IN YOUR FREE TIME OR ON YOUR FREE TIME?

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Some people try khổng lồ make every hour of leisure perfect, while others hate taking time off altogether. Have we forgotten how to lớn enjoy free time?


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Leisure is the prize, right? We work hard, so we want to play hard; we look forward khổng lồ 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 & deciding how khổng lồ spend leisure time can be very stressful. Some people feel enormous pressure to lớn maximise their downtime with the best choices: researching more, anticipating and spending more money. But, as data prove, this pressure to lớn maximise our fun might get in the way of our enjoyment of leisure itself. 

Additionally, some people struggle khổng lồ view leisure as worthwhile at all. These individuals – often in high-stress, high-paying jobs – prioritise productivity khổng lồ 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, & finding ways to change our attitudes, could be beneficial for everyone – and help people lớn start enjoying themselves again. 

The changing concept of leisure 

“Leisure has dramatically evolved over the centuries & 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 và 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 và doing philosophy. Leisure was not easy, but it was supposed to lớn be gratifying.”


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 lớn walk through arcades with a turtle on a leash.

Anat Keinan, associate professor of sale 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 lớn 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 bởi vì get some time off – & 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 khổng lồ purchase và enjoy goods và services has risen much more rapidly than the amount of time available for us to lớn enjoy them”. This pressure manifests in our decisions. “We feel lượt thích we want to lớn have the best bang for our buck and minutes,” explains Aeon, “So we invest more money in leisure. Better hotels, better movie experiences – lượt thích IMAX or Netflix in 4K – better everything.”


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All this can lead lớn 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 mix 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 lượt thích 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 lớn concoct the best vacation or leisure experience ever can fuel performativity.

In her 2011 research paper, Keinan first posited that some consumers work khổng lồ 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 lớn 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 lớn signal their status và accomplishments in alternative domains  – in this case, the use of their không tính phí time. 

“Users post carefully curated slide shows of themselves crossing marathon finish lines and climbing Machu Picchu. Conspicuous consumption used khổng lồ 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 lớn enjoy leisure at all. Some try lớn ‘hack’ leisure by applying productivity techniques, says Aeon, lượt thích listening to lớn 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 & 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 & greater reported depression, anxiety and stress.


Malkoc describes two types of leisure: ‘terminal leisure’, where the activity và the goal are ‘fused’ together, lượt thích attending a Halloween các buổi party just for fun, is immediately rewarding và an end goal in itself; & ‘instrumental leisure’, like taking a child trick-or-treating và thereby ‘checking off’ parental duties, which is a means to lớn an end & 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 và her co-authors wanted to see if they could manipulate participants’ beliefs about leisure & 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 khổng lồ evaluate how well-written the article was. 

But researchers were more interested in what came afterwards. They offered participants a break và gave them a funny cat video clip to watch khổng lồ 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 lớn believe it is productive did not experience bolstered enjoyment levels. In other words, trying to lớn 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 lớn 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 lớn the strength of their belief.”


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Malkoc also compared samples from different nations. Participants from India & 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 và 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 và as low as 15% in the French sample, she explains. 

Hope for leisure intensifiers and avoiders 

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

For those seeking khổng lồ 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) & the over (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, và one equally grandiose thing at the over (for instance, a spa day or indulgent meal) lớn elevate the entire experience & maximise hedonic utility overall. 

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

For those who find it hard to take time off to lớn 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 và productivity benefits of taking a much-needed vacation) allows many consumers lớn relax without feeling guilty,” she says.


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 lớn 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 lớn Disneyland, for example, might have terminal value for the children, và offer instrumental leisure for the parents. “Making them understand… that this is a way to lớn get productive or fuel another purpose might help them let their guard down và enjoy it a little bit more.”

Enjoying leisure might even be a learned response, similar lớn the way we build up stamina gradually at the gym. Smaller vacations – a 30-hour getaway at a khách sạn – might be just short enough for such individuals to leave responsibilities behind. For longer trips, Malkoc suggests allowing driven individuals to lớn work for a short window once a day might actually be less stressful than asking them lớn 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 vị leisure is to relax, let your guard down, make good memories & 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.”