Could too much leisure time lead us to an existential crisis?

Technological progress is giving people more free time but they often don’t know what to do with it

A recent survey by Pew Research Center of more than 900 technology pioneers, innovators and business leaders, titled Artificial Intelligence And The Future Of Humans, highlights the projection that by 2030, “smart” systems around us—deployed everywhere from transportation to farms—will save money, help individuals enjoy a “more-customized future”, and, more importantly, save time. Lots of it.

Several decades ago, Keynes dreamt of a world of leisure that the working class would enjoy with rising prosperity. Humans would need to work fewer hours to maintain the standards of living they were used to. It has worked out that way for many in the developed world and some in developing countries as well. However, there is a wrinkle in the story. It turns out that we are not that good in figuring out what to do with the free time on our hands.

Leisure is about having the freedom to choose what to do with time at one’s disposal. Humans are not very good at making choices. This is because, contrary to what they believe, they are not really in control of their minds. If you are sceptical of this, pick up a copy of Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Of course, there are exceptions. Several people have figured out how to utilize their free time not just to their satisfaction, but to develop themselves and evolve spiritually. But, for many, it does appear to be a problem and, worse, they appear unaware of it too. Engagement with the outside world through social media gives many a false sense of purpose. Others find purpose in hedonistic pursuits. Some book themselves a seat for an outer-space tour, and some find meaning in arranging these.

Those who realize the vacuity of such engagements but are unable to find something more worthwhile begin to feel lonely and develop needless anxieties and fears. Imaginations run riot or run wild. Leisure, when combined with loneliness, results in misery and mental agony. Just as too much prosperity is usually antithetical to spiritual growth, too much time on our hands is proving to be equally problematic. Put differently, too much time combined with too much intelligence and imagination is troublesome. One of the best articles we have read this decade is the story of the men who tried to conquer the world with logic, but did not or could not in the end (The Man Who Tried To Redeem The World With Logic, Nautilus, February 2015). That is a sobering reminder of the limits of human intelligence.

Viktor Frankl, who survived Nazi gas chambers, wrote Man’s Search For Meaning. Those who had a meaningful pursuit to look forward to or could imagine a meaningful life once their nightmare was over were better able to survive concentration camps. Others did not. He put it succinctly. He said “ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for”. Of course, finding meaning is easier said or written about than done. Many of us would die before we find it. Most do not have the luxury of having to search for meaning. Cobbling together a life of basic dignity leaves them with little time to look for meaning elsewhere. Others, who look for meaning but cannot find it, face the prospect of reaching old age with bitterness or depression or both. There is, however, a way out.

While it showcases a cornucopia of benefits, the Pew Research Center survey mentioned earlier also highlights big concerns. Participants of this survey indicate that the efficiencies of machine intelligence might result in job losses and widen economic divides. This scenario is nothing to cheer about. But it presents a good opportunity for those whom AI rewards with more leisure. They can find meaning in helping those who are going to be left behind by it. Such help need not be just material—although it would be needed—but it could be done by dedicating the one thing that they will have plenty of—time. Time can be put at the service of the mental health and peace of those whose lives are shattered by technological changes. That will lend meaning to their leisure.

They have to prepare themselves for that meaningful existence. One is through their own spiritual growth. That requires a capacity for reading, reflection and consequent articulation. Further help can come in the form of picking up counselling skills, or even better, helping retrain or reorient the displaced to navigate the new order. These suggestions are not prescriptive but suggestive. But, as the former chess champion Gary Kasparov noted in the concluding lines of his book, Deep Thinking, “If we stop dreaming big dreams, if we stop looking for a greater purpose, then we may as well be machines ourselves.” In short, the challenge of what to do with leisure is the challenge of finding meaning in our lives.

Technological progress in the 21st century can result in an existential crisis for both the working and the prosperous classes. It may be more egalitarian than previous industrial revolutions in this regard. This may sound like hyperbole, but how Homo sapiens handle leisure might be an important key to their survival as a species.

V. Anantha Nageswaran & S. Raghuraman are, respectively, dean and professor at IFMR Graduate School of Business, Krea University

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