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Many at MIT need reminders to integrate leisure into life

This article originally appeared in the fall 1998 issue of Spectrum������������������published by the Office of Resource Development.

People of all income levels are spending more time and money on leisure, according to a study conducted by Professor of Economics Dora Costa.

Examining consumer surveys going back 100 years, Professor Costa found that workers in the late 1800s spent 75 percent of their income on food, clothes and shelter. Low-income families spent nearly 1 percent on leisure, while high income earners spent more than 3 percent. By 1991, though, the average household was spending 38 percent of its income on the basics -- and 6 percent on recreation.

The study found that both money and time spent on leisure activities has risen proportionately faster for the laborer than for the rich.

Reasons for that, Professor Costa says, include: Americans get more time off than they did; public investment in parks, sports facilities and golf courses puts more leisure activities within our means; and technology -- CDs, videos and affordable cars -- have greatly expanded leisure opportunities.


As we enter the new millennium, experts predict there will be a growing national trend toward leisure.

One reason for the trend is the first baby boomers will reach age 65 by 2013. Also, Americans over age 65 have more money to spend on recreation. In Professor Lester Thurow's book, The Future of Capitalism, it is reported that those ages 65-74 have $222,000 in net worth, compared to $66,000 for those ages 35 to 44. MIT is all set for the new trend.

The Institute now has plans for a $40 million athletics facility to be completed in the year 2001. An Olympic-sized pool will be the centerpiece of the new facility.

"We need a place where students can come together and just laugh and have a good time," said Associate Professor Candace Royer, director of physical education. "Students need to feel like they're part of something greater than just working."

Not only will the center increase opportunities for relaxation and fun, but it also will support the life and health of the MIT community for decades to come.

"It will create a hub for campus life," said Athletics Director Richard Hill. "It's a way to reach out and fully integrate the MIT community. Students, faculty, alumni/ae and friends will come to a centralized facility and will create relationships in a way we never have experienced before. It's a holistic approach. Not only will the new facility treat the whole body, but it will treat the whole community."


Hard work long has been the ethic at MIT. And although most agree it essentially should stay that way, some wish for greater balance.

"It's great to have a tight, narrow focus," Professor Royer said, "but if only we understood a little better what the word 'balance' means.

"Most of us who work at MIT like to work hard. But liking to work hard should not preclude wanting to have some leisure time, some family time, some time to yourself -- and yet, we seem to put those things on a back burner."

Dr. Margaret Ross, a psychiatrist at MIT Medical who counsels students, faculty and staff, knows much about balancing life and health.

"I say, exercise is really important. I also talk about healthful eating. Avoiding too much caffeine. Sleeping. And taking a rest. I ask patients, 'Have you taken a vacation in the last six months?'"

Most students and faculty, she said, say no.

"Many of the faculty really are uncomfortable when they're away from their workplace," she said. "They know what to do here, and it makes them feel good about themselves. It's hard for them to take a walk in the woods or be on the beach, and not get anxious because they're so out of their element."

Many MIT professors insist: "But my work is my leisure."

Dr. Ross replies: "It's wonderful that you love your work. That's a gift. But that doesn't mean that having a change of pace isn't good for you. It keeps you from getting too focused and from losing perspective."

Perhaps part of the reason some are uncomfortable with relaxation, she said, is because society neither encourages nor rewards leisure.

"At this point in the world, in a global economy, everybody is being encouraged to just work, work, work, harder and harder," Dr. Ross said. "In our culture of productivity, in the MIT culture, and in the US business culture, you're rewarded for doing more work.

"Integrating your life is something you have to internalize. You need to know 'I'm not getting enough sleep. I need a day off. I need a vacation.' People aren't encouraged in this work environment to go off and walk on the beach."


Professor Costa's study found that between 1973 and 1991, the working day for the rich became longer than it is for the laborer. It used to be the other way around. Low income earners were the ones who worked an 11-hour day.

The reason for the switch, she said, is a desire for more money and for professional advancement. Some say our hardworking culture has been driven by a quest for material possessions. And now we are beginning to wake up and ask ourselves, What else is there?

Professor Royer said although MIT students have yet to enter the workplace, they're already working overtime.

"Have you been on this campus between midnight and 4am? Come sometime," Professor Costa said. "You'll see more lights on than you'll see off."

Professor Royer, who long coached tennis at MIT, said: "It's very hard to train an exhausted athlete. And yet you see it all the time. It's almost as though [people think] if you don't have dark circles under your eyes, you're not working hard enough."

People think the overworked are unhappy, Dr. Ross said.

"But many people feel most comfortable in their offices. If you always have defined yourself by your work and productivity, then you feel good working. And it also may get you away from family problems or a complicated marriage. If you can just work in your lab, it can be very calming."

Overwork, she added, is like riding a bicycle.

"You're pedaling so fast everything is a blur. You don't have to deal with anything -- except your work. Maybe you're missing some of the good stuff, but you're also not seeing any of the bad stuff. As soon as you slow down, you're forced to recognize some of the problems. So you just keep trying to pedal as fast as you can.

"That's why it's so important to balance yourself every day."


Last November the athletics department sent 500 letters to seniors deficient in completing the physical education requirement. That's almost half the class.

The letters said if students didn't complete the requirement, they wouldn't graduate. Most had put off athletics because they didn't have time.

Many students first completed all the academic work, then jammed all the recreation into the last quarter. "We don't want students coming here under those circumstances," Professor Royer said, adding that recreation must be integrated, not jammed, into life.

We are, though, not entirely responsible for our desire to work so hard, she said.

"It's taking us a long time to learn to integrate leisure into life. And the baby boomer generation really is learning this the hard way.

"We were raised on the American dream. We were taught to work hard. We want to have more than our parents, but we've sacrificed a lot more of our leisure time to get where we are today.

"We're beginning to focus on what makes life rich. And it's not the pursuit of material things, but rather what is deeper inside us all. People pursue materialism, then all of a sudden wake up and say, Gee, why am I not fulfilled? I think that's where this spiritual influence in our society comes from.

"There really is a resurgence of interest in spirituality," Dr. Ross said, adding that the most popular health classes at MIT now are meditation, exercise, and yoga. "It just seems that people need to feel there's more to life than work."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 4, 1998.

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