By SUSAN SWANSON
In America, where the business of busyness abounds, I value leisure time. A quiet moment spent walking outside, eyes tracing lacy shadow leaves on the ground as sunshine seeps into my skin. A rainy afternoon cuddled on the couch, tucked into cozy quilts, binging a Netflix show. Practicing yoga, deeply breathing in and out, the flicker of a candle and the music of rushing water and flutes in the background. An evening on the porch swing with a glass of red wine and conversation with my husband. Sometimes I feel like some weird, counter-culture alien for hoarding this time for myself. I have carefully crafted my life so that it is redolent with it, and I am happier for it. However, leisure is virtually non-existent for the average American.
We brandish our busyness like badges of honor—we add to it, enhance it, polish it until it shines brighter than anyone else’s. We are proud to boast about tasks we have accomplished, often at the expense of our own peace of mind and health. The urge to brag/complain about our busyness flourishes in our society. According to studies conducted by Silvia Bellezza of Columbia Business School, Georgetown’s Neeru Paharia and Harvard’s Anat Keinan, “the busy person is perceived as high status, and interestingly, these status attributions are heavily influenced by our own beliefs about social mobility. In other words, the more we believe that one has the opportunity for success based on hard work, the more we tend to think that people who skip leisure and work all the time are of higher standing.”
Our lives have become so overwhelming and stressful that we have become the expense of our own success. Our health suffers, with no time to be active, visit the doctor, or eat well. Our minds suffer—we have no “downtime,” so our brains are constantly in flux, transitioning between thoughts, ideas, plans, schedules, lists, and that causes lack of sleep and difficulty fully engaging in meaningful conversations. And consequently, our relationships suffer, as we are often not present, and irritable or moody when we are around.
We are busy for many reasons—our society and culture, as Americans, dictates we must be, for one. There is little time during the week for chores, as we work long hours and often have obligations after work, so we run errands like going to the grocery on the weekend, along with chores like mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, not to mention other familial and social obligations. In many European cities, though, where leisure is valued above all else (Italy basically closes down work-wise in the summer months) Bellezza points out that stores are closed on weekends, so one is forced to do leisurely activities like go out of town on holiday for the weekend and run errands during the week. Other reasons for our hectic American schedules differ. For some, it is out of intention (I want to be busy—I like having lots to do); others, necessity (I have to be busy—I have a job, go to school, have a family, social life, hobbies, etc.); and the most unfortunate reason, out of habit (I should be busy because if not, I’m not good enough). Have you ever unexpectedly had a day to yourself—maybe it rained, or you finished things early, or someone canceled plans with you—and found yourself feeling guilty for doing something leisurely like reading a book, watching a movie, or going for a bike ride? Were you able to actually be in the present moment, relax, and relish the idle hours? Or did your mind keep making lists, reminding you of upcoming due dates or plans, and nagging at you to get up and do something productive?
“Leisure” tends to have a negative connotation to some. In a country where everyone is busy, it seems selfish to refuse an extra bit of work, chore, or errand in lieu of an hour spent on “me” time. I have been judged for my insistence on my leisure time. Society implies that this equals laziness, and that I should try harder, be better, and do more than the person next to me, or I will be left behind, passed over, and I will certainly not succeed. In a world where one relishes leisure, but is still striving to be a successful employee, earn promotions, and be thought well-of in general, what does one do? Since busyness is how we compare ourselves to one another to determine success, my life might be perceived by some as unsuccessful, lazy, or lacking. Yet Americans suffer from higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, obesity, and disease than ever before, and you won’t convince me that that isn’t caused in part by the crazy schedules we keep.
How do we break free of this mindset, when American society underlines it in their notes on a daily basis? My only humble suggestion is to do what you think is best for you and to create those moments for yourself regularly. I organized my “busy” life, blocking out time for work, chores, errands, activities, but also, “me” time. Sometimes a 10-minute walk outside the confines of my office building helps. Others might manage to leave work early or arrange for the kids to have a playdate so they can stop at the park, get ice cream, or go for a jog. Once you get really good at this, you might plan a whole day or weekend for leisure—regularly. The point, I think, is to let your mind and body relax in whatever ways work best for you—social or solitary, active or sedentary. I warn you, you might be judged for doing less. But you might be happier, healthier, and better at the things you do, too.
Susan Swanson is an Associate Professor of English at Owensboro Community and Technical College in Owensboro, KY. She spends her time dabbling in various pursuits, from cooking to yoga to wine, and learning how to manage her curly hair (this takes more time than one might think). She believes in the sustainability of the planet as well as the self, and being conscious of those areas where we can improve in order to live healthier and happier lives.