43. Vanishing Leisure

What has happened to those relaxing and nostalgic days of leisure so brilliantly epitomized in the George and Ira Gershwin song Summertime?1 An aura of laziness and child-like contentment seem to overtake us when listening to this evocative song. We often tend to associate musical phrases with leisure, as well as with memories of another place, time or even a different spiritual state. We tend to connect different popular songs about Easter, Christmas, New Year, the autumn and springtime with a variety of memories. Leisure is thus a state of mind and of being we desire and which can be evoked and stimulated by music even in our increasingly leisure-less age.

Almost three hundred years ago Jonathan Edwards phrased this power of music in a most spiritual fashion: “The best, most beautiful, and most perfect way that we have of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other is by music. When I would form, in my mind, ideas of a society in the highest degree happy, I think of them as expressing their love, their joy, and the inward concord, and harmony and spiritual beauty of their souls, by sweetly singing to each other.”2

Leisure is a time free from engagement, yet nearly everyone I know is struggling with the frantic pace of contemporary life and racing to keep up with it! They are in a rush to get more money, to gain recognition, to find a better job, to exercise power and influence, “to survive”, as well as to help others, and even to find love online. These days there is almost no social leisure time left for eating a meal. Even friendship is becoming increasingly challenging in the age of electronic communication. And who now has time for hobbies like sewing, stamp collecting, doodling or even writing letters by hand?

The demands of capitalist economics for efficiency, speed and competition have driven us to adopt different life-styles with less time left for leisure. Work for those in employment is increasingly infringing on what used to be free-time. This is not happening without protest: The French have been trying to reduce tensions by examining different ways to prevent corporations from contacting their employees via emails, texting, and phone calls after working hours. There are discussions how a corporation could block communications from 11pm to 9am, while another company might refrain from asking responses to emails between 8pm and 8am. In Germany, Volkswagen has tried ending all email communications at the end of the work day. Some pleas for a calmer, uninterrupted home life are getting through.

The “working day” also has become increasingly longer (by some two hours) in the United States for those holding university degrees and proportionately shorter for those who dropped out of school. According to the American Time Survey (2013) men in the US also enjoy, on average, at least one hour more leisure time per week than women. (At least this is a statistic which gives employment and some amusement to those conducting such surveys!)

What has led to this state of affairs where many of us do not even get enough hours of sleep? The electronic technological advances in the 20th century like the computer, mobiles and the Internet have radically altered our pace of life. Half the population seems to be talking on their mobiles as they walk. But the new forms of communication have altered what used to be direct and slower human contact into instantaneous electronic ones. Absent from this are touch, smell and the crucial eye-to-eye contact which reveal so much.

Much of our energies are now taken up by emails, watching films, playing video games, pornography, getting the latest news or sport results, obtaining information from different sources like Wikipedia or searching for internet shopping bargains. Should all of these screen activities taking up so much time be considered as leisure? They certainly could not be categorized as ‘work.’

Leisure implies a state of being free of anxiety, pressure or mental struggles. Anxiety is now manifest in millions of sufferers of insecurity of all kinds: economic, social, sexual and material. In our era of extraordinary and unprecedented social change, anxiety is no longer an unusual human reaction. Much of this is evidenced by the enormous increase in the intake of medicated pills, sedatives, anti-depressants as well as placebos! (Marijuana and alcohol have long been used to lower anxieties so I shall not include these here.) Perhaps it is the lack of leisure which has led Scott Stossel, 44, the editor of The Atlantic magazine, to write My Age of Anxiety in which he describes three decades of therapy for his endless struggle with it. The impressive sales of the book show how many people identify with this problem. Music could help by setting aside the inner conflicts he described. It can serve to lower such anxieties by putting us in a different state of mind. Leisure also is a way into which music can transport us to escape reality.

The time available for leisure has varied from one age and one society to the next: anthropologists speculate that hunter-gatherers had considerably more leisure time than agriculturists. Two millennia ago, the great orator, Cicero, remarked that a patrician Roman compatriot “was never less at leisure than when he was at leisure.”3 Much the same can be said about many contemporary billionaires, some of whom feel compelled to strive endlessly without realizing their compulsion. Today’s rich tend to work longer hours than the poor (who may only find part-time jobs and tend to spend much of their leisure time watching television.)4

The American economist Thorsten Veblen contended in 1899 that leisure was a “badge of honor” worn by the wealthy while the poor who made such leisure possible did their dirty work. Today, in marked contrast, “work” in the advanced economies has become knowledge-intensive and brain challenging in many areas. Those working at their computers can experience the kind of satisfaction that the rich used to seek in their leisure time. As The Economist pointed out: “leisure is no longer a sign of power. Instead it symbolizes uselessness and unemployment.”5 The fact is that work and leisure have become intertwined. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild of the University of California, Berkeley found in her research that as work in the office has become intellectually challenging, people start to enjoy it more than life at home. Some “escape” to the office to “relax” away from the dull, repetitive day-to-day chores

Alas, none of us in our youth received training on how to use our leisure time. And yet, “to be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization,” declared the philosopher Bertrand Russell.6 Are we failing this test?

The most positive and impressive change in our ability to pursue leisure has been in the way music is now available to us at will. In its capacity to relax us, music has become a basis for our greater enjoyment of leisure. Never before in history has such a variety of superbly performed music been so readily available to so many on an around-the-clock basis. Its wondrous power lies in the ways in which it relaxes our highly complex mental faculties. Music is the most penetrating and beneficial of all the arts and yet how pathetically little of it is studied in our years at school. This must change if we want to enhance our enjoyment of leisure. Oscar Wilde declared in one of his greatest lectures: “Music is the art in which form and matter are always one, the art whose subject cannot be separated from the method of its expression, the art which most completely realizes the artistic ideal, and is the condition to which all the other arts are constantly aspiring.”7

Indeed, for those complaining about the pressures they feel from the high speed of daily life, I endorse music as one way to escape and enjoy leisure again.


1George and Ira Gershwin, from Porgy and Bess (1935)
2Jonathan Edwards, Miscellaneous Observations on Important Theological Subjects. (1747)
3Cicero, de officio III
4“Free exchange,” The Economist, April 19, 2014, p.75 (also: economist.com/blogs/freeexchange)
5op.cit. p.75
6Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (1930)
7Oscar Wilde, lecture in New York, January 9, 1882