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Benefits of leisure depend on our opinion of it, Rutgers-led study finds

In a recent Rutgers-led study, people who thought of leisure as wasteful were found to receive fewer mental health benefits from it than normal. – Photo by Pixabay.com

A recent Rutgers study has found that people who find leisure activities wasteful tend to be more depressed, anxious and stressed, according to an article from Rutgers Today.

This is because people who see leisure as wasteful are unable to fully reap the benefits of it, which include enjoyment or relaxation, said lead author Gabriela Tonietto, a professor in the Department of Marketing at Rutgers Business School.

The study’s design included temporarily convincing participants that leisure was either wasteful or not wasteful, making them complete a leisure activity and then measuring their enjoyment afterward, she said. It used multiple sample groups, including online participants and Rutgers undergraduate students, which sometimes resulted in distinct patterns.

“There is a weak relationship where people are more likely to say that leisure is wasteful when they are younger,” she said.

The study observed international attitudes toward leisure as well and compared them to those in the U.S. Tonietto said the U.S. fell in between France and India, with participants in France having more positive attitudes toward leisure and participants in India being more likely to see leisure as wasteful.

Despite these differences, the countries observed similar patterns within their populations that saw leisure as wasteful, Toniettos said.

"For the people who think of leisure as wasteful, irrespective of their culture, we were finding relationships like higher reported depression, anxiety and stress,” she said.

With regard to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Tonietto said there seems to be no effect on the prevalence of negative or positive attitudes toward leisure. Though, she said that might change in the future due to the increased popularity of working from home, where lines between work and leisure are less distinct.

The study was partly inspired by American work culture, specifically people’s hesitancy to enjoy leisure despite saying they prioritize work-life balance, Tonietto said. Even though the number of vacation days in the U.S. is increasing, she said people are not taking more of them — in fact, many Americans actually work during their vacations.

Tonietto said this opens up a conversation about how to help people who see leisure as inherently wasteful to value their time off, so they can recuperate and avoid burnout.

“There’s some potential need here to ensure that not only are people taking vacation days and time off but that they see value in that,” Tonietto said. “Part of the reason these days are being offered is because giving a people a rest actually makes them perform better. There’s only so long that we can perform at a really high level without getting burned out ... but not everyone readily identifies with that.”

A large majority of participants in the study said they saw leisure as wasteful when they used it to procrastinate on work, but people may then take that belief and apply it to leisure in general, making it difficult for them to enjoy it at any time, Tonietto said.

For those who find all leisure wasteful, completing specific leisure activities such as exercise or meditation that offer tangible benefits can be helpful, she said.

“Try to think of how individual leisure activities actually serve your goals as a way of getting more enjoyment out of them if you’re someone who battles with thinking of leisure as being wasteful in general,” Tonietto said.

She said she has a personal connection to the findings of the study as a former undergraduate and graduate student who would often feel guilty for engaging in leisure. While working toward a goal such as a degree, it is common to feel like making time for leisure is unproductive or wasteful, she said.

“But I started learning more about the mental health benefits and the productive benefits of leisure,” Tonietto said. “And started paying a little bit more attention to how important certain leisure activities were to me.”

She said the findings of the study confirmed what she had already learned through experience, including the importance of taking time for yourself, enjoying hobbies and being in the moment. She hopes this study makes people rethink the way they view leisure and their own attitudes toward it.

“Just having leisure might not actually be sufficient,” Tonietto said. “You might need to actually rethink about your attitudes toward these activities because it turns out the way we actually think about them matters for how much of those benefits we’re able to get.”


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