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Embrace Leisure Time—It Could Hurt Your Mental Health if You Don’t

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Key Takeaways

  • In today’s culture of chronic productivity, leisure time is often viewed as a waste.
  • But new research shows that those who share this view are more likely to experience negative mental health outcomes.
  • Designating time for leisure activities is an important part of maintaining good mental health.

In today’s “stay busy” culture of hustling and side-hustling, a chronically productive mindset has become the norm. Outside of work and activities deemed constructive or profitable, there’s little time for play and even less emphasis on its importance to mental health.

Leisure looks different for everyone. Whether your free time is devoted to a hobby, some form of physical exercise, or simply lounging on the couch with “Friends” reruns, research has shown that leisure activities in all their forms benefit psychological, social and physical health from childhood into adulthood.

But more and more often, time spent on leisure activities is considered time wasted. To better understand how this kind of thinking affects mental well-being, a group of researchers looked at individuals with this mindset and found that this view accompanied less happiness and higher levels of stress and depression.

The Research

Researchers conducted four studies to examine the mental well-being of individuals who consider leisure time to be wasteful. The studies’ findings, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, show that, the more participants believed leisure to be wasteful, the less they enjoyed the leisure activity. This thinking also correlated with lower levels of happiness and higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

“Our research shows that not all people gain the full benefits of leisure,” says study co-author Gabriela Tonietto, PhD, assistant professor of marketing at the Rutgers Business School.

Gabriela Tonietto, PhD

The belief that leisure is wasteful and unproductive is clearly reinforced by our current cultural fixation on work and productivity.

— Gabriela Tonietto, PhD

In one of the studies, researchers asked 199 participants to self-report on levels of leisure enjoyment, as well as levels of happiness, depression, anxiety and stress. Those that reported less enjoyment of leisure also reported lower levels of happiness and higher levels of depression, stress and anxiety.

By demonstrating that beliefs about leisure can influence enjoyment and mental health, the findings support the idea that leisure is wasteful may harm long-term well-being. But psychologist Marie-Helene Pelletier, PhD, MBA, says this perception around how we spend leisure time—or having it at all—is understandable within today’s popular work culture.

“For many, sacrificing leisure time for work time, particularly in early career stages, has been rewarded,” she says. “And this has contributed to shaping personal beliefs that leisure is wasteful.”

This thinking isn’t unique to office culture. Society has largely shifted toward a glorification of work in relation to self-worth and identity. Within this frame of mine, devoting time to leisure is viewed as unnecessary.

“The belief that leisure is wasteful and unproductive is clearly reinforced by our current cultural fixation on work and productivity,” Tonietto says. “Recent research shows that busyness has become a status symbol, and people even brag about being busy on social media.”

The Benefits of Being Present

Taking time specifically devoted to our own personal enjoyment, regardless of what the activity is, benefits mental health by allowing us to unwind and potentially connect with others. Pelletier also points out that failing to prioritize leisure time can lead not only to health risks but can also impact our resilience both at work and in our personal lives.

“Great reminder that, whether we see leisure time as wasteful or not, and I would argue whether we enjoy it or not, incorporating this in our life is critical, just like other lifestyle choices such as exercise,” she says.

For individuals who are hyper-focused on progress and productivity or find it difficult to relax, reframing leisure time as an important part of a healthy lifestyle could make it easier to incorporate. Pelletier suggests thinking about mental health as a supply and demand relationship, and leisure time contributes to a healthy supply.

“There is an argument to be made about just valuing leisure time for what it is, terminally motivated—as an end in itself,” she says. “But in the end, whether we do it from a terminally motivated or from an instrumentally motivated perspective—so a means to an end—what is most important is to do it.”

Investing the time can feel difficult at first, especially if you’re already feeling symptoms of depression or anxiety. Think about the things you enjoy doing. Make note of the times you’re feeling relaxed or having a really good time.

Marie-Helene Pelletier, PhD, MBA

Whether we see leisure time as wasteful or not, and I would argue whether we enjoy it or not, incorporating this in our life is critical, just like other lifestyle choices such as exercise.

— Marie-Helene Pelletier, PhD, MBA

“Identify one leisure activity you could try, and start small, ridiculously small,” Pelletier says. “Sometimes starting with a 5-minute moment. Protect time for this activity... I worked with a client who loved creative writing, but could never get to it. In the end, it became worth it for her to carve out 20 minutes a few mornings a week before the day took over.”

Incorporating these small goals into your chosen leisure activity can make the time feel more productive. Write for 20 minutes, read 25 pages of a book, walk a mile or block out an hour for a phone call with a loved one. Even simply adding the activity to your to-do list and crossing it off when you’ve finished can feel like a small achievement.

Developing this behavior takes time. At first, you might feel that you should be getting work done or doing something more “productive” with your time. But allowing yourself the opportunity to do the things you enjoy contributes to the long-term goal of investing in your mental health.

What This Means For You

Taking time each week to indulge in an activity that brings you joy or relaxation can be more beneficial to your mental health than getting ahead on emails or spending another hour at the office.

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