Study: Guilt about 'wasteful' leisure time negatively affects mental health

By HealthDay News
New research shows that consciously taking leisure time can make people happier and more productive, and that feeling guilty about it -- or not taking it at all -- is bad for mental health. File Photo by stevedimatteo/Pixabay
New research shows that consciously taking leisure time can make people happier and more productive, and that feeling guilty about it -- or not taking it at all -- is bad for mental health. File Photo by stevedimatteo/Pixabay

Struggling to decide whether to spend another hour at the office or take a late afternoon stroll?

Put on your walking shoes.


Making leisure time a priority is good for your mental health. For many, though, especially folks who prize productivity above all, it's a hard sell, a new study finds.

"There is plenty of research which suggests that leisure has mental health benefits and that it can make us more productive and less stressed," said study co-author Selin Malkoc. She is an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University, in Columbus.

"But we find that if people start to believe that leisure is wasteful, they may end up being more depressed and more stressed," Malkoc said in a university news release.

For the study, researchers at Ohio State, Harvard and Rutgers did a series of experiments to find out what happens when people go through life viewing productivity as the ultimate goal, and having fun as a waste of time.


In one, the investigators asked 199 college students to rate how much they enjoyed several leisure activities and then had them complete assessments that measured their levels of happiness, depression, anxiety and stress. Students were also asked how much they agreed with five statements, such as "Time spent on leisure activities is often wasted time."

The more they saw leisure as a waste, the less they liked leisure activities -- be it something active like exercising, something passive like watching TV, something solitary like meditating or something social like hanging out with friends.

Those who saw leisure as wasteful were less happy and more depressed, anxious and stressed, the researchers found.

In another experiment, 302 volunteers were asked how they celebrated Halloween and how much they enjoyed it. Again, those who saw leisure as a waste of time reported less enjoyment of parties and other holiday activities they viewed as just for 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 Rutgers Business School in Newark, N.J.

And the negative views of leisure affected enjoyment of anything fun -- regardless of the situation or how short the leisure activity was, the findings showed.


In a third study, college students were asked to watch a short, funny cat video in the middle of other parts of an experiment. Even though they were at the lab to do mostly "boring" survey work, and some had read that leisure could help manage stress and boost energy, some still didn't enjoy the videos, the researchers said.

The experiments show it's not easy to change people's beliefs about the value of leisure, the team noted.

If you view leisure as wasteful, think about the productive ways that individual leisure activities can serve your long-term goals, Tonietto suggested. In other words, link each leisure activity to something you want to accomplish.

Another study co-author, Rebecca Reczek, is professor of marketing at Ohio State. She said, "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."

And the negative view of leisure isn't an exclusively U.S. phenomenon.

"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," Reczek said. "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."


The report was published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

More information

Harvard Medical School has more about leisure-time exercise.

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