I envy those favored souls for whom equanimity comes easily. It’s never been easy for me to be at ease, to take life lightly and let events hang loose, like a spacious bathrobe or ample pajamas. I suffer the Type A personality’s particular curse. I long for rest but am so unaccustomed to leisure’s rhythms that I chafe under its paradoxical rigors. A classic vicious cycle often ensues. The more I strive to relax, the more sensitized I become to my lack of relaxation, and the harder it becomes to de-stress. It’s difficult to exorcise the specter of low-grade anxiety, especially when it has no particular motivation. The distressing result is that I’ve wasted whole days attempting to loaf—and, at the end, I feel less well-rested than when I began. By contrast, some people I’ve met enjoy the enviable blessing of being preternaturally equable under almost any circumstance. Some people seem to be natural geniuses at relaxing and using their leisure time wisely. Such talents are at least partially a gift, a function of winning the genetic lottery—scientific research suggests that anxiety is highly heritable.
But the flaneur’s seeming languor, it turns out, belies a hidden art (as I imagine Thoreau noted in Walden somewhere). It is a species of wuwei, the Daoist skill of doing without doing. Left to their own devices, our minds are endlessly resourceful, exacting taskmasters more than capable of inventing an array of petty errands. Minor concerns multiply unaccountably and devour our hours. Major, wholly legitimate concerns—poverty, inequality, war and violence worldwide—plague us, despite the likelihood that we as individuals are unable to do much about them on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes it feels as though there is a law of universal conservation of anxiety.
The superego is a master distractor, eminently skillful at redirecting our psychic energies, refracting major existential quandaries into a thousand smaller worries or vice versa. It even tricks us into forgetting lessons we’ve already learned. Through some mysterious alchemy of memory, it seduces us into believing that leisure activities like watching television, playing or swiping on smartphone apps, or surfing social media will bring us the sense of expansion and release which we seek, even though I generally feel more depleted after binging on Netflix or scrolling through Twitter or Facebook than I did initially. I can’t count the number of times I’ve resolved to myself that I’ll have a quiet night in relaxing with a good book, only to find that I’ve frittered away my time watching insipid shows while desultorily swiping on Tinder, casting banal messages into the ether in the slim hopes of finding somebody worthwhile.
The often-shrewd Freud knew a great deal about the invisible libidinal economy which redistributes our mental, sexual, physical, and emotional energies in such maladaptive ways. He would comment (likely rightly) that such self-depriving behavior is the manifestation of a secret masochistic wish, perhaps even a self-inflicted punishment for my inability to attain genuine peace of mind. Or he might suggest that it is a psychic manifestation of political misgivings, an expression of the mauvaise foi that I feel at being the lucky recipient of a leisurely existence when so many are deprived of leisure time. By this line of reasoning, my inability to cast off my anxieties and relax fully is a register of my liberal guilt, a quixotic expression of solidarity with the billions of people who toil ceaselessly to survive and for whom true leisure is a beautiful, unattainable dream.
Although I think there’s a great deal of truth to such a psychic analysis, individualizing my inability to attain a genuinely leisurely state of being misses the bigger picture. The difficulty we have immersing ourselves in leisure is largely by design, the product of Big Tech’s sordid capitalist manipulations. Such an accusation isn’t paranoid speculation. Silicon Valley engineers and executives have openly admitted to creating apps and activities which are intentionally addictive and which colonize our free time. And with good reason: as Jenny Odell incisively notes in How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy and Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, in a world where personal data is big business and consumerism runs amok, time and attention are money. And as the psychologists Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir illustrate abundantly in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, scarcity motivates us to make bad decisions which we wouldn’t have made if we had the gift of tranquility to consider our options. The bad decisions we make under pressure and stress, not coincidentally, generally benefit corporations which profit immensely from our ill-considered consumerist impulses and the data which we generate as we interact with their apps and streaming services. Under capitalism, leisure—even the etiolated simulacrum on offer online—is big business.
The experience of living with constantly divided attention, a consistently split mind, seems to be uniquely modern. Kierkegaard, Emerson, Nietzsche, and other earlier observers of modernity complained about the hubbub and unsatisfying churn of modern life in the 1800s. This overwhelming saturation of busyness only worsened in the centuries that followed. Among the traits characteristic of the 20th and 21st centuries is the feeling of being buffeted by a million headwinds, immersed in a tourbillion of competing claims on our attention, without enough time (objectively or subjectively) to attend adequately to everything.
Despite the unsatisfactory nature of this situation, many of us have become accustomed to it. In 1928, John Maynard Keynes wrote in “The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” that “there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.” He added that the rich of his day—the pioneers of the utopian future, freed from economic necessity and beneficiaries of all their society had to offer educationally—were largely failing to enjoy their leisure time well. Some even suffered nervous breakdowns as a response to the sense of feeling trapped by leisure, unable to imagine a gratifying, expansive mode of being. We see a similar kind of quiet hysteria portrayed today in popular TV shows about the rich like Elite, White Lotus, or The Fall of the House of Usher. Although leisure appears to be the easiest thing of all, it poses a challenge. It is “[our] real, [our] permanent problem,” an open question which opens up an existential abyss.
Moreover, there is a lag to our habits and societal practices, a hysteresis which impedes us from adjusting in real time to the new situation we face. Keynes noted that “the strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.” Keynes did anticipate that those assiduous money-makers wouldn’t shed their strenuous commitment to enrichment overnight—as he observed, “there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth—unless they can find some plausible substitute.” But, as a patrician who had an excessive amount of faith in the decency of political and economic elites, Keynes didn’t foresee that the “freedom from pressing economic cares” which technological progress and accelerating productivity has garnered us would be squandered, hijacked by the rich who control the commanding heights of the economy to amass unimaginable fortunes. Workers work more hours on average today than in 1930, and economic inequality is the worst it’s ever been in the US and much of the Western world. Workweek reduction, wealth redistribution, and a leisurely existence for all feel further away than ever.
Liberals periodically pen analyses like this 2014 New Yorker piece asking “Where did Keynes go wrong?” with apparent bewilderment. In their attempts to develop an answer, they assign cultural factors pride of place, mentioning capitalism and its deformation of our political economy merely in passing. But what the trajectory of our economy illustrates is that who controls the means of production is central, not an afterthought: it determines which technologies are developed and to which uses they are put. Rather than being greeted as a liberatory technology marking a decisive break with labor as we’ve known it, AI is widely reviled and feared—with good reason. Besides the invariable ethical and self-preservation-related concerns which arise from the prospect of giving AI free rein, many workers, living in a state of precarity already, fear that AI will deprive them of jobs even as employment will remain essential to life. If the fundamental bargain of capitalism remains the same—capitalists exploit workers’ labor in exchange for a wage which permits the laborer to survive—then AI will be an instrument for mass immiseration. Under a different dispensation where we severed the connection between labor and the ability to live comfortably—for example, via a universal basic income, an idea which historically has enjoyed support across the political spectrum—technological advancement wouldn’t be cause for consternation. Given the present state of politics, it makes sense that the techno-optimism of the late 1800s and early 1900s has fallen out of fashion.
Why should we care about a reasonably small, privileged slice of humanity’s difficulty in attaining a leisurely existence when we live in an era of global warming, political sclerosis, and mass precarity? Admittedly, this is a First World problem par excellence. As a species, we surely confront many more pressing concerns. But there is a reason that Judaism places such emphasis on Shabbat. The sabbath day is a prefiguration of utopia, a taste of the future which we strive to achieve which is simultaneously an aftertaste of the original Creation. It is a reminder of the ultimate end of life, which consists not in doing, creating, or destroying but simply in the enjoyment of being.
The capacity to appreciate the present moment fully—to be totally present, sans the omnipresent sense of distraction and mental division which characterizes so much of modern life—is perhaps where eternity is to be found. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, proposition 6.4311, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that, “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” Being in contact with the substrate of reality, attaining a spirit of peace and radiant calm, however temporarily, affects how we interact with the world around us. It is a basic political motivator which impels us to affirm our fundamental communion with the community of all living beings. As Oscar Wilde rightly wrote more than a century ago in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.” We may be unable to permanently transcend distraction and the divided mind. They appear to be ineradicable elements of our subjectivity, particularly under modern conditions. Yet the quest for individual equanimity and collective leisure is far from futile—indeed, it may be what liberates us, in the end, from today’s civilizational malaise.
 All subsequent quotes from Keynes in this piece are taken from “The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.”