(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post for the series!)

In September 2015, I learned that a former student, who had been diagnosed with cancer, was in ICU.  A little over a month later, I traveled to Maryland for his memorial service.  Although the loss of someone was not new to me, this particular one had me thinking.  A man in his early 20s, midway through law school, who had the reputation of amazing friendship and all the promise of a bright future, gone.  To say that we should make the most of our lives, not knowing how long they will last is certainly clichéd, but is so because of its perennial truth.  This loss helped me grasp the truth of the uncertainty of time and has left me fascinated with analysis of how we use the time that we have, as we are often unaware of how our choices shape our time commitments and overall well-being.  Over several decades, John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey conducted extensive social research through time analysis which offers interesting and sometimes surprising findings, primarily in the American context, but also with some cross-national comparisons.

With their careful methods and detailed data, Robinson and Godbey challenge longstanding conventional wisdom about American “busyness” in Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time. In particular, their analysis of people’s perceptions of time use, as well as potential causes, offers a hard but necessary push for us to think honestly about our own lives.  Perhaps, as a consequence of the activity, Tocqueville noticed even in the early years of the republic, our freedom is a double-edged sword, one that must be wielded intentionally and responsibly, not only for the benefit of society as a whole but also for our own well-being.

Despite the focus on a relatively specific question – how do we use our time – Robinson and Godbey provide not only cross-national comparisons but also provide a look at the use of time in society, specifically the balance of work and leisure, in a longer-term context (Chapter 3). In fact, they note, that time is a cultural creation. Judeo-Christian practices launched a more linear use of time.  Industrialization – both in its processes and products – and the rise of a shared global use of time, which offered societal advancements, but also created a sense of scarcity.   The result, shown in several examples, is a life of rush, which in turn creates a greater push of stress as we complete more numerous, but also more shallow, activities.  The authors unpack the likely suspects in the creation of this “time famine” – greater efficiency and speed of some activities, the pace of change, the chunking of free time, and inequalities in resources that affect the amount of time and use by different individuals.

Using a multi-method approach to gather information, the researchers used a feasible but more detailed approach of time diaries to reveal some important findings on the use of our time and its change over the last few decades. Organizing diary entries into several categories, which they explain thoroughly in the second part of the book, the authors distinguish between paid time, family care, personal time and free time.  With the approximately 40% of our time available for leisure activities (118), an amount that grew over several decades, why might we feel like the balance has been moving in the opposite direction?

Part 3 shares some insight into the ways in which we choose to use our leisure time impacts our experience of it, specifically what makes us feel pressed for time.  One factor relates to how free time is organized – primarily compressed into the weekend or other similar blocks of time off the clock.  Another relates to how we use our leisure time; an increasing trend in individualized activities, some of which are termed “escapist” and a decreasing trend in activities that build social capital, which provide not only bonds but the opportunity for collaboration and a larger sense of purpose. (For more on social capital, see this prior series post on the work of Robert Putnam, who authored the foreword for this book.)  In addition, as discussed in Part 4, not everyone has the same biological and cultural opportunities that afford as much free time in the first place.  The idea of free time itself also brings us awareness of a more foundational facet of our society that shapes the structures of our lives and our perceptions of them.

Seeing Americans as busy folk is not a new phenomenon; Robinson and Godbey carry forward Tocqueville’s observations on the mixed blessings of a free society.  In a democratic society, individuals have relatively more freedom than in other systems.  Freedom, though simple in theory, can vary in our thinking from the absolute absence of constraints on our actions to one that is constrained by intentionality – and even by culture and law – out of respect for others and for own good.  Thus, our view of this value and our use of it plays a role in our collective and individual use of time. The relative equality of political rights in society, at least in a formal sense, opens the idea of choice in the pursuit of happiness.

Even in the early 1800s, Tocqueville pondered the frenetic pace that the free society produced:

“In the United States a man builds a house to spend his latter years in it, and he sells it before the roof is on: he plants a garden, and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing: he brings a field into tillage, and leaves other men to gather the crops: he embraces a profession, and gives it up: he settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves, to carry his changeable longings elsewhere. If his private affairs leave him any leisure, he instantly plunges into the vortex of politics; and if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a few days’ vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days, to shake off his happiness. Death at length overtakes him, but it is before he is weary of his bootless chase of that complete felicity which is forever on the wing. At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance…” (Volume II, Book 2, Section 2, Chapter XIII, pars. 2-3).

Moreover, the value of equality of condition – imperfect though it is even still today – produced a strong drive for ever-increasing achievement.  Tocqueville also finds much to admire about the impact that individual drive also had on public affairs.  But the fact that the findings of this research and the constellation of related studies (over 3,000 have built on their work up until present time) provide a more detailed picture of essentially a similar outcome of driven people should perhaps give us pause.  So how might we harness this knowledge?  I had to chuckle when Googling to grab the publisher link to include in this post – Google had incorrectly categorized it as a self-help book.  The book is informative, but it is also academic, even if also accessible.

The awareness of our context that comes from this research can be supplemented with some practical resources.  Most importantly, as individuals we have to come to terms with the idea of competing goods – we have to be discerning in the voluntary commitments we make, even in terms of setting our own personal and professional goals.  Doing so means we have to decide not to do perfectly reasonable, interesting and/or helpful things. Greg Mckeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less offers not only concrete suggestions but helpful ways to conceive of why we should become better at making choices with our time in the first place.  (This summary is a helpful one.) In addition, Celeste Headlee’s Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing and Underliving, offers great insight and the importance of leisure for our personal well-being.  (Give a listen to the overview in this quick segment.) Finally, Happify – a science-based site for general audiences offers great resources, such as this infographic about how to live without regret.  Giving ourselves space allows us to restore but also increases our capacity to innovate.

Sitting here writing, these several years after the loss of a former student, not only do I currently face a significant loss, I am struck by the scope of loss of lives and livelihood in the midst of the pandemic.  I am also thankful that I was pushed to examine my life more critically in a way I had not done before, allowing me to lean into the change of lifestyle that has also accompanied the public health crisis.  Time for Life adds important context to understanding part of what makes our society, and us within it, tick. Robinson and Godbey include a chapter on comparison data from other countries, which shows that what we face is not an inevitable outcome of contemporary conditions.  In short, if we place more value on our time by intentional use, we risk not less but more in our own sanity and health, our relationships and our collective work.


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