For many people, the nature of modern life makes it almost impossible not to be a workaholic. The average modern worker is more likely than ever before to be self-employed or to spend his days sat in front of a flickering screen. The problem with such work is that the working day never officially ends – there is always one more phone call to make or one more Email to send. More than ever, therefore, work and career need to be balanced with fun and play.
Of course, many people enjoy their work. As Winston Churchill once remarked, find a job you love and you’ll never work again. Others are driven not by love of the job but love of the benefits it provides. Many literally work themselves to death in pursuit of money or, more often, status and respect. Unfortunately, such people are usually so pre-occupied with their career that they never find the time to show off at a school reunion or to enjoy their new car and big house. Then there is the workaholic who dreams neither of promotion nor great wealth but simply needs to pay a mortgage and provide a reasonable standard of living for his children. Some even find work an escape. The poet Philip Larkin once described work as a “toad” that ‘squatted’ on him but at least gave his life purpose and distracted him from the thought of ageing and death: “Take me by the hand old toad/Help me down cemetery road.”
But is being a workaholic really such a big deal? Surely it is important to work hard, not just for yourself but for the society in which you live. After all, being a workaholic is hardly comparable to being an alcoholic, gambler, or drug user. No doubt there are many workaholics who enjoy their life and have no wish to change. And no doubt many have partners who share this contentment. A young mother, married to a hardworking man, for example, may feel neglected at times but may also appreciate the money, nice house, and personal freedom his job provides – plus she needn’t worry that he may have an affair! A man whose wife has built up her own business, one that consumes all her energy and time, may nonetheless be relieved that responsibility for paying the mortgage does not depend on him alone. In any case, workaholics tend to form relationships with other workaholics. And yet, even if you enjoy your job, it is important to balance this with fun and play – no matter how old you may be.
The Need for Fun and Play
First, it is important to dispel the myth that it is childish, frivolous and irresponsible to prioritise fun and play. Spend a little time each day rollerblading, surfing, or playing computer games and you may find that you are more, not less, productive. Fun and play relax you. And reducing stress will increase your creativity and improve your quality of sleep. You may even find that play stimulates the creative, imaginative part of your mind. Many artists and writers will go and do something trivial and fun when their creativity falters. During a conversation with the poet Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy recalled that when gardening one afternoon he had the greatest idea of his life – a novel appeared in his mind, complete with characters, plot, everything (unfortunately, Hardy wished to continue with his digging and planting and didn’t bother to jot the ideas down – by the time he returned to his desk he could remember nothing!). Einstein was also wary of too much logic and analysis. When pondering some scientific problem he would tinkle a piano or ride his bike and wait for the ideas to form in his subconscious (he even said that his greatest breakthroughs occurred while he was shaving and whistling to a tune on the radio).
Fun and play will also increase empathy and emotional openness. A couple whose relationship is failing would benefit just as much from joining a sports club together as from long, in-depth conversations. The more people relax, the easier they find it to be trusting and intimate. Even businesses have recognized this, and many now organise team building exercises in which groups of co-workers spend the day hiking or paintballing.
Recognizing that you need to achieve a better balance is one thing, putting it into practise is another. If you would like to increase the amount of fun and play in your life, try the following:
1) Consider why you work so hard. If your job consumes all your time and energy, consider why you allow this to happen. Are you anxious about money? Or is there something else going on? Maybe you are trying to compensate for deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy. Those who felt neglected and unloved as children often seek to prove themselves through a successful career. Or maybe you feel undervalued and underappreciated at home. Are you trying to escape from your relationship? Are you trying to escape emotional and psychological issues by burying yourself in work?
2) Note the impact this lack of balance is having on you and your family. It may be a cliché, but no one ever lay on their deathbed wishing they’d spent more time in the office and less in the park with their children. Maybe you learnt to be this way as a child. Was your father or mother a workaholic? How did this affect you growing up? Do you really want to repeat their mistake with your own children?
3) Create the space and opportunity. If possible, set aside an hour or so each day for ‘funtime’. And promise yourself that you will fill this with an activity that is enjoyable but has no practical benefit. If you have children, you could include them – maybe even allow them to decide what you do. And before you begin, switch off all phones and laptops.
4) Come up with some ideas. Next, decide how you will fill this time. The great Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov hunted butterflies, while the physicist Richard Feynman played the bongo drums. How about rollerblading or windsurfing? You could even try and include a friend or two in your scheme, agreeing to meet up several times a week to do something silly – visiting amusement parks, for example.
As with so many things in life, balance is all important. Unless they are very fortunate, most people have to spend a great deal of their life working. And for a lucky minority, this work is enormously fulfilling and rewarding. Indeed, for Freud the ability to work, along with the ability to love, were the key signs of good mental health. But only when this is balanced with fun and play is the individual leading a truly healthy, well-rounded life.