As a millennial growing up in the world of the #hustle, the word leisure invokes imagery of old white men at a luxurious resort cheating at golf (instead of leading the country). Between a job, a side gig, education, managing multiple social media accounts, swiping on potential love interests and Netflix-ing — where is there time for leisure?
In “Digital Minimalism”, Cal Newport (x-xviii) makes the case that modern technologies are leading people to feel that they are losing their focus, time and overall autonomy. By continuously and often unintentionally monitoring our digital worlds we lose touch with our inner ones. Newport makes special note of how we often scan our devices, an action he refers to as the quick glance:
At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps…that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds. (101)
These glances, while seemingly minor, are symptomatic of our overarching incapacity for self-reflection and finding space that’s free from the noise of the external world. To reclaim autonomy, we must take a page from existentialist philosophy by actively acknowledging our behaviours and especially our choices. Quality leisure, as an outcome of choice is a necessary component for living a meaningful life.
Because quality leisure is an outcome of choice, we must first examine why we delegate freedom in the first place. While it’s true that technology is addictive, which is often by design (Newport 8–23), we wouldn’t be compelled to yield our free time if it was already being allocated toward meaningful pursuits. Personally, I did not heavily use the internet and social media as an adolescent because I had multiple ongoing pursuits including music, organized sports, skateboarding and reading. It wasn’t until I started university as an adult — whereby those activities one-by-one disappeared from my life — that I began to passively scroll through Facebook. In the second part of “The Ethics of Ambiguity”, Simone de Beauvoir details the coming-of-age realization we undergo during this transition from childhood to adulthood:
…it is not without great confusion that the adolescent finds himself cast into a world which is no longer ready-made…he is [the] prey of a freedom that is no longer chained up by anything. What will he do in the face of this new situation? [The] misfortune which comes to man [because of] the fact that he was a child is that his freedom was first concealed from him and that all his life he will be nostalgic for the time when he did not know its exigencies. (39)
Freedom is difficult to reconcile; at the heart of it is a realization of nothingness and further that we are responsible for creating our ethics from that nothingness. Because freedom requires responsibility, and accepting responsibility is difficult, we often deny or misuse our freedom. But what role does leisure have in exercising freedom?
Quality leisure is not just a joyful way to accept freedom but can also be a responsible use of it. Where there is freedom, there is also excess in nihilism, vanity, power and the denial of freedoms of others. But there’s another manifestation of freedom: passion. Beauvoir writes:
[In] the work of art the lack of being returns to the positive. Time is stopped, clear forms and finished meanings rise up. In this return, existence is confirmed and establishes its own justification. (69)
Exercising passion through a creative lens affirms existence and celebrates subjectivity. We choose to self-express through means, narratives and activities that are exciting for ourselves. For example, consider the type of passion involved in love. Beauvoir writes:
…one does not want the beloved being to be admired objectively; one prefers to think her unknown, unrecognized; the lover thinks that his appropriation of her is greater if he is alone in revealing her worth. That is the genuine thing offered by all passion. The moment of subjectivity therein vividly asserts itself, in its positive form, in a movement toward the object. (64)
Personally, I read the above with music in mind. I greatly appreciate finding musical gems especially for my accompanying belief that I’m one of the only people in existence that recognizes its beauty. This musical appreciation and its accompanying internal feeling affirm me: if I didn’t have these types of reflections, then I exist solely as an externally-oriented object and not as a subjective being. Thus, by exercising passion, one is acknowledging themselves apart from the external world.
High-quality leisure is a responsible way to manifest one’s freedom — but what exactly makes an activity “high-quality”? Beauvoir’s Ambiguity of Ethics speaks of the artist and the writer, but surely these means cannot be the only ways to achieve high-quality leisure. In “Digital Minimalism”, Newport gives a clearer definition of what constitutes quality: “a life well lived requires activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates” (166). Perhaps this assertion is clearer when expanded in the opposite direction. If one engages solely in activities that have worth rooted in external purposes, then one is consistently neglecting their authentic self. Bringing these ideas together with the those of Simone, high-quality leisure can take on a wide array of forms such as the following:
- any activity involving crafting and craftsmanship
- artistic endeavours
- learning, critical thinking and reflection
- listening and/or dancing to high-quality music (with no other tasks/distractions)
- meaningful discussion
- meditation and mindfulness
- play and playfulness¹
- recreational sport and fitness
It is careful to note that some common leisure activities such as video games, while potentially fun, often miss criteria to be considered high-quality². In most cases, they have an inadequate interface for self-expression or require mandatory completion of certain tasks to access other ones. These activities need not be ceased altogether, but one must designate time for them knowing that they’re lower quality.
In a digital world, the goal of high-quality leisure is to remove ourselves from the noise of others while focusing on self-expression and intention. Engaging in these activities is not only joyful but is also a responsible way to exercise our liberty. This joy is sustainable because it’s generated from the activities themselves rather than measurable outcomes. For these reasons, we should all spend less time on our phones and instead devote time to discovering ourselves. After all, what really defines a person is not their job or status, but how they creatively shape their own path³.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Open Road Media, 2015. Kindle Edition.
Griffith, Erin. “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?” The New York Times 26 January 2019.
Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life In A Noisy World. Penguin, 2019.
¹See the Ted Talk Play is more than just fun by Stuart Brown
²I wrote an article on this topic: Are There Video Games That Can Actually Be ‘Play’ed?
³See my comment on Zat Rana’s article titled “The Philosophical Argument for Working Less (and Wasting Time).
Vapurrmaid is the handle for Gregory (Grey preferred) Barkans, a software developer located in Ontario, Canada. I write tutorials, opinions, philosophy and about self on Medium.com.
Gregory 'Grey' Barkans - Medium
Read writing from Gregory 'Grey' Barkans on Medium. I'm a Software Developer in Guelph, Ontario mainly interested in…
Recently, I just created my first publication called Home Dev that is largely inspired by the underlying philosophies and ideas presented in this very article. Home Dev will debut in May 2019.