How do you decide which activities are worth your time? One option is to focus only on the activities helping you achieve or produce something. Some even suggest that after clarifying your goals, you should ditch everything else that’s not helping you achieve them. Why spend time on anything not “useful” to you or others?
Although this is one way to decide where to spend your time, an activity’s “usefulness” need not be the only thing you consider. Other activities in life that aren’t the most “useful” can still have a place. As Josef Pieper argued in his essay, Leisure the Basis of Culture, just because something’s not “useful” doesn’t mean it’s “useless."
Ancient philosophers distinguished between “telic” activity and “atelic” activity. Although different, both kinds are valuable and can be fulfilling. Telic activity (from Greek telos–goal, purpose) is done for the sake of some other end. It is the means of achieving a particular purpose. Atelic activity differs in that it is done for its own sake, not to reach some other goal. The reward for doing it isn’t in what it helps you achieve or produce but in the activity itself.
Having a goal can be motivating. Engaging in telic activity can help you accomplish things that would not happen otherwise. But if you do everything for the sake of achieving some other goal, what do you do when you achieve the goal you’re aiming for? You’ll have to come up with a new goal. And then another one. You’ll also notice that when an activity becomes a means to an end and not an end in itself, you’ll start to experience it differently.
But not everything in life has to be like this. Taking a walk, going fishing, reading a book, spending time in the garden, playing music, talking with friends. You can enjoy activities like these, but you don’t have to justify them with some other end goal. They may end up having a beneficial impact on your life, no doubt. But the long-term impact isn’t the primary reason you’re engaging in them. Rather, it’s because you find them fulfilling in themselves.
Now, sometimes an activity that started as atelic becomes telic over time. What you once enjoyed in itself morphs into the means to some other end. You now engage in taking a stroll through the woods to achieve your fitness goals. You read a book to meet your how-many-books-can-I-read-in-a-year goal. This doesn’t mean these activities are any less valuable, but this shift will shape your experience of them to some degree.
But although you could turn activities like these into means to something else, you don’t have to. Enjoying them in themselves is enough. And you can do so throughout life without coming up with new goals to justify doing so. And although both kinds of activities are valuable, if everything you do is done for some future goal, you also risk missing out on some of the moments right in front of you because you’re always focused somewhere else.
Question: What activities do you do “just because”?–things that are not means to some other end, but are rewarding in themselves.