People Tend to Accidentally Waste Their Precious Time Off From Work

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Photo: Tom Kelley Archive/Getty Images

Throughout the book Flow, a modern classic in the popular psychology canon, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlines his theory on how to Live Your Best Life, based on his life’s work of research on — and the title may have tipped you off here — flow, that immersive state during which you lose all track of time. What I was not expecting, upon recently reading this for the first time, was the considerable portion of the book he spends arguing that Americans “waste” their leisure time, a claim that seems worth examining on the cusp of a long weekend.

To Csikszentmihalyi, flow is the secret key to enjoyment, but the activities that most people are attracted to in their precious time off from work are not likely to produce that state of mind. For the uninitiated, flow consists of periods of deep concentration, which require the use and honing of skills — which, in turn, produce a sense of control and satisfaction. It’s a state of mind that does not typically arise from the sorts of things many people drift toward during their time off from work; in particular, he means passive activities like watching TV or movies. He writes:

Many people feel that the time they spend at work is essentially wasted — they are alienated from it, and the psychic energy invested in the job does nothing to strengthen their self. For quite a few people free time is also wasted. Leisure provides a relaxing respite from work, but it generally consists of passively absorbing information, without using any skills or exploring new opportunities for action. As a result life passes in a sequence of boring and anxious experiences over which a person has little control.

Counterpoint: The only time I will give up my reruns of The Office is when the friend who probably doesn’t remember giving me his Netflix password finally changes that password. And yet even I can agree that this probably is an activity best enjoyed in moderation; besides, it’s not like the alternative Csikszentmihalyi proposes is too painful. According to his research, people “were happiest when they were just talking to one another, when they gardened, knitted, or were involved in a hobby; all of these activities require few material resources, but they demand a relatively high investment of psychic energy.” So noted; now, go forth and squeeze every last drop of fun possible out of your weekend.