Viewing Leisure Activities as Unproductive

What’s New in Psychology?

Viewing Leisure Activities as Unproductive  

 Jim Windell    

             Why waste your time being unproductive?

            Why spend time daydreaming, reading a novel or sitting on your porch watching the sunset when you could be busy and productive?

            Does relaxing on a hammock, swinging on a swing or dangling your feet in the water ever accomplishing anything to make the world better or make you more money?

            Actually, feeling like leisure is wasteful and unproductive may lead to less happiness and higher levels of stress and depression. At least, that’s what new research suggests.

            Researchers from Ohio State University, Rutgers and Harvard examined the effects of a common belief in modern society: that productivity is the ultimate goal and you’re wasting time if you're just having fun.

           Recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, an article described a series of studies investigating the effects of believing that fun time was time wasted.

           In one study, 199 college students rated how much they enjoyed a variety of leisure activities and completed assessments that measured their levels of happiness, depression, anxiety and stress. The participants were also asked how much they agreed with five statements assessing the degree to which they believed leisure is wasteful (such as “Time spent on leisure activities is often wasted time”). The results of this study showed that the more the participants believed leisure to be wasteful, the less they enjoyed leisure activities. And it didn’t matter whether the leisure activity was active (exercising), passive (watching TV), social (hanging out with friends) or solitary (meditating). Also, the more they thought leisure was wasteful, the lower their levels of happiness and the higher their levels of depression, anxiety and stress.

           Another study, involving 302 online participants, asked people what they did to celebrate Halloween a few days after the holiday in 2019. Some of the activities they could choose from were fun for its own sake, like going to a party. Other activities served a larger goal, such as taking your kids out trick or treating. The participants were asked to rate how much they enjoyed their Halloween experience. The results of this study showed that those who thought leisure was more wasteful reported less enjoyment of activities, like parties, that were only about the fun.

          “But those who participated in fun activities that fulfilled responsibilities, like trick or treating with your kids, didn't see such a reduction in how much they enjoyed their Halloween,” said study co-author Gabriela Tonietto, an assistant professor of marketing at the Rutgers Business School.

           A third study involved asking college students to watch a short funny cat video in the middle of other parts of an experiment. Some read articles beforehand that touted leisure as a way to manage stress and increase energy. The results of this study showed that the same effects persisted. That is, the study showed it is not easy to change people's beliefs about the value of leisure.

           “These are students who are coming into the lab to answer surveys, which can be boring. In the middle of that we give them a funny video to watch, which you would expect would be a nice break - and even then, some participants didn't enjoy it as much,” commented Selin Malkoc, co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business.

          “They had no way to use the time more productively,” Malkoc added. “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 went on to say that if people start to believe that leisure is wasteful, “They may end up being more depressed and more stressed.”

          A bright side of the research results, according to the study authors, was that perhaps some skeptical people could enjoy fun activities if leisure was part of a larger goal, and not an end in itself.

          “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,” said study co-author Rebecca Reczek, professor of marketing at Ohio State.

         These studies suggest that feeling like leisure is wasteful and unproductive may lead to less happiness and higher levels of stress and depression. People who subscribe to such beliefs not only enjoyed leisure less, but also reported poorer mental health outcomes. But, if people can connect leisure activities to something they want to accomplish, then they may enjoy them more.

          To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Tonietto, G.N., Malkoc, S.S., Reczek, R.W. & Norton, M.I. (2021). Viewing leisure as wasteful undermines enjoyment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 97: 104198 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2021.104198

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