18 Dec The Right to Idleness
The Right to Idleness
The aroma of coffee on Sundays by the fireplace fills the house with a sweetness that anticipates the time spent doing nothing. It is then that we take a break from the acceleration of life and just let ourselves be.
DOLCE FAR NIENTE
Days are spent waiting for Fridays and they are counted again and again when the holidays are close, in anticipation of a deserved rest. Unlike the cicada, in the traditional fable by Jean La Fontaine, we learn early on that dolce far niente moments are a compensation for efforts and checklists of commitments fulfilled. Like ants in a demanding world, the thought of neglecting one’s obligations in favour of a time well spent does not even cross our minds. If time is money, do we have the right to squander it by simply doing nothing?
The way the modern world views responsibilities, as opposed to idleness, is well illustrated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948 by the United Nations. The four points of Article 23 are unequivocal in enshrining the right to work, while safeguarding in the single point of Article 24 that we are also entitled to “the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay”. But is this limited time of leisure, as opposed to our professional activities, considered as idleness?
Idleness is an end in itself, an experience that is meant to be transformative.
Leisure and idleness are clearly distinct concepts, in the opinion of Maria Manuel Baptista, professor at the University of Aveiro responsible for the only research group in Portugal about idleness, and a member of the Iberian-American Association of Idleness Studies (OTIUM). The period of leave from work “corresponds to an economic need to produce consumers” and, under that logic, “it is a business” that “could spoil idleness and turn it into leisure,” she highlights. Idleness, on the other hand, “is not useless”. It creates the opportunity for a time that people normally do not have and adds meaning to life. It is “an end in itself, an experience that is meant to be transformative.” In this sense, the researcher has no doubts: “a more sustainable system needs idleness”.
DOING NOTHING: THE BEST INVESTMENT
Throughout the ages, praise for idleness has been a recurring theme in the work of different authors, who stress the importance of moments of apparent laziness for great thinkers, creators and scientists to have the inspiration of new ideas, possibilities and creations. In fact, philosophy itself was born of idleness – the Latin word for idleness is otium, linked to the Greek scholê, from which comes the word school. And in ancient Greece, to be idle meant to be free from the business of politics and economic activities, so that one could dedicate oneself without pressure to contemplation, to celebration, to joy and, above all, to the pursuit of truth. As Plato said, philosophers “enjoy free time and prepare their speeches in peace and in a time of idleness. Their only concern is the attainment of truth.”
In 1880, in the weekly newspaper “L’Égalité”, the French journalist Paul Lafargue wrote an article refuting the right to work. He also wrote “The Right to Laziness”, a book in which he presented an eloquent manifesto in defence of the fundamental freedom to dispose of time at pleasure, as opposed to the addiction of work that is capable of corrupting human faculties. More recently, the Italian sociologist Domenico De Masi, in response to his own dissatisfaction with the model centred on the idolatry of work and competitiveness, developed the concept of “creative idleness”.
In the book with the same title, De Masi demonstrates that only from the union between work, study and leisure can one experience wealth, knowledge and joy, respectively. In this case, work becomes a source of well-being and satisfaction for the worker and, because the worker feels more accomplished and relaxed, he or she manages to consequently increase the level of productivity.
In this workaholic world, the belief that stopping means losing productive momentum is a common error of perspective. This is such a deep-rooted belief that most participants in a study run by scientists at the University of Virginia reacted with high levels of stress when asked to remain for 15 minutes in a pleasant space without anything to do. Yet, it is precisely these unique lethargic states that seem to be crucial to increasing the happiness levels and unleashing creativity and problem-solving skills.
As a multitasking humanity, in which idleness is filled by computer screens, tablets, mobile phones and play stations, we lack the habit of changing the ‘doing’ with the ‘being’, of transforming the nothing into something. It would be useful to turn off all gadgets and put an end to productive activities so that we can learn once again the benefits of laziness. But will we ever be able to be like the cicada? Or is relaxing and enjoying the dolce far niente with no guilt and with pleasure a lost challenge?