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COLUMBUS, Ohio — People who believe leisure activities are a waste of time are more prone to stress and depression, a new study reveals. Researchers with The Ohio State University say shunning joyful breaks from the daily routine often leads to less happiness and worsening mental health.

In a series of studies, the research team examined the effects of a common belief in modern society: that productivity is the ultimate goal and just having fun is simply wasting time. People who most strongly agreed with that belief not only enjoyed leisure less but also reported poorer mental health outcomes.

“There is plenty of research which suggests that leisure has mental health benefits and that it can make us more productive and less stressed,” says co-author Professor Selin Malkoc of Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business in a university release. “But we find that if people start to believe that leisure is wasteful, they may end up being more depressed and more stressed.”

However, study authors explain that some skeptical people could enjoy fun activities if leisure is 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,” adds co-author Professor Rebecca Reczek.

All work and no play leads to depression?

In one study, 199 college students rated how much they enjoyed a range of leisure activities and completed assessments that measured their levels of happiness, depression, anxiety, and stress. Researchers asked them how much they agreed with five statements assessing the degree to which they believed leisure is wasteful.

Results show that the more the participants believed leisure to be wasteful, the less they enjoyed having fun. The findings held true whether the leisure activity was very active — like exercising — or passive (watching TV), social (hanging out with friends), or solitary (meditating). The more the group thought leisure was wasteful, the lower their levels of happiness and the higher their levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.

There are party poopers all over the world

In another study, 302 online participants told researchers what they did to celebrate Halloween in 2019. Some of the activities they could choose from included going to a party, simply for the sake of having fun. Other options served a larger goal, such as taking children out trick-or-treating. The participants then rated how much they enjoyed their Halloween experiences.

The study finds that those who thought leisure was more wasteful reported getting less enjoyment from activities such as parties, which were only about their own personal 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,” explains study co-author Dr. Gabriela Tonietto, an assistant professor of marketing at the Rutgers Business School.

A further study, which compared people in the United States, India, and France, discovered that the French were less likely than those in the U.S. and India to believe leisure was wasteful. However, for those in France who did disapprove of leisure, the mental health implications remained the same.

“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,” Prof. Reczek says. “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.”

Turning that frown upside-down

The researchers were struck by how the negative views of leisure affected enjoyment of anything fun, no matter the situation or how short the leisure activity was.

In another study, the team asked college students to watch a 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. Even then, the same effects persisted.

“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,” Prof. Malkoc reports.

“They had no way to use the time more productively. 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.”

The study, published online by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, shows it is not easy to change people’s beliefs about the value of leisure. The researchers believe some people require a different approach to put a smile on their faces.

For those who believe leisure is wasteful, Dr. Tonietto adds “it may be helpful to think about the productive ways that individual leisure activities can serve their long-term goals.”

“Find ways to make fun activities part of a larger goal in your life,” Malkoc concludes. “Think about how it is productive, instrumental and useful.”

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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