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Did the Fun Work?

Relaxation as Fitbit app

If anything can make enchantment terse, it is the German compound noun. Through the bluntest lexical conglomeration, these words capture concepts so ineffable that they would otherwise float away. Take the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl’s term, KunstwollenKunst (art) + wollen (will), or “will to art”—later defined by Erwin Panofsky as “the sum or unity of creative powers manifested in any given artistic phenomenon.” (Panofsky then appended to this mouthful a footnote parsing precisely what he meant by “artistic phenomenon.”) A particular favorite compound of mine is Kurort, literally “cure-place,” but better translated as “spa town” or “health resort.” There’s an elegiac romance to Kurort that brings to mind images of parasols and gouty gentlemen taking the waters, the world of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. Nevertheless, Kurort’s cocktail of connotations—mixing leisure, self-improvement, health, physical pleasure, relaxation, gentility, and moral rectitude—remains as fresh as ever. Yoga retreats and team-building ropes courses may have all but replaced mineral baths, but wellness vacations and medical tourism are still big business.

What continues to fuel this industry, by now a heritage one, is the durable belief that leisure ought to achieve something—a firmer bottom, new kitchen abilities, triumph over depression. In fact, why not go for the sublime leisure-success trifecta: physical, practical, and spiritual? One vacation currently offered in Sri Lanka features cycling, a tea tutorial, and a visit to a Buddhist temple, a package that promises to be active (but not draining), educational (but not tedious), and fun (but not dissolute). The “Experiences” section of Airbnb advertises all kinds of self- and life-improving activities, including a Korean food course, elementary corsetry, and even a microfinance workshop.

Of course, moral and physical uplift do not have the sole claims to leisure, and certainly not to pleasure. The chaste delights of the wellness vacation do not appeal universally. In Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy, Sylvia Tietjens, perhaps the most diabolical bored wife in English literature, prefers the filthier pursuits of social climbing and ruining her doltish lovers. For her, the genteel health resort is enraging rather than soothing. “How rotten it must be for her,” she imagines her friends sympathizing, “to be shut up in a potty little German kur-ort when the world could be so otherwise amusing.” Yet even Sylvia is not immune to the allure of the self-improving retreat, or at least the social esteem it can bestow. At one point, Sylvia decamps to a convent to make a show of trying to get right with the Lord, and perhaps also her husband. For those who can afford it, a spot of leisure done right can be the necessary corrective to life’s wrong turns.

Danger: Relaxation Ahead

The Tietjenses are English landed gentry, and so it would not surprise a midwestern American moralist like Thorstein Veblen, the disapproving theorist of the so-called leisure class, that someone like Sylvia would approach leisure with entitlement and cynicism. Leisure has always made middle-class Americans (and their bourgeois counterparts throughout much of Europe) rather anxious.

In Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States, Cindy Aron notes that though the American middle class invented the modern vacation as a social institution, they were also wary of its hazards. If industry and work were fundamental to the success of both individual and nation, leisure could expose America to “moral, spiritual, financial, and political danger.” As the middle class cohered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vacationing became an institution shot through with contradiction. The hard work and industriousness that helped define the middle class seemed to entitle its members to vacations (as well as other consumer goods betokening self-conscious respectability, like pianos), but at the same time, vacations embodied the very opposite of what the middle class valued. The wellness vacation was one solution to this quandary. From the mid-nineteenth century, Saratoga Springs, Cape May, and a host of other destinations became associated with good times that were restorative to both body and soul. The nagging question nevertheless remained: How could you enjoy leisure without jeopardizing commitment to work? “This tension pervaded and shaped the history of vacations in the nineteenth century,” Aron writes. Indeed, it determines our own attitudes toward leisure to this day.

Was the restoration sufficient? The self improved? The fun had?

The social ascendancy of the middle classes, and especially the upper middle classes in America and Europe, is essential to this story. While some of these people may have pined for the splendor of aristocratic life, the members of the bourgeoisie mostly savored the knowledge that their material comforts were earned, not given. They embraced personal virtue as the key to challenging the aristocracy’s traditional place at the center of political and cultural life, and developed elaborate patterns of consumption and social rituals to enact this moral superiority: athenaeum memberships for men, Italian lessons for women, park promenades for the whole family. A ceaseless drive toward self-improvement undergirded these leisurely pursuits. Even when the duties of bureaucratic paperwork and homemaking were done for the day, the impetus to self-improve remained constant. Thus did the bourgeoisie distinguish itself from the parasitic leisure class excoriated by Veblen.

Today’s middle class still proudly embraces this moral distinction—and none more fully than those near its upper end. In fact, the ceiling of the self-identified “middle class” seems to keep creeping upward, not because the very wealthy feel any special solidarity with schoolteachers and postal workers, but because to join the “upper class” would be to join the ranks of the useless and the idle. The victory of bourgeois values is so complete that much of the world’s elite has embraced them. The Trumps, for instance, owe their class position to inherited wealth, but they—especially Donald and Ivanka—still brand themselves as successful workers for the status and self-esteem that it imparts. Both have produced (“written” may not be entirely accurate) entire books about how hard they toil and how good they are at it. These people may be obscenely rich and control more than their fair share of resources, but they will have you know that they are darn productive.

Maybe this is why some of the only people in America who could feasibly enjoy that thing we call a “work-life balance” end up bragging about how they renounced it. Together with Marissa Mayer and Victoria Beckham, Ivanka Trump is part of a rarefied coterie of hyper-elite working mothers whose financial fortunes and powerful networks would allow them to take extended maternity leave—in fact, not to work at all, not even at child-rearing or homemaking—but who ostentatiously return to work within a few weeks after childbirth. While it should be up to each family to determine how much parental leave is necessary, it is as if these very publicly announced returns to the workplace somehow validate the outsize wealth of these women, both to themselves and to the rest of us. These are only a few extreme examples from our peculiar cult of busyness, in which energy-intensive but culturally feminized tasks like childcare, along with private biological needs like sleep, are cruelly recast as leisure in order to be devalued. These women will make body and family bend to accommodate the demands of work. The idle rich they emphatically are not.

The Enemy Below

If the bourgeoisie—and now much of the One Percent as well—disavow the lifestyle of the idle rich, they detest the idle poor even more. The history of ascribing laziness and moral failure to indigence is long, and capitalist societies never tire of finding new ways to spread moral panic about the perfidious poor. Recall President Reagan’s mythical Welfare Queen, defrauding the hardworking American taxpayer in order to bankroll her supposedly recreational childbearing. The sheer absurdity of the idea that single-parenting a brood of babies and toddlers constitutes leisure did not diminish the extent to which the Welfare Queen spooked the populace, so alarming was the thought of her lurking in their midst. The Welfare Queen was such a powerful straw-woman because she put pressure on a nexus of particularly American anxieties: about leisure, about getting ahead, and especially about being duped. For a people invested in an ethic of work and an ideology of self-determination, both propped up by complete faith that the wit of the common man will beat that of esoteric academics and wily city slickers any day of the week, the idea that a woman of leisure might be making off with their just reward—and laughing at them!—was unconscionable. She needed to be slain, and if she didn’t exist, well then the idea of her needed to be destroyed.

Although the supposedly idle poor are the ultimate pariahs—they are poor, after all, and it’s always easiest to punch down—they and the idle rich share the same fault: both approach leisure incorrectly. Both the spoiled Prodigal Son and the guy sipping bottom-shelf whiskey in front of the supermarket all day are doing it wrong. Their leisure is excessive, undeserved, and not directed at self-improvement. There has long been a proper way to do leisure, and now there are more apparatuses and feedback systems than ever to tell us how good we are at it.

The Fun Meter

Leisure, it turns out, requires measurement and evaluation. First of all, our irksome question remains: When partaking of leisure, how can you know that you aren’t slipping into idleness? Second, because leisure is a deserved reward, it should be fun, amusing, diverting, or otherwise pleasurable. This requirement begets another set of questions, perhaps even more existential in scope: How do leisure seekers even know whether they’re enjoying themselves, and if they are, whether the enjoyment . . . worked? Was the restoration sufficient? The self improved? The fun had?

Happiness and other pleasant sensations are themselves meant to be productive—hence the common rhetoric about leisure being “restorative.”

These questions are most easily, if superficially, answered via the medley of social media platforms and portable devices bestowed on us by the wonders of consumer-product-driven innovation. Fitbit points, likes, and heart-eyed emoji faces have become the units of measurement by which we evaluate our own experiences. These tokens offer reassurance that our time is being optimally spent; they represent our leisure accomplishments. Social media and camera-equipped portable devices have given us the opportunity to solicit positive feedback from our friends, and indeed from the world at large, nonstop. Even when we are otherwise occupied or asleep, our photos and posts beam out, ever ready to scoop up likes and faves. Yet under the guise of fun and “connection,” we are simply extending the Taylorist drive to document, measure, and analyze into the realm of leisure. Thinkers from Frank Lloyd Wright to John Maynard Keynes once predicted that technology would free us from toil, but as we all know, the devices it has yielded have only ended up increasing workloads. They have also taken command of leisure, yoking it to the constant labor of self-branding required under neoliberal capitalism, and making us complicit in our own surveillance to boot.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong or self-exploitative about showing off your newly acquired basket-weaving skills on Instagram—and anyway, the line between leisure and labor is not always clearly drawn. From gardening to tweeting, labor often overlaps with pleasure and entertainment under certain conditions. But the fact that the platforms on which we document, communicate, and measure our leisure are owned by massive for-profit corporations that trade upon our freely given content ought to make us wonder not only what, exactly, they might be getting out of all this activity, but also how it frames our own ideas of what leisure is. If the satisfaction of posting on social media derives from garnering likes in the so-called attention economy, then posters will, according to a crude market logic, select what they believe to be the most “likeable” content for posting, and furthermore, will often alter their behavior to generate precisely that content. The mirror of social media metrics offers to show us whether we enjoyed ourselves, but just as with mirrors, we have to work to get back the reflection we want to see.

So Many Feels

The cult of productivity is a greedy thing; it sucks up both the time we spend in leisure and the very feelings it stirs in us. Happiness and other pleasant sensations must themselves become productive, which is why we talk of leisure being “restorative” or “rejuvenating.” Through coffee breaks and shorter workweeks, employers from municipal governments to investment banks are encouraging their workers to take time off, all under the guise of benevolent care. But these schemes are ultimately aimed at maximizing productivity and quelling discontent (and besides, employers maintain the power to retract these privileges at their own whims). Work depletes us emotionally, physically, and intellectually, and that is why we are entitled to periods of leisure—not because leisure is a human right or good in and of itself, but because it enables us to climb back onto the hamster wheel of marketplace activity in good cheer.

As neoliberalism reduces happiness to its uses, it steers our interests toward confirming our own feelings via external assessment. This assessment just so happens to require apparatuses (smartphones, laptops, Apple watches) and measurement units (faves, shares, star ratings) that turn us into eager buyers of consumer products and require our willing submission to corporate surveillance. None of which means that your Airbnb truffle-hunting experience—as well as subsequently posting about it and basking in the likes—didn’t make you happy. It simply means that the events and behavior that brought about this happiness coincide with the profit motives of a vast network of institutions that extends far beyond any one individual.

Capitalism has proven time and again that it will always goad its subjects to be productive, even when they think they’re hard at leisure.

So they want us to buy their stuff and hand over our data. Fine. But why do they demand that we be so insistently, outwardly happy? Why do they care? Barbara Ehrenreich and, more recently, William Davies have explored the dubious motives of these happiness peddlers. As Davies points out in his book, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being, the obsession with how to register and measure human happiness has been around at least since Jeremy Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation of 1780. Bentham was primarily interested in happiness as a gauge of effective governance; good governance ideally produced happy citizens, and therefore an objective means of measuring happiness would be the key to appraising its quality. Indeed, Bentham’s theories live on in annual rankings of “most liveable cities” and “happiest countries.”

Well into the nineteenth century, nearly one hundred years after Bentham, in a firmly established capitalist culture, consumer goods had emerged as the medium of happiness. “In short,” Davies writes, “capitalism could now be viewed as an arena for psychological experiences, in which physical things were merely props for the production of sensations, to be acquired through cash.” One of the most lyrical descriptions of the malevolent pleasure of consumption comes from this same mid-nineteenth-century moment, in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. To disrupt her stifled existence, Emma Bovary begins buying tacky knick-knacks. Her husband, Charles, is delighted by her purchases: “The less Charles understood these refinements, the more they seduced him. They added something to the pleasure of the senses and to the comfort of his fireside. It was like a golden dust sanding all along the narrow path of his life.” The narcotic lull of shopping is palpable; one can feel the Bovarys getting high on watch-chain charms and silver-gilt thimbles. The trinkets themselves are the waste products of this pleasure-seeking economy.

The notion that we are trading primarily in affect (as opposed to, or at least as much as, goods and services) may be more true than ever in our present post-industrial moment, making it absolutely imperative that happiness and other positive sensations be sorted, measured, and ranked. If it really is positive experiences and feelings that we’re after, then leisure—a critical source of these validations of discretionary time for the leaders of society—is especially ripe for this kind of empirical-seeming scrutiny. And that scrutiny, in turn, will come to define what leisure, and more fundamentally, happiness, is to us.

Rentiers At Play

In “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” a 1930 essay that has become famous in recent years for its dramatic historical irony, John Maynard Keynes cautioned that in the coming decades, humanity would probably become disoriented by all the free time on its hands, as technology was bearing down on the ability to free us from significant amounts of toil. We would have to prepare ourselves for feelings of loss and struggle to find meaningful nonwork activities.

He needn’t have worried on that score. Capitalism has proven time and again that it will always goad its subjects to be productive, even when they think they’re hard at leisure. And yet the question of how leisure, or at least nonworking time, might play in our lives is pertinent yet again, due not so much to predictions of tech utopias à la Keynes, but to re-emergent debates over universal basic income, the meaninglessness of whole categories of work, jobless economic recoveries, work refusal, and renewed attention to the un- or undercompensated labor of care work.

Writers like Thomas Piketty and Matt Bruenig point out that for a culture that holds hard work as one of its sacred tenets, a remarkable amount of capital flows to certain individuals as what Bruenig calls “passive income” in the form or rents, interest, and dividends—that is, not as wages for work. Does this lot—landlords, shareholders, and the like—constitute a leisure class? They would vigorously deny it. In fact, that’s what our recent presidential candidates have done in their stilted appeals to the working class, from Mitt Romney’s laughable characterization of the One Percent as “job creators” to Donald Trump sporting a cheap trucker’s cap with his suits. Regardless, these people no doubt invent endless ways to keep themselves extremely busy, to the point of suffering from stress. Bored as she perennially is, Sylvia Tietjens would at least have the good sense to roll her eyes at that.