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Thinking Leisure Is a 'Waste of Time' Can Worsen Your Mental Health

Couple dancing in the living room.

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Key Takeaways

  • Many see leisure as a missed opportunity for productivity, which researchers say correlates with lower happiness and poorer mental health.
  • However, true leisure can offer many mental health benefits.
  • To enjoy leisure time try starting off by incorporating it slowly into your daily life.

Work hard, play hard. You snooze you lose. In many modern societies, these sayings are commonplace. But it turns out, placing productivity above leisure can take a toll on your mental health.

In a recent study, researchers from The Ohio State University, Rutgers, and Harvard University examined how biases towards productivity impact our experience of leisure, happiness level, and mental health.

After evaluating more than 1,300 people, they found that if you view leisure as a "waste of time," then you're likelier to be more depressed, anxious, and stressed.

Gabriela Tonietto, PhD, study author and assistant professor of marketing at Rutgers Business School in New Jersey, tells Verywell that she sees friends struggling with this all the time.

"You see them thinking, 'I can’t just watch TV, I need to do something productive while I do it,'" she says.

A possible antidote? Experts recommend imagining that you're resting now to work more efficiently later.

"Reframe [leisure as] actually spending time to buy exponentially more time, energy, and performance," Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, MPhil, executive coach and psychologist based in Singapore, tells Verywell.

The study was published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in late August.

When Leisure Is A "Waste of Time"

"People tend to say they really want leisure—maybe because it's what we're supposed to say," Tonietto says. "But there’s a lot of reasons why people might not engage in it."

Our beliefs surrounding productivity seem to be one of those reasons. Researchers found that believing leisure is "a waste of time" undermines its potential for enjoyment and mental health benefits.

They were able to conclude this through individual assessments and activity-based experiments. Some of the activities given to participants were “just for fun." These activities did not have a specific “productive” purpose (like going to a Halloween party), while others were thought to be enjoyable but also fulfilled a responsibility (like taking their kids trick-or-treating on Halloween).

They saw that people who found nonproductive leisure activities, like the party, to be time-wasters enjoyed them less. These participants also scored higher on assessments of depression, anxiety, and stress, and lower on assessments of happiness. In general, they didn’t report finding much “fun” in their lives.

They also ran experiments to see whether people would find “nonproductive” activities more enjoyable when they had no other alternative. That is, during the experiment, they did not have the option of using their time “productively.”

It turns out that people who held this overall negative view of leisure did not enjoy the activity—in this case, watching a funny cat video—as much as others.

The researchers also noted that it is very difficult to change peoples’ beliefs and opinions surrounding productivity, fun, and leisure time.

They were able to reduce enjoyment in fun activities by first priming participants with the belief that leisure is wasteful or unproductive. But people did not enjoy leisure more when primed with the idea that leisure was productive.

Findings Consistent Across At Least 3 Cultures

Since ideas regarding productivity can vary across culture, the researchers tested to see how the findings would hold up across three cultures. They studied participants in the U.S., India, and France.

In one study, the findings mirrored cultural stereotypes. People from India believed that leisure is wasteful, due to a pronounced work ethic and economic necessity. Meanwhile, the French were less likely to believe this. The U.S., compared to these two countries, falls somewhere in the middle.

However, the researchers did find that French people who did view leisure to be "unproductive" showed similar scores in depression, anxiety, stress, and happiness as their American counterparts.

Selin Malkoc, PhD, associate professor of marketing at Ohio State and study author, tells Verywell that differences in cultural beliefs around leisure have previously impacted her.

When she first took her now-husband, who is American, to her home country of Turkey, it was difficult to convince him "that sitting on a beach and relaxing was a worthy endeavor.” She says he felt he needed activities beyond sitting down and enjoying the view.

The idea that leisure is a waste of time may be more prevalent in the U.S. than in other countries. Still, the authors say, individual differences impact this belief.

What This Means For You

Enjoying leisure time is crucial for your mental health. Try scheduling time to do activities you enjoy that aren't considered "productive" into your daily routine.

How to Make Leisure Work For You

Cultural and individual tendencies influence our beliefs about leisure. But if you often find it to be a waste of time, changing this belief can potentially benefit your overall mental health.

Malkoc and Tonietto suggest reframing leisurely activities as a means to an end. For example, instead of talking about beach time as "doing nothing," think of it as an opportunity to build connections with others.

Similarly, Neo, who works with clients who describe themselves as "high-performing overachievers," says that there are specific strategies you can employ to learn to appreciate leisure.

Many of the people she works with participate in leisure through planned vacations and sports, sometimes with colleagues.

"Typically, they tend to go into [leisure] with their heads like a tornado. They're lost in their heads, they cannot switch off, and they feel like they need a vacation away from vacation," she says. "And then they feel bad that they are not engaged with the people they are with, or that other people are noticing that."

To cope, they might then "numb" themselves with more thoughts of work, strategy, or alcohol.

When her clients fall into this numbing spiral, they may start to engage in "precrastination"—the opposite of procrastination: When people rush to get tasks done as soon as possible, prioritizing quantity over quality.

When precrastinating, we are often anxious or stressed, and running on the amygdala, a known "fear center" of the brain. When this happens, Neo says, it can "hijack" other brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with logical thinking and planning.

"So then we will end up making decisions that create more mess," she adds.

When her clients struggle with this, she talks about the dangers of precrastination, and then works with them to change their beliefs regarding leisure. Instead of viewing it as a waste of time, or as a barrier to keeping their companies and jobs afloat, she encourages them to look at it as an investment for the future.

"This time doesn't have to be vacation every week," she says. It can be just taking a break, going for a run, reading a book genre that you love, or spending time with loved ones.

If taking off an hour or two makes you nervous, she says, start slow. Try 10 minutes, then 20, and so on. Or, if a friend or partner invites you to a social event that is going to last for a few hours, reach a compromise and only stay for half the time.

In addition to making these small changes, Neo also encourages her clients to recognize the benefits of leisure found in neuroscience.

"Creativity is really about putting together many disparate concepts," she says. So if you take the time off to read a romance novel, play games with your kids, or just sit on the beach and do nothing, then you are likely to be more creative and efficient when returning to work.

"The more different domains you expose yourself to," she says, "the more you're able to get inspired across different fields and come up with creative, innovative solutions that other people wouldn't necessarily think about."

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  1. Tonietto, GN, Malkoc, SA, Reczek, RW, & Norton, MI. Viewing leisure as wasteful undermines enjoyment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology97, 104198. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2021.104198

  2. Rosenbaum DA, Gong L, Potts CA. Pre-crastination: hastening subgoal completion at the expense of extra physical effort. Psychology Science. 2014;25(7):1487-1496. doi. 10.1177/0956797614532657. Published May, 2018.