Researchers find the benefits of free time depend on our beliefs about it

While many – from Aristotle to the Dalai Lama – have opined on the state of human happiness, a new Rutgers-led study finds that utter contentment depends, at least in part, on believing that leisure activities are not a waste of time.

The findings from four studies appear in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

“While work can impart meaning and a sense of purpose in life, leisure, such as time with family and friends, hobbies and exercise, is what makes our lives happy and healthy,” said lead author Gabriela Tonietto, an assistant professor of marketing at Rutgers Business School–Newark and New Brunswick. “But not everyone sees value in time spent on leisure. Many hold a general belief that these activities are an unproductive use of time – at the cost of their own happiness. We find that believing leisure is wasteful causes time spent on leisure to be less enjoyable.

According to the study, thinking of leisure as wasteful prevents us from enjoying our leisure pursuits – especially purely pleasure activities such as hanging out with friends, watching TV and just relaxing.

More goal-oriented leisure activities, like exercise and meditation, tend to feel productive and so are still enjoyed whether or not people see value in their leisure.

The results show that those who do not enjoy pleasure-driven activities are more depressed, anxious and stressed. The findings suggest happiness may be driven not only by whether people engage in leisure, but whether they find value in what they are doing.

In one part of the study, the researchers asked 302 people to recall what they did for Halloween, how much they enjoyed the holiday and their attitudes toward leisure in general. Those who believe leisure is wasteful enjoyed their Halloween less, especially when they engaged in activities like going to a party compared to other activities that might be fun but might also fulfill responsibilities, like trick or treating with their kids. 

In another part of the study, participants read a news article meant to convince the reader that leisure is wasteful, unproductive or productive.

Next they watched the “Best Funny Cat Videos 2019” and were asked how much they enjoyed it. Those who believed that leisure is wasteful or unproductive didn’t enjoy watching the video as much as those who thought leisure time was productive and important.

The researchers suggest that people who think leisure is wasteful relate it to instances where it is used to procrastinate at the expense of work or necessary tasks. Sometimes, reseachers say, leisure is used to waste time, but most of the time, leisure is valuable.

“Attitudes can be difficult to change, so it may not be possible to shift beliefs about leisure overnight,” said Tonietto. “For those who think of leisure as wasteful, focusing on the productive ways that individual leisure activities can serve their long-term goals can help.”

The research was conducted in collaboration with researchers from The Ohio State University and Harvard University.