You know what I mean by FOMO: it’s that sneaking fear of missing out on the experience that will make us feel happy and fulfilled—what Aristotle calls “human flourishing.” It comes from a belief that happiness comes from something we do, and social media exacerbate our fears, because when we see other people accomplish, experience, or achieve something we haven’t, we wonder if that was the missing piece that would have made us happy.
That anxiety compels us to scroll through Instagram and wish we could see more countries than the laminated ones in our classrooms. Last year, social scientists found a link between social media use and serious mental health problems in young people, and suicide among 15–24-year-olds is on the rise. It seems FOMO can do more than make us jittery; it can make us seriously question whether we’ll ever be happy. It can even make us wonder whether our lives are worth living at all.
The good news is there’s hope. FOMO isn’t anything new. Humans have been dealing with it for millennia. The twentieth-century philosopher Josef Pieper offers a startling counter to this kind of apprehension. The escape from the relentless fear of missing out starts in an unexpected place—the renewed appreciation and practice of true leisure in our everyday lives.
The Philosophy of Total Work
In his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Pieper writes, “In order to gain a clear notion of leisure, we must begin by setting aside the prejudice . . . that comes from overvaluing the sphere of work.”
According to Pieper, we believe, mistakenly, in the philosophy of “total work,” which maintains that happiness can be achieved by work. Work he defines as anything “unleisurely”—literally any activity that has its end in the material world. We live today as if work were the most important thing we can do. From grade school up, we go school so we can get into college and get a good job, and then be happy and fulfilled.
But despite the urgent demands of bodies and matter, Pieper reminds us that we aren’t completely material. Humans have intellects, which can transcend matter through reason and reflection. So in order to be truly fulfilled (or fully filled, if I may), we must look for happiness in something that can likewise transcend matter—something other than work. That quest for happiness outside of work is called leisure.
For millennia, leisure was at the core of Western culture (and arguably an Eastern tradition, though that’s for another day). Whether we acknowledge it or not, Pieper says that “leisure is the centerpoint about which everything revolves.” But by the time he wrote his book in 1947, the philosophy of “total work” had pervaded Western society and degraded the concept of leisure to mean “doing nothing” or “free time.” We think of leisure as a void between periods of work, which we can use either to rest from work or fill with the “rewards” of our labor: stuff or experiences that work made possible for us.
But that’s an impoverished view of things. Leisure is far from idleness. Rather, it is the fullest of all time, because unlike work, leisure is dedicated to fulfilling the transcendent part of us. Pieper says leisure includes “relaxation” and “effortlessness,” because it requires us to be fully active, affirming “the universe and [our] experiencing [of] the world in an aspect other than its everyday one” (emphasis mine).
What Leisure Looks Like
So what on earth does that look like in real life? Pieper tells us that the two highest forms of leisure are festivals and divine worship, but then almost immediately asserts that these are really one and the same. A true festival derives its purpose from something transcendent─otherwise, the rules of total work would make it meaningless. Why would you rest and feast unless your happiness came from somewhere beyond that material world? “Cut off from the worship of the divine,” Pieper says, “leisure becomes laziness.”
Leisure requires us to reject the lie of total work and to dedicate a sacrifice of time and energy to the pursuit of God. We will not get paid for this task; we will not be able to Instagram it and be envied. In fact, Pieper warns that “leisure cannot be achieved at all when it is sought as a means to an end,” whether that end is career success, a pretty online photograph, or “the salvation of Western civilization.” It must be done utterly for its own sake.
C.S. Lewis beautifully illustrates both the practice and the power of leisure in his satirical epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters. In the section below, the demon Screwtape is lambasting his nephew, Wormwood, for allowing a human soul to experience leisure:
And now for your blunders. On your own showing you first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends. In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there—a walk through country he really likes, and taken alone.
The man is not thinking about himself or the impression he is making or his contribution to the world. He is simply enjoying something innocent for its own sake, for the goodness that is in it.
Leisure requires thought, particularly the kind of thought we call contemplation. This isn’t the analytical thought we apply when making difficult decisions or assessing the quality of someone’s conversation. It’s also not daydreaming. Pieper describes it as the mode of “man’s spiritual and intellectual knowledge, [which includes] an element of pure, receptive contemplation, or as Heraclitus says, of ‘listening to the essence of things.’”
Leisure is deep reflective thinking, not speculating or fantasizing, but pondering. In a world where most of us tend to relocate every few years and keep in touch via text, it is rare to have a friend with whom to contemplate. It is most probably difficult to have an occasion in which to ponder the divine if you live in a city miles from the serene, silent, open country, and your days are scheduled to the minute.
But ponder it we must, because it means turning our attention toward realities beyond work and considering different understandings of happiness, such as Aristotle’s (human flourishing in accordance with virtue), Plato’s (love of wisdom), and Christ’s (personal knowledge of God’s eternal love for us). We consider our own value differently, such as when St. Paul calls us “children of God” or St. Thomas Aquinas says the human soul is “a mover moved.” These are not ideas we can absorb quickly; we need time and space to think them through.
The pursuit of happiness is not a trivial one, and the pangs of FOMO should push us to ask hard questions about what we believe about ourselves: Where does our value come from? What do we hope will make us happy? We won’t find the answers in social media, a thrilling job opportunity, or a romantic relationship. We will, however, find them in contemplation, in a festival or a “walk in the country,” in dwelling with the divine, where we can hope to find the peace revealed to the Psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Jane Scharl has a BA in politics, philosophy, and economics from the King's College in New York, and has previously written for National Review Online, InEarnest Magazine, and Comment Magazine.