“There is plenty of research which suggests that leisure has mental health benefits and that it can make us more productive and less stressed,” explained study co-author Professor Selin Malkoc.
“But we find that if people start to believe that leisure is wasteful, they may end up being more depressed and more stressed.”
The researchers surveyed college students and asked how they spent their free time, whether those activities were done for their own sake or if they participated in them to further a goal, and how much value they put on their leisure time.
The experts found that individuals who placed little value on their leisure time often reported feeling less enjoyment and were more likely to experience depression. This phenomenon is cross cultural – even the French, who stereotypically enjoy plenty of leisure activities, were less happy when they prioritized working over fun.
“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,” said study co-author Rebecca Reczek.
Even when people are forced into a leisure activity, such as college students being asked to watch a funny video in between study, no benefit is detected.
“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,” said Professor Malkoc.
On the other hand, the negative perception of leisure time can be mitigated when it is directed toward an end goal. For example, people who otherwise may not enjoy Halloween saw a reduction in their stress when a leisure activity such as trick-or-treating was for their children.
“Find ways to make fun activities part of a larger goal in your life,” concluded Professor Malkoc. “Think about how it is productive, instrumental and useful.”
The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.