Ursula K. Le Guin and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on leisure and spare time

by Melissa Mesku

If you are reading these words, you have a bit of spare time.

Especially in her later years, Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018) had a lot of it. But if you’d asked her, she’d tell you she had no spare time at all, none whatsoever. One of the great American novelists, Le Guin was prolific, producing a vast number of works of fantasy, science fiction, short stories, children’s books, poetry, and essays. In December 2017, she published her last nonfiction collection, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. Though most of us may end up waiting until we’re eighty eight years old before we start thinking about what matters, we can cheat a little right now by taking a page from this collection.

In the opening essay, “In Your Spare Time,” Le Guin lampoons a questionnaire from 2011 that was mailed to the Harvard class of 1951. The questionnaire asks alumni, “In your spare time, what do you do?” and provides a list of options including golf, racquet sports, and shopping. Only one item on the list accounts for how she spends her time: “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.).” Whereas golf, racquet sports, and even bridge each appear as separate items on the list, writing – her life’s endeavor – is lumped in with other creative arts. But what’s appalling is how the entire questionnaire presupposes the activities of alumni in their eighties to be relatively fatuous and largely profit-driven. Worse still, the questionnaire is asking about leisure activities that occupy one’s spare time.

Le Guin writes, “The key words are spare time. What do they mean? To a working person … spare time is the time not spent at your job or at otherwise keeping yourself alive…. To people in the midst of life, spare time is free time, and valued as such. But to people in their eighties? What do retired people have but ‘spare’ time?”

But in the next breath, she unpacks that. “I am not exactly retired, because I never had a job to retire from. I still work, though not as hard as I did. I have always been and am proud to consider myself a working woman. But to the Questioners of Harvard my lifework has been a “creative activity,” a hobby, something you do to fill up spare time. Perhaps if they knew I’d made a living out of it they’d move it to a more respectable category, but I rather doubt it.”

She continues:

The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time… I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living. … I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it.

What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare. [Le Guin graduated in 1951, but from Radcliffe (the “sister school” of Harvard, which was all-male at the time.)]


Personally, I’ve never played bridge, or golf, or had much luck with racquet sports, so in most of my spare time, I am free to think about what matters. But thinking is hard. Much of the spare time I have ends up squandered on leisure activities far less satisfying than smashing things with racquets. To me, it’s more than a just shame. Knowing I’ve wasted time is a great source of personal misery.

The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi knows my pain. In his 2008 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics), he discusses the squandering of free time and the attendant reliance on leisure activities. It’s significant, so I’ll shut up and instead quote him at length:

Although… people generally long to leave their places of work and get home, ready to put their hard-earned free time to good use, all too often they have no idea what to do there. Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed. Hobbies that demand skill, habits that set goals and limits, personal interests, and especially inner discipline help to make leisure time what it is supposed to be – a chance for re-creation. But on the whole people miss the opportunity to enjoy leisure even more thoroughly than they do with working time. Over sixty years ago, the great American sociologist Robert Park already noted: “It is in the improvident use of our leisure, I suspect, that the greatest wastes of American life occur.”

The tremendous leisure industry that has arisen in the last few generations has been designed to help fill free time with enjoyable experiences. Nevertheless, instead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow, most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes playing in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we go admire paintings that brought in the highest bids at the latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action.

This vicarious participation is able to mask, at least temporarily, the underlying emptiness of wasted time. But it is a very pale substitute for attention invested in real challenges. The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness. The energy that could be used to focus on complex goals, to provide for enjoyable growth, is squandered on patterns of stimulation that only mimic reality. Mass leisure, mass culture, and even high culture when only attended to passively and for extrinsic reasons—such as the wish to flaunt one’s status—are parasites of the mind. They absorb psychic energy without providing substantive strength in return. They leave us more exhausted, more disheartened then we were before.

Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing. Most jobs and many leisure activities – especially those involving the passive consumption of mass media – are not designed to make us happy and strong. Their purpose is to make money for someone else. If we allow them to, they can suck out the marrow of our lives, leaving only feeble husks. But like everything else, work and leisure can be appropriated for our needs. People who learn to enjoy their work, who do not waste their free time, end up feeling that their lives as a whole have become much more worthwhile.

As for me, I expect that when my turn comes, my alumni questionnaire will ask more of me than which leisure industries I’ve enriched in my lifetime and which games I play in retirement. But I can’t wait that long for the reckoning; the important things can’t wait. My leisure time this Sunday, February 4th, 2018, was spent on sharing these quotes at length. I can say with a clear conscience that it’s been at least as satisfying as smashing things with a racquet, if not more so.

Image credit: Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
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