Why Can’t Americans Enjoy Life?

Washingtons-Garden-300x197 Why Can’t Americans Enjoy Life?

George Washington strolling in a garden with family and friends.

Modern American society promises to make life so much easier. No longer do most people have to labor long and hard to make ends meet. Americans should have plenty of time to enjoy their leisure.

But many don’t take this time. They have a problem with leisure. According to a report commissioned by Project: Time Off, the average American takes less than 17 days of vacation per year. Some 54 percent don’t even take these days off. They are working 662 million more days than they are required. Nearly a third of these days (206 million) cannot be cashed out and are therefore forfeited, which means people are working for free.

A World of Work that Absorbs Everything

The situation becomes worse when considering that two-thirds of those who do go on vacation take work with them. Others keep up with or are expected to know what is happening at work by checking online. Bosses often feel free to call vacationing employees to resolve problems. People are cyber-tethered to their jobs.

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The resulting paradox is that with all the labor-saving devices employed everywhere, people should be working less, not more. However, modernity has delivered one of the hardest work schedules known in history. People are on call 24/7. Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper once wrote that “the world of work is becoming our entire world” that threatens to “engulf us completely.”

As a result, people experience high levels of stress and anxiety. It suggests that people do not understand or know how to enjoy leisure.

What Is Leisure?

The solution to the problem is a Catholic understanding of leisure. Most people today see it as a time of rest, fun or idleness. It can represent a respite between periods of work or an escape from the hectic schedules that rule people’s lives.

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However, leisure is something much more profound. In his famous book, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Pieper defines it as a celebration of the end of a period of work that allows the “inner eye to dwell for a while upon the reality of Creation.” It is an activity full of reflection, repose and poetry favoring the development of the arts and the worship of God.

The Rise of Mechanized Recreation

One of the great tragedies of the Industrial Revolution was its destruction of leisure. It created in its stead mechanized and standardized recreation. The gawking tourist was born in which the person valued how many things were seen in a given amount of time. Pastimes became dominated by speed, noise and lack of reflection. Such a materialistic perspective reduces the joys of life to eating, drinking, and consuming.

Such activities may satisfy the material needs of people in unimaginable ways. The world is full of casinos, amusement parks and cruise ships. However, they fail to address urgent spiritual desires that seek after the good, true and beautiful, and ultimately, God. They cause immense frustration and sadness since this frenzied vision of life cannot satisfy the search for meaning demanded by human nature. Thus, postmodern man is left adrift without focus or purpose, always in search of the next great sensation, entertainment or fad.

Leisure of Times Past

Someone might object that people today are still better off than those in times past. Materially speaking, this is undoubtedly true.

Whatever one might think about pre-modern times, people back then had much more leisure. They worked extremely hard, but they also practiced leisure with great intensity. The distinctions between work and leisure were clearly marked. Leisure was focused above all on spiritual things.



The medieval calendar, for example, was filled with holy days and seasonal work schedules that allowed ample time—often as much as half the year—for leisure, celebration, and worship that foster the whole development of man. Boston College professor Juliet B. Schor reports average work years of 120 days for medieval peasants, 175 days for servile laborers, and 180 days for farmer-miners. The rich folklore of times past is full of poetry, music and distinctive clothing. It testifies to an intense cultural life cultivated in the leisure of the common people.

Partying and the Festival

To compare leisure present and past, consider modern partying and the festival. These two celebrations reflect two different mentalities.

Partying involves a collection of individuals that need not have a close relationship. It need not focus on a particular event or accomplishment. People are attracted to partying since it addresses man’s instinct of sociability in a world of lonely individualism.

However, partying often has a note of overindulgence and superficiality. Far from quelling the anxieties of souls, it is often only a brief escape from them.

Partying represents what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls “a meeting place for individual wills, each with its own set of attitudes and preferences and who understand that world solely as an arena for the achievement of their own satisfaction, who interpret reality as a series of opportunities for their enjoyment.”

Thus, partying does not resolve what Robert Nisbet refers to as the person’s unquenchable quest for community.

The Festival, Source of Unity and Joy

The festival is different. It is a celebration focused on a significant event or feast day. It is the joyful commemoration that serves as an occasion to unite people who share a worldview and forge them into a community. The festival is full of merriment yet restraint. It is structured yet spontaneous. Pieper says the festival takes the person out of the everyday world and affirms “the basic meaningfulness of the universe and a sense of oneness with it, of inclusion within it.”

The festival invites people to transcend the workaday world and satisfy the spiritual longings that are so much a part of human nature. Quoting Karl Kerenyi, Pieper claims that the festival represents “the union of tranquility, contemplation, and intensity of life.” It is not by coincidence that festivals often had a religious significance since a search for the meaningfulness of Creation will always lead to God its Creator. This celebration often finds its highest expression in Catholic liturgy.

That is why feasts and festivals abounded in medieval times. In fact, many refer to the Middle Ages as the “golden age of feasts” since one naturally imagines grand feasts in this context. Such events were full of pageantry, poetry and splendor and involved significant numbers of people from all social levels. True to their Christian roots, public feasts often included the poor and needy … served by Christian kings.

A Need for True Leisure

What is missing in today’s society is true leisure. People need to take the time to stop and contemplate together “the meaningfulness of the universe.” There needs to be a willingness to transcend beyond self to consider how to restore the lost unity that is tearing the nation apart.

People are so self-absorbed with the world of work and pleasure that they don’t know how to take a vacation, celebrate life’s meaning or return to God. Until an awakening to leisure happens, the division and polarization will only become worse as personal interests proliferate.

There are many problems facing the nation. There are calls for more jobs, better education and improved healthcare. All these things are important. However, true leisure is especially needed if the nation is to survive and return to God. The noise of today’s party economy needs to stop. People must take the leisure to find ways to celebrate joyfully together what it means to be an American in these troubled times.

  • Suellen Ann Brewster

    It would be hard to over emphasize how important this idea of lost leisure is. It’s as if the Nazi’s won after all with “work makes free” alternated with various forms of materialistic hedonistic “entertainment”. Truth, beauty and goodness will win in the end, and in the meantime we pray and live our counter cultural lives.

  • Suellen Ann Brewster

    Failed to mention how excellent this article is. Thank you!

  • DGK

    In my professional world, one is supposed to work and work and work and work so that one can get the promotion(s) and money and be happy. If a person at work is not working at the 200% level or higher, he/she is deemed less than worthy and is ostracized.

    • Lisa LV Wilkinson

      Lord Jesus save Your people and bless and Favor Your holy parents with tiny children wanting to provide and spend time knowing Your children God.

  • anAmericanByChoice

    Leisure, is a time for contemplating. We mostly have forgotten what contemplation means. We must be “wired” (literally and figuratively speaking) all the time, because time is money and cannot be wasted. The world is a mess because human beings mostly have forgotten the simple art of contemplation: listening to God. We are lost in the noise and can no longer commune with Him, Nature and Higher Laws.

    • Lisa LV Wilkinson

      Let us love in Your Higher Laws Father God Alleluia.

    • GodnCountry

      You are correct. I have a hard time sitting still and doing nothing. Right now I’m cooking and reading to fill the gaps of time. We can’t seem to handle silence anymore.

  • Pamela Rich

    I think it depends on what one considers to be leisure—there are days when reading a few chapters of a book is leisure, planting a few plants and working in the garden is leisure, playing a few hands of cards with a family member or friend is leisure—all in the eyes of the beholder.

    • Alcide Bouchard

      I like all those things, Pamela, but I think the ultimate form of leisure, are times when we consider why we are here. Our purpose, and what our souls truly need to thrive, are closely linked. Why do we feel so good when we give without expecting anything in return? Why do we feel so peaceful when we hold a happy baby or a child? Why does some time apart make our love grow? Why does it feel so great working in the garden, being closer to nature?

      Considering these things can lead to the ultimate leisure, because our primary focus governs our decision making habits. What’s most important in our minds takes #1 priority most of the time.

      We are all unique, and yet, we are the same in many ways. How you spend your leisure may be different than how I spend mine, but true leisure is what the author was trying to describe. True leisure renews our minds and souls; doesn’t leave us exhausted, trying to cope with a hectic schedule as we go back to work on Monday morning.

      Discovering our true purpose helps us make wise lifestyle choices that empower us and prepare us to serve God and one another.

      • Pamela Rich

        I am here because the Creator put me here to serve him in a special way. All of those things I mentioned, and there are other things I do as well like crochet a gift, embroider a gift, do mending for a friend, paint a picture or an ornament, write a poem or short story, at the time I am doing them renews my soul and lifts my spirit. What is my true purpose? I think often times it is whatever I am guided to do to renew my soul and spirit.

        • Legoge47

          I’m wondering if my true purpose isn’t to give my wife something to complain about!

          • Helen

            Very funny!

      • Helen

        That is an excellent comment. I have done Occupational Therapy. This may appear to be leisure and it involves going to groups such as 8-ball and Darts or Bowling. I have done groups for years. But I have found that these groups are really quite pointless. What purpose do they serve? They may be good for a while but the pointlessness of it all becomes apparant. Then if you don’t do the groups or attend programs you are in trouble with your doctor or OT. It really is unbelievable how they push these pointless activities.

        • Legoge47

          I’m into Guitars for Vets which is a music therapy program for Vets with PTSD. I have to say to myself “This isn’t therapy… It’s too much fun! 🙂

    • Watchman

      One might be tempted (I am :-)) to summarize those wonderful activities as different “contexts for contemplation”. When I’m out in the yard (my wife is more the gardener, I just provide an occasional bit of muscle), I find that I think differently. I have to think differently, because my external context is different. I’m no longer in front of my computer, surrounded by papers. I’m away from my “work”, and I can no longer “work”. Same with playing a game with family members, or going camping or hiking. So these things are entirely consistent with what John Horvat is calling “leisure”.

      But he is also pointing to broader notion of leisure. See, all of things you have mentioned are activities that today we tend to squeeze in between our periods of work. They tend to be little “time-outs” from what we understand to be the “real” activity of life: productive work. Horvat, and perhaps more to the point, the philosophers he quotes, especially in the image of the festival, is pointing to a more encompassing notion of leisure. One which competes head-on with “work” as having a legitimate, and equal, and maybe even more important, place in our lives, and in our collective life together, than “work”. Its purpose, its end, is much more than “fun” or entertainment. It is “contemplation”, seeking the meaning of life and creation, and ultimately, as he says, drawing closer to God (not to mention our fellow man).

    • Legoge47

      Some times holding a few hands of cards can be gambling and thus sinful if you are doing it for money and are squandering money needed to provide for ones family for example.

  • Glen Bourgeois

    “Entertainment”, unfortunately, has replaced even partying (forget the Festival): how many people have bought an Android box or spend their nights playing games on Facebook because “it’s free”? How many people stay at home instead of socializing with others? And when they do decide to get out of the house, it’s for a trip down to the tropics with a ton of people they barely know (and probably won’t see again). Why bother going out to “party” when you can stay home and be “entertained”? The Festival, in comparison, sounds like a dream. And leisure, in which one enjoys the few things they get to do, instead of rush to do as much as they can in their “free time”, sounds truly luxurious. And if people also observed the Sabbath day together as well, as a holy day and all on the same day, think of how much more balanced AND connected we’d all be!

    • Kevin Crotzer

      “observed the Sabbath Day” AMEN to that! that would be a gigantic leap in healing this country! good point!

  • longplay

    Being on my third year of retirement, and feelin guilty about not being “productive”, this article struck me hard. Russell Kirk also addressed this issue of leisure in his book, “Prospects for Conservatives”. Obviously I’m hearing the arguments but can’t seem to internalize the advice. Do reading voraciously and improving my guitar skills qualify as leisure?

    • Legoge47

      It’s what I’m doing: reading and improving my guitar skills. If they don’t qualify as leisure then I’m sunk!!

      • longplay

        Let’s you and I agree that they qualify!

  • Donald Hennen

    Day one of Economics 101, you learn that the purpose of economics is to “maximize satisfaction” of wants. Somehow, in our time, the unthinking assumption is that we are to maximize material wealth. Leisure time is something you could want, but that’s too often forgotten. The original reason for unions getting employers to pay time and a half for overtime was to remove the incentive to work people to death. Early union organizers wanted to have a life. Now, many people want to work all the overtime they can get and rake in all that high pay. My brother calls them the richest men in the graveyard.

    We accept poor service to get a lower price, so we can afford to buy even more with the money we have, but where does that get you? In my experience it gets you stuck in an airport somewhere, because the airline is running on the razors edge of efficiency with no margin for the unexpected.

    Before we can return to order, as the name of this blog suggests, I think we’ll need to return to the basics: you name the subject, 101.

    • Lisa LV Wilkinson

      The Basics of Love!

  • Marijane Ambrogi

    My husband & I retired 5 yrs. ago and moved to the ocean. Having raised 4 children, plus worked in nursing for much of my life, I wasn’t sure how I would react to all this “leisure” time.
    I can honestly say that I have become closer to God and all the beauty of the world that He created for us. I only wish I had realized this earlier.
    Almost on a daily basis, my husband & I look out from our balcony to the ocean and discuss the wonder of God in all this. We are so at peace and are truly enjoying our leisure. We rarely, if ever, go on a “vacation” anymore as we are experiencing God and His love for us right here.

    • Marg

      Marijane, I’m so happy for you and your husband. We walk in God’s time and it’s better realizing now that we need to be close to God than never. Enjoy your retirement and pray for all who are still on the rode to Him.

      • Marijane Ambrogi

        Thank you, Marg. We never believed we would be able to retire and truly enjoy this wonderful earth, but, without much planning, we just said, “let’s do it”. Our dis are still in shock! LOL. But, we are so different now…we are so much at peace.

      • Marijane Ambrogi

        “kids”…not “dis”

  • Aint So

    The author states “Such activities may satisfy the material needs of people in unimaginable ways. The world is full of casinos, amusement parks and cruise ships.
    However, they fail to address urgent spiritual desires that seek after
    the good, true and beautiful, and ultimately, God.” The declaration in the latter sentence is precisely backward from what God actually intends for us. In fact, it is our sustained pursuit of intimate communion with God which enables within us our ability to identify all that is actually good, true, and beautiful and compels us to seek after them because we are so compelled in seeking after Him. The reason for this is that what is good, true, and beautiful exists and issues forth exclusively from the very person of God and can arise from or exist no where else. These are not mere attributes of God but are literally the “stuff” He is made of. For those who truly seek intimacy with God, they find He is ever present and never distant, and satisfies every need and desire to the very depths of their being as they are compelled in sustained adoration of Him no matter what their preoccupation. Now that is true leisure. It is when we finally agree to become aware of our consummately near presence to our Creator that all of these are revealed and enabled within us, not as mere entities in themselves but as the very “substance” that our Creator is made of. When what is good, true, and beautiful is genuinely revealed to us, it is actually God who has been revealed and the passion of our pursuit of these becomes indistinguishable from our passion for Him.

    Elsewhere it is stated “What is missing in today’s society is true leisure. People need to take the time to stop and contemplate together “the meaningfulness of the
    universe. There needs to be a willingness to transcend beyond self to
    consider how to restore the lost unity that is tearing the nation apart.” What ails us in fact is not at all our unwillingness to transcend beyond self to consider how to restore our lost unity, It is our unwillingness to re establish by our personal surrender to God the communion with Him our first parents foolishly surrendered on our behalf which is the cause of our disunity. We are ignorantly advised to consider and pursue our interest instead of that of our God when on the face of it, this is the very selfishness Jesus so disdained instead of the selflessness He actually embraced to His last breath. Without our personal consecration of entry into intimate communion with God we cannot hope to enter into the Communion of Saints because our communion with God is what joins us to His body of saints, permeated by His life and presence, and nothing else. Any unity of value that needs to be restored will be the immediate result of this without exception. If we allow ourselves to be compelled, not by self interest but by the vision of God entirely available to each of us who seek Him for Himself, our leisure now will become for us the same as it will be in Heaven which is the sustained and determined pursuit of God in response to the insatiable hunger for Him which arises from within us.

    • Julia Gordon

      I didn’t want to read your long comment, but I did and it is totally correct. God comes first. As we pray and and get to know Him better there will no longer be pressure to make more money and climb that ladder to success. We can rest in the knowledge that he will take care of us and we will also develop a relationship that will guide us to our real purpose. To love God, know God and Serve God. Mark12:17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give what is Ceasar’s to Ceasar and what it God’s to God.

      • Murial2468

        But the reality is that money makes a difference to our lives and the lives of our kids. The opportunities they can and cannot have. Surely also lack of money is more likely to lead to crime. It’s a downward spiral. I’d love to be “free and easy” and not worry about money but reality keeps crashing in. Please pray for me.

  • George DeBear

    Excellent article Mr. Horvath. You have introduced a topic few of us could’ve articulated; yet have felt its impact, however unnamed. As is so much of modern culture we shut out God from His own creation!. It would be as if there was a great party celebrating a living artist and his works where everyone was invited…except for the artist himself!
    As for my family, we take our leisure enjoying quiet time at the beach. The vibes from the salty ocean spray and sounds invigorate our bodies as we let God and His wonderful maritime artistry invigorate our souls.

  • Legoge47

    Often people use their leisure time to do evil things, such as in my town, during 4th of July weekend, there have been at least 3 fires, city officials estimate the fires were arson-related, at a festival on the 4th, there was a brawl in which a police officer was injured. In Chicago, 100 people were shot, 14 fatally, in New York City a policeman as assassinated. All on the 4th of July weekend.

  • Nancy Tomaso

    I work to support myself even though I am a religious Sister. My work place exists only when I am required to be there, once I leave after my shift, my work place drops off the face of earth. I am looked at strangely because I am happy where I am, I do not seek advancement or more responsibility. I am happy making the money I make–I am not subsidized by my Order. I chased the upward advancement that is worshiped in this country and I hated it.

  • Diane

    American’s cannot find happiness because we are denying God and living in sin. We are all looking for something and that something, if we would admit it, is Jesus Christ. Until we realize that material things and sex can never make us happy, we will always be unhappy.

    • Watchman

      “Our hearts are always restless, O Lord, until they rest in thee.” St. Augustine, who was in a position to know what he was talking about :-).

  • Lisa LV Wilkinson

    Yes Risen Jesus show us how in Your Great Sovereign Name Lord Almighty God Alleluia!

  • mister malted

    Excellent article!
    One of my major complaints about contemporary life is the need for
    constant noise. On a recent vacation
    with some friends we found that every restaurant we went to, local and chain,
    felt the need to have loud music playing, almost to the point that we could not
    hear each other. Multiple television screens
    flashed in the background. Even dining
    is no longer an enjoyable downtime activity. I have walked into restaurants, assessed
    the volume, and turned around and left. The
    “Musak” of yesterday has turned into loud music that literally had driven me
    out of stores. I have stopped going to
    major league baseball games because of the constant noise. Attending a game leaves me feeling like I am
    trapped inside a baseball pinball machine.
    And if one looks around, nobody is really listening to this stuff, so for
    whom is it being played?

    • Legoge47

      I enjoy sitting down and actually listening to music rather than just having it in the background all the time. I got in trouble when I was working over that. My former co-workers had the radio on all the time. It was obvious they weren’t really listening to it, but I was trying to split my attention between the work and listening to the radio, and I couldn’t make it work! 🙁

  • Gardening Angel

    I think enjoying leisure time is truly a lost art form, especially in America. People are always rushing frenetically from work, to children’s extracurricular activities, to entertainment, to hedonistic pleasures. Cell phones are always ringing, messages always texting, and the television and computers always vying for our attention. Even the art of dining leisurely is lost when everyone present is really absent, because they are texting and not communicating. Even retirees can be caught up in the chase for incessant entertainment. After many years in the workforce with demanding careers, raising our children, and caring for elderly parents, my husband and I both retired five years ago. At first, there was a blessed feeling of relief, followed by absolute panic about our decision, then concerns about filling our free time or not ” doing” enough for the Lord. We were still on the treadmill, so to speak. Over time, we both had to learn our true value…we are valuable in God’s eyes not because of our achievements, or what we do, but because of who we are and Whose we are…beloved children of God. Gradually, we decided to unplug” from the craziness, and our days became enriched with daily Mass, personal prayer, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and eventually involvement in a parish ministry, We still enjoy simple pleasures: gardening, reading, music, visiting family and friends, and helping someone in need…and guard our times of quiet reflection. We have grown closer to the Lord, and have experienced tremendous peace. We have replaced the frenzy of making every leisure moment count, with the peace of using our leisure to count our blessings, relax in the Lord, and follow His inspirations.

  • Glorybehere

    I am widowed,88 years of age. and live on beautiful Cape Cod, however I contemplated,on the downward spiral our nation has taken in family values, practice of religion and morality in general. Our children’s future is at risk as well as the future of our special republic. I’ve taken this time to learn more in-depth the reason our nation is considered exceptional: Clearly it is because of our founding fathers’ heroism, brilliance and superb education enabling them to assess the ills and failures of European history affecting the people’s freedoms and inability to progress according to their abilities and dreams. Being an optimist due to reliance on our Lord, I pray that we again live up to the dreams of our forefathers and become the shining beacon that leads the world to peace, love and joy. They made it possible for us to achieve our destiny without impediment and with the liberty that comes from our Lord at birth.