Feeling like leisure time is a waste of time risks health and happiness

Do you ever feel like you’re wasting your time when you take a free hour to watch a TV show or ballgame, play a video game or chat with a friend?

I know I do. Even though I know it isn’t healthy to dedicate all my waking hours to work, I find myself feeling guilty if I spend more than a few minutes having fun instead of doing the things I consider to be productive.

It’s understandable that we feel this way, given the countless articles, videos and podcasts out there advising us how to use our free time more productively. But new research suggests this viewpoint needs to change — for the sake of our health…

Fun is a waste of time? Nothing is further from the truth

A series of studies examining the effect of a belief that productivity is always the ultimate goal — and that any time spent “leisurely” is wasteful — may lead to less happiness and higher levels of stress and depression.

In fact, people who agreed most strongly with this belief not only enjoyed leisure less, their mental health took a serious hit…

“There is plenty of research which suggests that leisure has mental health benefits and that it can make us more productive and less stressed,” says Selin Malkoc, co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University. “But we find that if people start to believe that leisure is wasteful, they may end up being more depressed and more stressed.”

In one of the studies, the more strongly the participating college students saw leisure as a waste of time, the less they enjoyed leisure activities. This was true regardless of whether the activity they rated was active (like exercising), passive (like watching TV), social (like hanging out with friends) or solitary (like meditation).

Even during the study, this was evident when the students were given a short break from the tedious process of responding to surveys and invited to watch a funny cat video. Those averse to leisure “… had no way to use the time more productively,” said Malkoc. “We were giving them a break from other, more boring activities. And still, those who believe leisure is wasteful didn’t think watching the videos was as fun as others did.”

In addition, these same students experienced lower levels of happiness and higher amounts of depression, anxiety and stress in their lives.

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Adding a dash of productivity to fun

These results show how difficult it can be to change people’s beliefs about the value of leisure. So, researchers say, a different approach may be needed.

To that end, they examined another study that asked participants a few days after Halloween what they did to celebrate the holiday and to rate their enjoyment of the experience. Some of the activities listed were fun for their own sake, like attending a party, while others served a larger goal, like taking kids out for trick or treating.

Those who thought leisure was more wasteful reported less enjoyment of activities that were solely for fun, like parties. But those who participate in fun activities that also fulfilled responsibilities, like trick or treating with their kids, didn’t experience as much of a reduction in enjoyment even if they had the belief that leisure is wasteful.

These results indicate that leisure-skeptical people may be more able to enjoy fun leisure activities “If leisure can be framed as having some kind of productive goal, that helps people who think leisure is wasteful get some of the same benefits,” says study co-author Rebecca Reczek, professor of marketing at Ohio State.

Keeping this in mind may help as well — especially for those over-achievers: happiness is directly linked to your professional success.

According to James Wallman, author of “Time and How to Spend It,” research shows “happiness leads to success, not the other way around. So if we want to be successful, we need to aim for happiness and resilience.”

When you look at it that way it’s easy to see the importance and value of letting yourself relax and enjoy a healthy dose of leisurely fun.

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Think leisure is a waste? That may not bode well for your mental health — Ohio State News

Viewing leisure as wasteful undermines enjoyment — Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

You’re spending your free time wrong — here’s what to do to be happier and more successful — CNBC


Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.