Are we bad at vacations? The need for deliberate leisure

Photo from my Santorini Trip Circa 2008
Photo from my Santorini Trip Circa 2008

[Note: My Epicurean experiment took place over the winter holiday season. I am just getting to posting it now.]

I’m on vacation over the holiday season for a full two weeks. I told a few friends and co-workers this and they were impressed that I was able to take that much time off. I don’t know what’s so impressive about it. I suppose they think that its rare for someone to not have an important project or work issue that needs their constant attention.

What this says to me is that many people are bad at taking vacation. They are worried they are out of the loop or that their company won’t survive without them.

I think 99.9% of the time that is bullshit, but people convince themselves otherwise and then refuse to take advantage of a full vacation period.

This isn’t a surprise. A ton of articles in the vain of “How to unplug over the holidays” have popped up in Twitter feed. In fact, here’s one article that talks about why it’s good we don’t unplug over the holidays.

There are good reasons to work over the holidays that have nothing to do with insecurity. To be sure, to avoid stress, you have to want to work, and not everyone does. The good news there, though, is that you can work without driving your family or co-workers who’d like to unplug nuts. You just have to be strategic about it

As judgmental as I am about people who won’t “unplug” from their jobs on vacations, I’m finding that I have a different problem while on vacation. I’m not making it pleasurable enough!

Epicurus was somewhat of a loafer. It’s not clear from his Wikipedia page (yes, I know, I conduct extensive research) how he supported himself. It looks like he supported himself solely through his philosophical school in the Garden.

Not a bad way to live. I imagine Epicurus sitting around with a bunch of his friends and followers and having super interesting discussions. Sort of like having a coffee shop in your own home.

I think being a successful loafer required some skill though, because I am loafing about on my vacation but with mixed results.

For example, I recently turned my dad on to the show Homeland and now he’s addicted. We’ve been staying up to 1 or 2 AM watching hours and hours of the show and I end up sleeping in pretty late. I get headaches from all the TV watching, and it is only mildly pleasurable (spending time with family being the pleasurable part).

I like to think that if I had a ton of free time, I would be much happier. If I somehow reached financial independence, I could be an enlightened loafer! I could read, write, exercise, spend time with friends, travel, etc.

And yet, on my vacation, when I am temporarily free of any obligations, I spend 75% of my time browsing the web, eating, or watching the TV. The other 25% is dedicated to things I enjoy doing (reading, writing, socializing with friends, etc.).

Based on my 3-weeks of Epicureanism, my hypothesis is that it’s not that we have too little free time, but rather, we are extremely bad at making use of the free time we do have.

So if we don’t learn to use our evenings and weekends and vacations effectively, there’s no reason to think we’d make good use of infinite free time.

Judaism understood this with their strict rules for Shabbat. During Shabbat, you’re not supposed to do any work, and most of your time is supposed to be spent with friends and family. If you’re doing it right, you won’t even be using things that use electricity (no TV, internet, or phone).

For most people leisure is stupor, and activity frenzy. – Epicurus

What this suggests is that we need to be more deliberate about our leisure time, a term I will call deliberate leisure (maybe this term will become a new thing). Or perhaps mindful hedonism is a better term. I’m not sure.

For the Epicurean, this would require systematically evaluating the merits of an activity to see if it is worthwhile and then if it is, pursue it ruthlessly.

We must put the following question to each of our desires: What will happen to me if the object of my desire is achieved? What will happen if it is not? – Epicurus

Ruthless is not a term you would normally associate with leisure, but I’m becoming more and more convinced that with all these modern “fake” pleasure devices (such as Angry Birds) that we do need to become ruthless about how we incorporate true pleasure into our lives.

In college, for example, it was easy. It’s more than likely you lived near your friends and you had ample free time and you could hang out and have those fun drunken philosophical conversations on a day-to-day basis.

Now, it’s actually a bit of a hassle to get together with friends and have drunken philosophical conversations.

The cool thing about Epicureanism is that the pleasurable activities are accessible to nearly everyone. Good friends, basic foods, some time to think and read and write, these are what make life worth living.

It is senseless to ask the gods for what a man is able to provide for himself. – Epicurus

If we’re not deliberate about our leisure, I think we put ourselves at risk of becoming cynical assholes. If we don’t make time to perform the Epicurean calculus and more importantly, act on it, over time we’ll become more and more jaded about our lives.

The person who has a number of good reasons for making his exit from life is puny indeed. – Epicurus

So even if we’ve done a bad job of this to date (as I have), it’s not too late to become an Epicurean in the original sense of the world.

We must try to make the latter part of the journey better than the first, so long as we are en route; and when we reach the end , we must keep an even keel and remain cheerful. – Epicurus