Elusive Happiness and the Lure of Passive Leisure

We are living in a stressful time.  Maybe it only seems so due to 24-hour news cycles and giving opportunity for anyone’s voice to be heard around the world without any editing or gatekeeping—mine included! My anecdotal observation of the impact on our daily lives is that we rely more and more on passive leisure. Passive leisure requires little psychic energy (attention, not crystal balls) to order thoughts, overcome challenges in understanding, and thus further developing skills or understanding about something of importance. How often by the end of the day do you feel like you need to just “shut down” or maybe continue to operate in “safe mode”? While passive leisure does have a place in our daily/weekly routines, a pattern of mundane work and passive leisure does not result in Happiness (with a capital “H”—overall happiness and feelings of living a fulfilling life, not just a moment pleasure).

Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi has conducted considerable research on how people felt when they most enjoyed themselves and were pursuing careers in which they spent their time doing activities that they preferred (musicians, athletes, chess masters, artists, surgeons, etc.). These were individuals who were fortunate enough to find what they loved doing and turn that into a career. From this research, Csikszenthmihalyi’s developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of Flow.

Flow is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it. Flow occurs when doing activities that require the psychic energy avoided and absent from passive leisure—great concentration and effort to overcome challenges to develop new skills and understanding. Most of us are not fortunate enough to made careers out of activities that produce flow, but according to the research, those who’s leisure activities result in flow do have more times of enjoyment and more Happiness. These leisure activities can of course be frustrating and in the moment not pleasurable. For me this is music—playing, singing, and writing it. I’m not very good at it, but I can always get better. And when I do, it does brings pleasure and during those times I am Happy.

In learning theory and pedagogy we call this engagement, but it’s the same thing as flow. When learners are totally engaged, they are using the same psychic energy as those associated with the concept of flow. While it can be frustrating and difficult, it can ultimately lead to an overall sense of Happiness and juxtaposition to apathy. If you teach (especially teenagers) you know what apathy can look like. You also know what total engagement in learning looks like too, I hope.

It could be that an increase in apathy connects to an increase in passive leisure as a result of feeling like life is just too damn hard and stressful. According to Csikszenthmihalyi (1997), “if you fill your leisure time with passive leisure you won’t find much enjoyment, but you will also avoid getting in over your head. Apparently this is a bargain that many find worth making” (p. 68). Could it be that the lure of passive entertainment is the result of living in such a stressful world where daily existence, survival, and work overwhelms us so that we don’t have the energy left to participate in leisure that results in flow, leading to overall Happiness?

This creates a positive feedback loop in which work (or school) does not produce opportunity for Happiness as there is no flow involved, just mundane task completion which does not stimulate creativity and flow, but leaves us feeling exhausted anyway, so we retreat to passive leisure. This of course further depresses our psychic energy for concentration, contemplation and creativity (thus reducing flow and opportunity for Happiness), and so increased inertia against doing anything but go to work or school and come home to collapse again and veg.

At this same time in our society, where work (or school) is divorced from flow for many or most individuals, we have “professionalized” the arts, crafts, and athletics to such a degree that us normal people relegate ourselves to the role of spectator because we cannot possibly complete with that level of artistry, craft, or athleticism. Those activities, once the leisure of many that provided times of flow are now experienced only as passive leisure.

Many of these types of activities are defined, according to Csikszenthmihalyi (1997) as “Folk art—the songs, the fabrics, the pottery and carvings that gave each culture its particular identity and renown—is the result of common people striving to express their best skill in the time left free from work and maintenance chores” (p. 75). The loss of which in our modern culture very well might be problematic moving forward as “It is difficult to imagine how dull the world would be if our ancestors had used free time simply for passive entertainment, instead of finding in it an opportunity to explore beauty and knowledge” (p. 75).

Modern society has evolved to devalue these folk arts and instead put all value in work that is work for the sake of earning money. This contrasts a time when the work that one did was a craft that also generated Happiness because it was an activity that resulted in flow. This was also a time where school did not exist as the prime means of teaching individuals the skills necessary to participate in society productively (i.e. get a job). Trade skills were passed down from parent to child or apprentice to mentee. Of course, this also limited a person’s options to a specific caste or role in society, so I’m not suggesting a return to that model of education and job training. However, what was produced by one’s labor was tangible and for many required creativity, concentration, development of skills and knowledge and so was even often “artistic.” Now we have the reality that many people don’t use this kind of psychic energy in their work lives.

If one can find leisure activities (often folk art, crafts, or trades) to do outside of work they have potential for sustained Happiness. Therefore, they can view and accept the mundanity of work, be it adding one component to a tractor on an assembly line or doing whatever it is people do on Wall Street to earn gobs of money, as a means to allow for the leisure that contains flow. They become, in a sense, their own “patron” for the arts/athletics/activities.

How does this relate to what we do in the educating and raising of our children? If we view school as the “work” of children, which is a common view, then might we be condemning or preparing them for a life of mundane work and passive leisure. This may be the beginning of that positive feedback look that leads to inertia preventing Happiness. I’m not saying that school/learning should be only entertaining and fun. That is passive entertainment and has the same impact on Happiness as it lacks flow/engagement. I’m saying that school curriculum needs to be designed so that students are required to use the psychic energy that results in flow: creativity, concentration, etc. This kind of activity would be then pushing students just to the upper edge of what Lev Vygotsky describes as their Zone of Proximal Development—their upper limits of their developmentally appropriate cognitive/skill functioning—thus resulting in growth. Of course all teachers reading this are responding, “But this is what I do everyday in my classroom.” If this was the case, then we wouldn’t be seeing so many students disengaged and apathetic.

Children need to be learning about things that are meaningful to them and using the psychic energy related to flow. These might be traditional skills of the “folk arts,” but also could be new skills/tangible results (which might be considered folk arts in the next century). Using psychic energy to learn math and reading decoding skills absent of context does not produce flow and engagement. They must be used for purpose of tangible results that matter to the learner now, not for an abstract future. Otherwise it is just work to be endured and possibly then exhausts the child leaving them feeling too overwhelmed to overcome the lure of passive leisure entertainment when done with school (their work) for the day.

Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books. New York

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