece, it turns out that he doesn’t like to be idle when he’s not working either:

I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?

Running errands is largely part of the BLS’ “household activities” category and not leisure at all. And among leisure activities, it seems that what he really enjoys is what the BLS calls “participating in sports, exercise, recreation” (long bike ride), “socializing and communicating” (see friends, check out the Met’s new American Wing, ogle girls), reading, and the dreaded “other leisure activities” (watch a movie).

At any rate, if you compare the United States to most other rich countries (South Korea is a huge exception here), Americans spend considerably more time engaged in market work. But these charts are a reminder that it’s not necessarily the case that if we worked less, we’d engage in more idleness. Foreigners tend to spend more time doing household work than we do, and even if we had more leisure time, we might well spend it on our favorite activities—watching TV, hanging out with friends, and screwing around with computers. Indeed as a Slate writer, I would strongly encourage everyone to spend less time idle and more time reading fun websites.