Saturday, August 18, 2012

Leisure time

How do you use your leisure time?

Almost everybody has at least a few hours each week of discretionary time, i.e., time in which the person can choose what to do. A person required to work 100 hours per week probably has little if any discretionary time, needing to spend the other 68 hours sleeping, eating, bathing, traveling, etc. Similarly, an unpaid caregiver responsible for multiple people may find her or himself working 100 or more hours week after week. However, very few people actually have mandatory 100-hour workweeks.

Three principles are especially important:

1.    Individuals accept responsibility for correctly identifying their discretionary time, defined as time not required for self-care, relationship maintenance, or mandatory responsibilities (including work). This means spending sufficient time eating, sleeping, exercising, personal hygiene, and other essential self-care activities and fulfilling appropriate obligations to family, friends, and community.

2.    Individuals flexibly balance self-care, relationships, and other mandatory responsibilities.

3.    Individuals honestly and accurately identify the difference between wants, needs, and obligations. A person may want to work 10 hours per week, need to work at least 30 hours per week to be financially self-sufficient, and obligated to work 50 hours per week by employment contract.

How much discretionary time do you have in an average week after allowing for a reasonable standard of self-care, healthy relationships, and fulfilling mandatory responsibilities? How much of that actually becomes leisure time and how much is frittered away through time-wasting behaviors (e.g., uncreative procrastination or unimportant busy work), excessive but unproductive or unrewarded effort on the job, or activities that leave one tired, unfulfilled, or unhappy?

Recreational shopping, especially at a shopping mall, has become a favorite pastime for many in the West. Recreational shopping means purchasing goods or services that do not increase one’s quality of life in proportion to their cost. The true cost of recreational shopping is greater than simply the money spent, which one could have spent on something else. Alternatively, earning the money requires time, representing an opportunity cost: one could have done something else with that time other than use it to earn money. In either case, shopping requires time, again representing an opportunity cost, as one could have used that time in another way.

Other favorite ways for using discretionary time include watching events (sporting, cultural, etc., especially on TV – an average of 20 hours or more per week), travel (e.g., cruises, tours, ski trips), gambling (whether in a casino, playing Bingo, or buying lottery tickets), and dining out (often five or more times per week). As with recreational shopping, all of these activities entail direct costs (usually financial and always time) as well as indirect costs (lost opportunities).

Discretionary time once belonged almost exclusively to the wealthy, leisured class. Visiting eighteenth and nineteenth century country estates in the United Kingdom and France, I was surprised at the number of families whose finances had floundered because heirs, not needing gainful employment, indeed expected to avoid gainful employment, adopted profligate, unsustainable lifestyles.

Most people in developed countries can now have discretionary time, especially if they analyze and use their time according to the three principles outlined above. Simply spending more hours on the job is unlikely to increase earnings or future financial prospects significantly. The term “workaholic” describes the person who uses work as an excuse to avoid non-work related responsibilities. Concurrently, affordable modern appliances and conveniences have dramatically reduced the time required for routine self-care and household chores while substantially improving quality of life. Yet my sense is that people often are busier than ever, enjoying life less, feeling they have no discretionary time.

Unfortunately, the Bible and scriptures from other religions say little explicitly about the use of discretionary time. This lack is unsurprising; the scriptures were written before discretionary time became widely available. For example, the idea of most people being able to retire from paid work to enjoy life is relatively recent. Until the last century, most people had to work until death or disability, dependent on the generosity of family or, if very fortunate, their local community in the absence of a paycheck. Increases in productivity and longevity have both contributed to increases in discretionary time.

These principles might guide one’s use of discretionary time.

1.    Discretionary time should in some broadly inclusive manner benefit self or others. The benefit to self or others may include renewal, self or community improvement, rest, relaxation, enjoyment, etc. The benefit must exceed one’s basic requirements, as meeting essential care and responsibilities are not part of discretionary time. Non-beneficial discretionary time wastes one’s most precious resource, time itself.

2.    Life is more about relationships than toys (i.e., possessions). Hence, spending discretionary time nurturing healthy positive relationships with self, others, and the world is mutually beneficial. Bigger and more do not necessarily connote better.

3.    Human flourishing, the good or abundant life, entails balance. In achieving that balance, one cares for the whole self, one’s particular community, and the global community.

4.    Leisure time is a subset of discretionary time, earmarked for relaxation and renewal. Playing video games as a leisure activity may benefit one in a variety of ways. But how much video gaming (or any other activity) is truly beneficial? At what point does the law of diminishing returns begin to apply (the more one engages in an activity, the lower the rate of return)?

5.    In determining the cost of leisure activities, include the opportunity cost of money and time. Is time now spent video gaming (watching TV, napping, gardening, learning to fly, etc.) better allocated to a non-leisure activity or a different leisure activity? Leisure should promote human flourishing, not consumption.

6.    Discretionary time, especially leisure time, should enhance one’s spirit, i.e., nurture self-awareness, linguistic capacity, love for and from others, aesthetic appreciation, creativity, and intentionality. How does each of my discretionary activities enhance one or more of those six dimensions of the human spirit?

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