However you like to take time for yourself, from reading to hiking to playing video games, leisure time can be a vital way of relaxing, promoting good mental and physical health, boosting social relationships, and inducing happiness. But whether we fully experience those benefits, a new study suggests, may depend on the way we view leisure time itself.
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, explores how the enjoyment of leisure time changes when or if we think of that time as ‘wasteful’. It not only finds that people who believe leisure time is unproductive find it less enjoyable, but also that these beliefs are associated with depression, anxiety, and stress.
For the first study, the team recruited 302 participants who had recently celebrated Halloween. These participants first indicated what they had done for the holiday, including going to a party, going to a bar, going to a haunted house, taking kids trick or treating, or something else. All of the events were either instrumental (a means to an end, such as taking children trick or treating to fulfill a parental responsibility) or terminal (something done for its own end or for pleasure).
Participants then indicated how much they had enjoyed these activities and how much they agreed with five statements assessing whether time spent on leisure activities is wasted or unproductive. And those who had engaged in terminal leisure activities (like going to a party) indicated overall that they were less likely to enjoy those activities if they believed that leisure is wasteful.
A second study replicated the first, only this time with more general activities (e.g. spending time with friends, watching TV, meditating); these participants also completed measures of happiness, depression, anxiety, and stress. Again, a belief that leisure is wasteful was associated with significantly reduced enjoyment of activities done for their own end, but not of activities done to fulfil a particular purpose. Those holding these negative beliefs also reported lower levels of happiness and higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress, suggesting that such beliefs may negatively impact wellbeing (though we can’t make any conclusions here about cause and effect).
In a third study, participants were put into one of four conditions, with all reading a mocked-up New York Times article. Depending on the condition, the article described leisure as wasteful, unproductive, or productive; those in the final condition read an unrelated article about coffee makers. Participants then watched a funny cat video, before rating how much they enjoyed the video and completing measures on positive and negative affect.
Reflecting results from the previous studies, those who were primed to believe leisure is wasteful and unproductive were less likely to enjoy watching the video than those who read that it was productive and those who were in the control condition. And while there were no significant effects on negative affect, positive affect was lower in the wasteful and unproductive conditions compared to the productive and control conditions. A final study replicated these findings.
Overall, the study suggests that viewing leisure as wasteful or unproductive can significantly impact not only our enjoyment of downtime but actively counteract the positive effects of such time on our wellbeing. Future research could also look at how beliefs about leisure time affect people’s behaviour. Do people who find leisure time less enjoyable engage in fewer recreational activities, or does it simply change the types of activity they pursue?
And while priming people to believe leisure is “productive” mitigated the negative emotional effects, more work could be done to explore interventions that are more oriented towards enjoyment. Leisure time, after all, should be a place to detach from goal setting, growth and other markers of productivity.