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The way we view free time is making us less happy
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Some people try to make every hour of leisure perfect, while others hate taking time off altogether. Have we forgotten how to enjoy free time?
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Leisure is the prize, right? We work hard, so we want to play hard; we look forward to our time off, believing that the more leisure time we have, the better life will be. Enjoying that time – or savouring that coveted end goal – should come naturally. 

However, research shows that both having and deciding how to spend leisure time can be very stressful. Some people feel enormous pressure to maximise their downtime with the best choices: researching more, anticipating and spending more money. But, as data prove, this pressure to maximise our fun might get in the way of our enjoyment of leisure itself. 

Additionally, some people struggle to view leisure as worthwhile at all. These individuals – often in high-stress, high-paying jobs – prioritise productivity to the extent that they can’t enjoy time off, often to the detriment of their mental health. 

However different their problems with leisure, both groups struggle with enjoying time off for the same reason: the way we perceive and value leisure has changed, problematically. Understanding this evolution, and finding ways to change our attitudes, could be beneficial for everyone – and help people to start enjoying themselves again. 

The changing concept of leisure 

“Leisure has dramatically evolved over the centuries and across cultures,” says Brad Aeon, assistant professor at the School of Management Sciences at the University of Québec in Montréal. “One thing that’s consistent about leisure, however, is that it has always been contrasted with work.” 

Two-thousand years ago, concepts of work and leisure were associated with servitude and freedom, respectively. In Ancient Greece, explains Aeon, most of the labour was outsourced to slaves, while wealthier parts of society pursued other activities. “Leisure was an active state of mind. Good leisure meant playing sports, learning music theory, debating qualified peers and doing philosophy. Leisure was not easy, but it was supposed to be gratifying.”

Today we’re seeing yet another transition: a lack of leisure time now operates as a powerful status symbol

Aeon believes that a shift occurred when the Romans started viewing leisure as a way of recuperating in preparation for more work, a transition that accelerated significantly during the Industrial Revolution. By the 1800s, the kind of leisure that signified status had shifted, too; the wealthy led overtly idle lives. A popular example is philosopher Walter Benjamin’s description of the fashion, around 1893, to walk through arcades with a turtle on a leash.  

Anat Keinan, associate professor of marketing at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, has conducted extensive research on the symbolic value of time. She explains today we’re seeing yet another transition: a lack of leisure time now operates as a powerful status symbol. “On Twitter, celebrities ‘humblebrag’ about ‘having no life’ and ‘being in desperate need of a vacation’,” she points out. In the workplace, being part of the long-hours working culture is still seen by many as a badge of honour.                                                                                                     

In fact, those with the most money to spend on leisure are most likely also putting in the longest hours. “Highly educated people (think surgeons, lawyers, CEOs) often go for well-paid jobs that require highly productive candidates willing to work long hours,” explains Aeon. “This means that those who complain the most about not having enough free time are wealthy and educated.” That fuels the idea that we must maximise leisure’s ‘hedonic utility’, or enjoyment value, when we actually do get some time off – and make every hour count. 

The leisure maximisers 

Economists call the idea that we must maximise our time off the intensification of the value of our leisure time. In his book, Spending time: The Most Valuable Resource, US economist Daniel Hamermesh explains that “our ability to purchase and enjoy goods and services has risen much more rapidly than the amount of time available for us to enjoy them”.  This pressure manifests in our decisions. “We feel like we want to have the best bang for our buck and minutes,” explains Aeon, “So we invest more money in leisure. Better hotels, better movie experiences – like IMAX or Netflix in 4K – better everything.”

For some people, leisure has come to represent collectible experiences that convey status, often on social media (Credit: Getty)

For some people, leisure has come to represent collectible experiences that convey status, often on social media (Credit: Getty)

All this can lead to hours poring over reviews diligently planning leisure activities. That might not necessarily be a bad thing, researchers have found, as pre-trip anticipation greatly accounts for vacationers' happiness. But too much anticipation might set us up for a seemingly zero-duration holiday. New research shows that we judge future positive events as both farther away and shorter than negative or neutral ones, leading us to feel like a holiday is over as soon as it begins. 

Equally, the way we chase top-notch leisure experiences has made recreation more stressful than ever. High expectations may clash with our experienced reality, making it feel anti-climactic, while trying to concoct the best vacation or leisure experience ever can fuel performativity.  

In her 2011 research paper, Keinan first posited that some consumers work to acquire collectable experiences that are unusual, novel or extreme because it helps us reframe our leisure as being productive. By working through our experiential checklist instead of seeking simply to enjoy the moment, she writes, we build our “experiential CV”. 

And just like a traditional resume, where we show off our best selves, this experiential CV can become a breeding ground for competition. Keinan believes social media exacerbates our focus on productive leisure. Referencing a 2021 research paper, she suggests people are pivoting to signal their status and accomplishments in alternative domains  – in this case, the use of their free time. 

“Users post carefully curated slide shows of themselves crossing marathon finish lines and climbing Machu Picchu. Conspicuous consumption used to be a wayfor people to display their money through scarce luxury goods. Now, they flaunt how they spend their valuable time only on activities that are truly meaningful, productive or spectacular,” she says. 

The people who hate leisure 

Some struggle to enjoy leisure at all. Some try to ‘hack’ leisure by applying productivity techniques, says Aeon, like listening to a podcast while jogging or watching Netflix shows at twice the regular speed. Others may not truly take time off at all. For example, only 14% of Americans take two weeks' vacation in a row, a finding in keeping with the overwork culture. The same study reports that as of 2017, 54% of American workers didn’t use up their vacation time, leaving 662 million days reserved for leisure unused. 

Part of the problem, new research shows, is how comprehensively we internalise the message that leisure is wasteful. Selin A Malkoc, associate professor of marketing at the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University and co-author of the study, says certain people perceive leisure as lacking value, even when it doesn’t interfere with their pursuit of goals. These negative beliefs about leisure are associated with lower reported happiness and greater reported depression, anxiety and stress.

Certain people perceive leisure as lacking value, even when it doesn’t interfere with their pursuit of goals

Malkoc describes two types of leisure: ‘terminal leisure’, where the activity and the goal are ‘fused’ together, like attending a Halloween party just for fun, is immediately rewarding and an end goal in itself; and ‘instrumental leisure’, like taking a child trick-or-treating and thereby ‘checking off’ parental duties, which is a means to an end and feeds a long-term goal. The ability to enjoy terminal leisure is a stronger predictor of wellbeing than enjoyment of instrumental leisure, the study showed. 

In one of the study’s experiments, Malkoc and her co-authors wanted to see if they could manipulate participants’ beliefs about leisure and get them to enjoy it more. Each group was presented with a different version of an article that framed their understanding of leisure, either as wasteful in terms of goal-achievement, unproductive or as a productive way of managing stress. Participants were then asked to evaluate how well-written the article was. 

But researchers were more interested in what came afterwards. They offered participants a break and gave them a funny cat video to watch to see how much they enjoyed it.   

Unfortunately, priming our beliefs about leisure only works in one direction, the researchers found – the wrong one. Those who read the articles framing leisure as wasteful enjoyed the experience 11% to 14% less than the baseline (the control group, who read about coffee makers), while those cued to believe it is productive did not experience bolstered enjoyment levels. In other words, trying to prime participants’ receptivity towards enjoying leisure more was about as effective as having them read about coffee, suggesting that our attitudes are deeply entrenched. 

It’s a sobering finding. “We had this group of undergraduate students in the lab doing a series of mostly mind-numbingly boring studies – there’s nothing enjoyable about it,” says Malkoc, “And then, we offer them a mental break to watch a fun video. The fact that even though they couldn’t use those brief moments for something better, they still couldn’t enjoy themselves... attests to the strength of their belief.”

The view that leisure is wasteful can be deeply entrenched – meaning some people really struggle to enjoy time off (Credit: Getty)

The view that leisure is wasteful can be deeply entrenched – meaning some people really struggle to enjoy time off (Credit: Getty)

Malkoc also compared samples from different nations. Participants from India and America, both nations with overwork cultures, endorsed the belief that leisure is wasteful more strongly than participants from France, which has social norms, “less restrictive of enjoying life and having fun”. In fact, while Malkoc estimates about 30% of the population endorses the ‘leisure is wasteful’ belief on average, this varies greatly across cultures, going as high as 55% in the Indian subsample and as low as 15% in the French sample, she explains. 

Hope for leisure intensifiers and avoiders 

Fortunately, there are ways to help both groups. The first, regardless of which end of the spectrum you fall on, is to relax the productivity mindset. Keinan says a way to do this is by “assuming a broader perspective on life and anticipating your long-term regrets, as it allows people to enjoy the present more”. 

For those seeking to intensify leisure, Aeon recommends using the peak-end rule, a cognitive bias that influences the way we remember events. For example, he says, at the dentist’s office, we remember the peak (when the pain was at its worst) and the end (the candy we’d get as we left); the average sum of these experiences adjusts the emotional intensity. So, for holidays, he recommends doing one thing that’s “completely insane” in the middle, such as bungee jumping, and one equally grandiose thing at the end (for instance, a spa day or indulgent meal) to elevate the entire experience and maximise hedonic utility overall. 

He recommends using mindfulness to help savour leisure experiences. “It expands your subjective perception of time (i.e., you feel like you have more of it) and enhances memory formation, which means you’ll not only feel like your vacations lasted longer, but you’ll remember them a lot better.” And in keeping with research on anticipation, having multiple smaller vacations to look forward to rather than one massive one could also maximise our enjoyment value. 

For those who find it hard to take time off to begin with, Keinan suggests using a functional alibi – a practical excuse for enjoying themselves. “Having a ‘functional alibi’ that articulates a purpose for an activity (such as the health and productivity benefits of taking a much-needed vacation) allows many consumers to relax without feeling guilty,” she says.

The only ‘right’ way to do leisure is to relax, let your guard down, make good memories

Combating the ‘leisure is wasteful’ mindset might also mean emphasising the value of an activity by aligning it with another utilitarian goal, instead of trying to reframe leisure as a concept. “Vacations are meant to be ‘terminal’, but we can have different goals embedded within them,” says Malkoc. A trip to Disneyland, for example, might have terminal value for the children, and offer instrumental leisure for the parents. “Making them understand… that this is a way to get productive or fuel another purpose might help them let their guard down and enjoy it a little bit more.”  

Enjoying leisure might even be a learned response, similar to the way we build up stamina gradually at the gym. Smaller vacations – a 30-hour getaway at a hotel – might be just short enough for such individuals to leave responsibilities behind. For longer trips, Malkoc suggests allowing driven individuals to work for a short window once a day might actually be less stressful than asking them to unplug completely. 

For both groups – and even those somewhere in the middle – the persistent fear that we are not using our time ‘right’, whether by having an extravagantly ‘collectable’ experience or just being uber productive, can derail the very purpose of leisure. Because the only ‘right’ way to do leisure is to relax, let your guard down, make good memories and trust the pieces will fall into place. 

“If you approach a vacation with a ‘should’ mindset, you might be messing it up,” warns Malkoc. “Don’t let your belief that you ‘need to get the best out of this’ get the best of you.”

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