Believing that leisure is unproductive and wasteful is linked to higher levels of stress and depression and lower levels of happiness, a study finds.
Many people believe that being productive is the ultimate goal of life and if you’re not serving some greater purpose, then you’re wasting time.
However, people who hold this view are more likely to report poor mental health and enjoy their leisure time the least.
Dr Selin Malkoc, study co-author, said:
“There is plenty of research which suggests that leisure has mental health benefits and that it can make us more productive and less stressed.
But we find that if people start to believe that leisure is wasteful, they may end up being more depressed and more stressed.”
Serving a greater goal
One way for the productive-minded to enjoy leisure more, though, is to see it as part of a greater goal, explained Dr Rebecca Reczek, study co-author:
“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.”
Dr Malkoc agrees:
“…think about the productive ways that individual leisure activities can serve their long-term goals.
Find ways to make fun activities part of a larger goal in your life.
Think about how it is productive, instrumental and useful.”
The conclusions come from a series of studies, one of which asked people how they celebrated Halloween.
Some activities, such as going to a party, were fun for their own sake while others, like taking children trick-or-treating, served a larger goal.
People subscribing to the popular belief that leisure is wasteful found the party less enjoyable.
However, this was not the case for the trick-or-treating, said Dr Gabriela Tonietto, the study’s first author, said:
“Those who participated in fun activities that fulfilled responsibilities, like trick or treating with your kids, didn’t see such a reduction in how much they enjoyed their Halloween.”
Negative views about leisure are worldwide
It is not just Americans who view leisure time as wasteful — the view is globalised, said Dr Reczek:
“We live in a global society and there are people everywhere that hear the same messages about how important it is to be busy and productive.
And once you believe that, and internalize the message that leisure is a waste, our results suggest you’re going to be more depressed and less happy, no matter where you live.”
Negative views about leisure can be surprisingly damaging, affecting people’s ability to enjoy themselves even in the simplest ways.
In one study, students were invited to do a boring task which had a break in the middle when they watched a funny cat video.
However, people who view leisure as a waste of time couldn’t enjoy the video at all.
Dr Malkoc explained:
“These are students who are coming into the lab to answer surveys, which can be boring.
In the middle of that we give them a funny video to watch, which you would expect would be a nice break – and even then, some participants didn’t enjoy it as much.
They had no way to use the time more productively.
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.”
The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Tonietto et al., 2021).