Work has a habit of begging for action. Emails, deadlines, networking — even happy hour can be commodified. When it’s time to take a break, I believe that this is my chance to balance productivity with inactivity. To binge on Netflix or mindlessly gossip on FaceTime. As down-time becomes bedtime I promise myself that tomorrow I’ll read a book instead of cradling my iPhone.
Well, one evening I did read a book (thank you very much!) and I discovered that the average person doesn’t know what leisure is anymore. By misunderstanding recreation, we’ve created patterns that restrain one of our brain’s most necessary functions. Which in turn, inhibits a vital element of leisure: feeling rejuvenated after a hard day’s work.
Thankfully, it’s simple to turn this negative pattern around.
Understanding Your Brain Can Help You Enjoy Leisure.
Dr. Nan Wise is a neuroscientist who spent the last ten years researching pleasure. She wanted to know why people are unable to experience satisfaction; which has become an epidemic. Her research explains that humans need to experience satisfying pleasure on a consistent basis. When we do, our “emotive system”, the part of your brain that labels and disperses feelings, can work properly. When we are unable to experience satisfaction, humans become fatigued and unmotivated.
If your downtime is keeping you, well, down, it might be due to a subtle malfunction of the mind.
Our brain has a basic function that neuroscientists called seeking.
This “seeking function” is triggered by our “wants”. Our “wants” can be something we genuinely desire or something our brain believes we will desire based on our patterns.
A healthy mind will use its “seeking function” as follows: (1) the brain perceives a “want” (2) the brain seeks to fulfill the “want” (3) we acquire the “want” and feel satisfaction.
Seeking systems are always at work; they ensure that our basic needs are met. Sadly, our brains are bombarded with options for recreation which hijacks our seeking system’s natural cycle.
“Invitations to enjoy sex, food, sports, spas, exotic vacations, romantic escapes, and gamified apps abound, all promising a hit of relaxation, a high of excitement, an emotional or physical reprieve, and an answer to our aching need to distress.
Given all the external stimuli found in our environments, it seems like we should be feeling tons of pleasure […] In fact, our senses have become overwhelmed by this bombardment of easy-to-access, seemingly endless supply of quick-fix pleasures.”
— Dr. Nan Wise
Since invitations for pleasure are constant our brain’s seeking function is on overdrive. Creating a situation where our basic needs are met on a superficial level but rarely arrive at true satisfaction. Rather than leisure being an opportunity to feel rejuvenated by what we enjoy — we’ve learned that breaks are a lethargic, yet hectic, time to be sold to or entertained.
According to Dr. Wise, this results in a “pleasure shutdown”, where our overstimulated seeking systems disrupt the time we’ve dedicated to leisure or relaxation. We cannot relax because our brain is still hard at work, looking for stimuli that will be more stimulating than the stimulus we just digested. Was that an exhausting sentence to read? Imagine how our brains must feel, as they continue chasing cheese on a hamster wheel.
This conundrum of unsatisfying and fatiguing leisure is so commonplace that another expert in human development picked up on it too.
How To Enjoy Leisure: Have Intention and Boundaries
“To watch endless amounts of television or simply travel from place to place so that you might cross locations off a checklist? That is not life. It’s not freedom either.”
— Ryan Holiday
Leisure incorporates relaxation, but it is not the equivalent of it. Leisure is an active state of being. Just as active as, say, productivity. When thinking about business, we are purposeful in everything we do. We want to be effective and impactful. We want to grow. The same should be true for leisure.
Ryan Holiday, famous for his scholarship on Stoicism and personal development, sums it up gracefully.
“Make sure you enjoy your relaxation like a poet — not idly but actively, observing the world around you, taking it all in, better understanding your place in the universe. Take a day off from work every now and then, but not a day off from learning.”
— Ryan Holiday
If we want our brains to function properly, we need to be purposeful about the pleasure we digest. This requires planning and boundaries.
It means enjoying sweets, alcohol, or weed with clear limits. It means going to the beach for the day, but bringing along a book to keep your mind engaged. It’s a reminder to prioritize people over possessions or accomplishments. In short, it means that you understand your needs and can provide yourself with remedies that rejuvenate you.
For example, I love sleeping in on non-work days (who doesn’t?) but I still set an alarm on my days off. Why? Because overindulging in pleasure is a side effect of “always seeking”. Research indicates that “too much of a good thing” can make us feel exhausted or unfulfilled. There is nothing wrong with being lazy, but true leisure allows us to relax without getting lost there.
Along with setting boundaries around pleasure, planning is another important element. Since we are bombarded with invitations to enjoy, well, everything, start making lists of what you actually want to do during your free time. Plan ahead so that when a break comes along you have fascinating options to pursue. As the philosopher, Seneca, once said, “Leisure without study is death — a tomb for a living person.”
Approach Leisure With a Plan, This Helps Us Experience Joy
It is a misconception that leisure is achieved through inactivity. Leisure is about play and play is about movement. In our overstimulated world, we should prepare for relaxation, which will help our mind complete its cycle of seeking and give us the peace of satisfaction.
When we take a break and assume it is time to mindlessly consume or be lethargic we are setting ourselves up for emotional bankruptcy. Leisure is about taking off your business cap(s), but that is not permission to check out. It is an opportunity to do something that makes life worth living.
Nadège is a sex scholar who uses her knowledge to bring warmth to heavy topics.
Get her sex questionnaire here, a thought-work exercise that connects people to their body and mind by exploring their patterns of pleasure.