By Lynda Goetz
As a retired person, I clearly have a very reasonable amount of ‘me-time’, probably far more than I need, or even than is good for me. But what exactly is this me-time? Like many other aspects of modern life, me-time is something of a novel concept. How much time have individual humans historically had entirely for their own self-indulgence? Probably very little. The idea that we’re actually entitled to time for ourselves – to engage in our own interests, look after our mental health or simply pamper ourselves – is something which would probably have been regarded with complete astonishment by most people until very recently. Indeed, it’s probably still regarded as extremely bizarre by individuals in most parts of the world, assuming that they’ve heard of it at all.
So where has this idea come from and when did it first enter Western consciousness? It seems quite hard to find out exactly when the concept first became part of the zeitgeist, but according to the Macmillan dictionary it’s a buzzword popularized by the media, in particular the “media geared towards women’s interests”. The point appears to be that “amidst the stresses of 21st century life, a woman finds it increasingly difficult to spend time which is exclusively for her and is not encroached upon by the non-stop demands of work and family (…). Though not used exclusively with reference to women, this term lies heavily in the female domain, mainly used by female writers for a female audience”. Unsurprisingly, the term seems to have originated in the United States, seemingly around the turn of this century.
A recent study led by Dr Marissa Sharif of the University of Pennsylvania apparently discovered that whilst a certain amount of personal free time is salutary, too much can result in lower levels of well-being, unless that time is used productively. This conclusion seems hardly surprising. The words ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ may be over-used in the 21st century but those conditions or states of mind have undoubtedly always existed, even if they used to be called something else. In the past people had worries and they experienced suffering and grief. Victorian ladies had ‘the vapours’, which may well have been exacerbated by tight corsets but were frequently what we might now call anxiety attacks or were associated with some other mental condition, and most people would be fortunate indeed to get through life without some form of troubles. However, very few had the luxury of unproductive free time.
While generalisations and sweeping statements are on the whole unhelpful, it’s probably not unfair to say that expectations were different in the past and, for many, religion provided belief and offered hope in the face of what were often far-from-easy lives on this Earth. These days, certainly in the United Kingdom, religion plays a much smaller role, and most people don’t expect to have to suffer in this life in order to reap rewards in the next. Perceptions are therefore very different. Women of all classes were once expected to obey their husbands, and to a large extent a woman’s purpose in life was to look after her husband and any children of the marriage. For those without the luxury of servants, day-to-day living was time-consuming and the practicalities frequently tiring. In many parts of the world this is still the case. The mere act of obtaining water or food may entail many miles of walking and carrying. Nowadays, in the West at least, life has changed and the burden of trying to combine a career with family responsibilities can provoke stresses not experienced in the past.
Nevertheless, emphasis on ‘self-care’ can be counter-productive, as Dr Sharif’s study indicates. A certain amount of time to ourselves, whether we’re male or female, is expected these days. We do feel entitled to pursue hobbies, meet friends for a coffee or a drink, go to the gym or simply get away from everybody and read a book, do some sketching, go for a walk or indulge in some relaxing or calming activity (although patronising articles or blogs telling us about such opportunities can be exceedingly annoying!). The pace of modern life is undoubtedly faster and more frenetic than it has been at any time in history, and the speed and extent of communications have added to and complicated all our interactions.
The most interesting thing about the Pennsylvania study is not so much the actual findings, which were almost blindingly obvious, but the fact that the people being interviewed were all in paid employment. How on earth does a person in full employment end up with more than five hours of me-time per day? This was the amount of time above which a person’s mental well-being was found to deteriorate. Presumably those people were living alone – something else that’s very alien to many cultures and historically unusual in the West as well. How else could it be that they had no obligations to others once they had finished work? No-one to cook a meal for, no children who need putting to bed or whose homework requires supervising, no elderly relatives to visit or help, no grandchildren to babysit, pets to take care of or even admin to deal with? Clearly, the interviewees didn’t have such tasks to perform, since otherwise it would be virtually impossible to exceed five hours of discretionary free time in a day – unless of course you don’t sleep either, which might also account for the apparent deterioration in well-being.
For those of us who are past the gainful employment stage, whose parents have died and for whom childcare responsibilities are perhaps limited to occasionally babysitting grandchildren, five hours a day of me-time is not hard to achieve. The important thing is clearly that at least part of it, should, as far as possible, be productive. As Dr Sharifa concluded: “In cases when people do find themselves with excessive amounts of discretionary time, such as retirement or having left a job, our results suggest these individuals would benefit from spending their new-found time with purpose.”
This of course makes total sense. Those who have over five hours of ‘discretionary’ free time may struggle to feel useful or to believe that their lives are meaningful. Most of us need to feel that our lives have some point: that our existence, although of no great importance to the wide universe, matters in some way to at least one, and preferably more than one person. That’s why so many retired people sit on committees or parish councils, perform volunteer work for food banks, assist with school reading projects or help out in whatever field their acquired skills can be useful. This may not strictly be me-time, but it’s just as essential to one’s well-being. We may need time for ourselves, but we surely also need time for others.