Why Leisure Is Never a Waste of Time
How we view leisure activities affects the mental health benefits they provide.
Posted September 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- Leisure activities are associated with lower levels of anxiety, depression, and stress, as well as an increased sense of well-being.
- New research shows that viewing leisure time as wasteful or unproductive can undermine its benefits.
- Fan activities are a form of "serious leisure" that can improve well-being as long as they are not viewed as a waste of time.
The past 18 months have brought new challenges as people have negotiated the new norms and restrictions of a global pandemic. Many of the things that brought people joy were no longer possible. Concerts were canceled. Theater productions shut down. Vacation plans were postponed. There were fewer opportunities for leisure, defined as the use of free time for enjoyment. Leisure activities are not work-related. We engage in recreational and leisure activities as an escape from work, with the intent of experiencing joy and pleasure.
Some of the changes in leisure time were not due to COVID-19 restrictions, but to an increased discomfort with doing things that are not considered productive during such a serious time. With so much cultural emphasis on being busy and purposeful, leisure can feel unproductive or even selfish, leading to feelings of guilt. While some people felt guilty about taking time for leisure activities even before COVID, being confronted with an increased threat of illness in everyday life made it even more difficult to do something just for the enjoyment of doing it. At a time when we’re all busier than ever, who has the time to do something just for fun?
A new study finds that devaluing leisure time, however, may not be good for us.
The Impact of Viewing Leisure as a Waste of Time
In a recent analysis of four research studies with over 1,300 participants in four different countries, people who felt that leisure activities were a waste of time had higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress than those who valued engaging in leisure pursuits.
Even when those people who believe leisure is wasteful did allow themselves some leisure time, they were less able to enjoy themselves—and thus less able to experience the benefits. Believing that leisure is unproductive undermined their enjoyment of whatever leisure activity they were pursuing, especially when the activity was undertaken as an end in itself without any instrumental goal.
The Benefits of Leisure
Far from being a waste of time, engaging in leisure and recreational activities has been found to have significant benefits. Taking time to nurture the self, whether it’s taking a candlelit bath, a brisk walk in the park, or watching a favorite TV show, can help us manage stress, provide a sense of balance, and bolster our self-esteem. There are both physical and psychological benefits of leisure time, with reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression; improved mood; and higher levels of positive emotion. Engaging in recreational activities can also lower cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate.
Psychologists have long recognized the benefits of leisure in improving well-being. Bandura felt that leisure experiences were essential to healthy development, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs included leisure as one of the components of self-actualization. Pursuing an activity that is not considered traditionally productive, but “just for me,” can provide a sense of control and choice that many people do not feel in their everyday lives. Living through a pandemic has reduced that sense of control even more, leading to greater feelings of helplessness and depression. Engaging in a leisure activity just for the pleasure of it can be a powerful antidote. Even outside of a pandemic, people who engage in recreational activities report greater satisfaction with their lives overall.
The challenges of the pandemic have increased concerns about productivity. With more people working from home and online, there can be pressure to be constantly working. However, working constantly without a break can reduce productivity; taking a break for some leisure time can lead to renewed energy and cognitive efficiency, as well as a more positive mood when work is resumed.
Fandom as "Serious Leisure"
Many aspects of fandom are a type of leisure activity. Fans who participate in creating fan fiction or fan art, or who travel to fan conventions or concerts or football games, are engaging in what is known as serious leisure. This concept is based on the idea of involvement, a psychological trait defined as a state of motivation, arousal, or interest toward a recreational activity or associated product—anything from a television show to an actor to a basketball team. The level of involvement takes into account the pleasure a person gets from participating in the leisure activity, how often they engage in it and for how long, and how important that show or actor or team is to the person.
The same mental health benefits that flow from any type of leisure apply to most fan activities, but fans struggle with similar feelings of guilt about engaging in something that is not seen as productive. Of course, the individual must also navigate the constraints to participating in serious leisure, including time and money spent. People use the strategy of constraint negotiation to avoid or reduce the impact of the barriers to leisure participation and enjoyment. Fans who are able to balance those constraints can benefit from engaging in fandom-related leisure activities, including stress reduction, self-expression, a sense of belongingness, and an opportunity to experience joy.
Any type of leisure activity can have a positive impact on quality of life. If you’re a fan of something, make space in your busy day for indulging in a little bit of leisure time to enjoy the thing you love. Watch a Marvel movie or an episode of Supernatural. Read some fanfiction—or write some. Attend an online fan convention if travel to an in-person one isn’t financially or practically feasible. Crochet a little Loki or Wonder Woman.
However you choose to use the leisure time as a fan, try not to let feelings of guilt interfere with the joy the experience can bring. Far from being a waste of time, those moments of leisure can lower stress at a time when we all need that.
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