In this busy, modern culture, there can be a lot of pressure to be on the go, doing something “productive.” This societal attitude can make us feel as though we’re wasting time whenever we engage in activities such as watching TV shows (or sports), having whimsical conversations with friends or family, or simply spending time outdoors relaxing.
I’ve felt this myself when doing something leisurely, which used to make me feel rather guilty. Although I knew it wasn’t particularly healthy to work every second from the time I hop out of bed in the morning to the time that I go to sleep at night, I’d still have this nagging feeling that I should be busier, doing more work-related activities, rather than “any of that fun stuff.”
But when we pull back and look at the messaging we’re bombarded with—whether in podcasts, motivational videos, or psychology articles—it’s understandable that we can sometimes feel as if we’re not spending our time as wisely as we should. However, recent research indicates that this pervasive cultural perspective isn’t good for our health—or our longevity.
Fun Isn’t Always a Waste of Time
Okay, if you’re reading this article, you’ve probably been made to feel (at one time or another) the pressure to be constantly doing something productive. You may have also been made to feel that work should come first and that having fun is akin to “goofing off.”
This common societal viewpoint may come with unsettling side effects, according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. People who held this view not only enjoyed their off-time less, the research found, but they were also more prone to experiencing heightened levels of stress and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Selin Malkoc, associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University and co-author of that research article, summarized a dynamic that many people may have experienced even if they weren’t aware of it.
“There is plenty of research which suggests that leisure has mental health benefits and that it can make us more productive and less stressed,” Malkoc said. “But we find that if people start to believe that leisure is wasteful, they may end up being more depressed and more stressed.”
Another of the study’s co-authors, Rebecca Reczek, professor of marketing at Ohio State, agreed.
“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,” she said.
Since participants in the study viewed doing any sort of leisure activities as a waste of time, they also felt less joy when engaging in them. This perspective was prevalent across the board, whether the leisure activity was passive (such as watching TV), active (such as working out), social (such as enjoying time with friends), or even solo (such as practicing meditation).
Overall, these same participants who were averse to leisure activities experienced less happiness and higher levels of anxiety and depression.
“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,” Malkoc said.
Fun and Productivity Aren’t Mutually Exclusive
Perhaps we need a different approach when it comes to changing perspectives about the importance and value of leisure activities.
Researchers conducted another study that involved asking participants what they did for Halloween a few days after the holiday. Among the activities they could choose from were doing fun things for fun’s sake (such as going to a party), or doing something leisurely that also involved some sort of objective (such as taking their kids trick-or-treating).
The outcome of the study indicated that the more leisure-skeptic people experienced less of a drop in enjoyment of the leisure activity when they engaged in something with an objective, as they felt that their leisure activity wasn’t as wasteful.
“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,” Reczek said.
When people shift their perspectives of leisurely activities in this way, maybe they’ll be able to better appreciate the value of letting their hair down and allowing themselves to have more fun in life.