Yes, I’ll Read Another Book As Soon As My Television Program Is Over

If people had as little leisure time as they often claim, it would hardly be worth discussing how they use it. In fact, though, polling over the past quarter-century has shown remarkable stability in the amount of free time Americans have. In the latest Harris Poll on the topic, issued last month, the median number of leisure hours for adults was 19 per week. That’s where it stood in 1980, and the number has seldom varied by more than an hour from that figure in the years since.

So, how do people like to spend their 19 discretionary hours? Without prompting from a menu of choices, the poll asked respondents to identify their “two or three most favorite leisure-time activities.” Reading got the most mentions (cited by 35 percent of respondents). In one sense, that’s no surprise: Reading always gets the most votes in these Harris surveys. But the number is up sharply from last year’s 24 percent, and is well above the average for the past 10 years. TV viewing came in second (21 percent). That put the tube just barely ahead of spending time with family/kids (20 percent), which has gained significantly in the past couple years. (The figure was 11 percent as recently as 2002, and typically stood at 12 percent during the 1990s.) You’ll note that the percentage of people who claim to enjoy spending time with family has risen at the same time the nation’s fertility rate has declined. Perhaps we most enjoy spending time with kids when there aren’t too many of them. As you’d expect, the catch-all category of “computer activities” has risen since 1995 (from 2 percent then to 7 percent in the new survey). The pastimes whose partisans have most dwindled during that period include swimming (down from 7 percent in 1995 to 2 percent in 2004), playing team sports (from 9 percent to 5 percent), gardening (from 9 percent to 6 percent) and sewing/crocheting (from 7 percent to 4 percent).

Life being what it is, people don’t necessarily allot the greatest amounts of their free time to their favorite pursuits. Thus, one quickly notes a disjuncture between the Harris Poll findings and the results of a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, conducted last month, in which adults were asked to say how often they engage in various activities. The latter survey found respondents far more likely to say they watch TV several times a day (44 percent) than to say they read books for entertainment that often (13 percent). Those of you concerned about the state of Americans’ souls may draw solace (though not much) from learning that the number of adults who pray several times a day (31 percent) exceeds the number who swear or curse that often (23 percent).