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Stressed About Nothing – How Your Attitude Affects Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Priti Parekh, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 10, 2023
Medically reviewed by Priti Parekh, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 10, 2023

If lying on the beach makes you feel like you’re wasting your time and that you should be more productive–then you’re probably right. At least that’s what recent research seems to suggest. Feeling that leisure is wasteful and unproductive may lead to less happiness and higher levels of stress and depression when you participate in leisure activities.


The benefits of leisure are well documented, along with the evidence that leisure can be simultaneously as good as it is adverse. In a series of studies, researchers examined the effects of a common belief in modern society: That productivity is the ultimate goal and time’s a-wastin’ if you’re just having fun.


Leisure satisfaction


The concept of leisure attitude was primarily developed in 1982. Researchers tried to understand individuals’ willingness or predisposition to engage in leisure activities, which they found to be influenced by the individuals’ attitudes toward leisure. Those same authors developed the concept of leisure satisfaction, which they defined as the positive perceptions or feelings individuals form (elicit or gain) as a result of engaging in leisure activities. The authors describe leisure satisfaction as the degree to which a person feels content with their current leisure activities. The authors relate leisure satisfaction to six dimensions, including psychological, educational, social, relaxational, physiological, and aesthetic dimensions, which then become the measure of the extent to which individuals perceive that certain personal needs are met or satisfied through leisure activities.


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In addition, according to another study, the satisfaction obtained from the participation in leisure activities–and having positive attitudes toward leisure–have been associated with increases in self-esteem. 


Attitude to leisure


In a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, it became apparent that how we think about leisure–our attitude towards leisure–actually impacts directly on levels of stress and depression.


One of the study’s authors, Selin Malkoc says, “There is plenty of research which suggests that leisure has mental health benefits and that it can make us more productive and less stressed. But we find that if people start to believe that leisure is wasteful, they may end up being more depressed and more stressed.” 


Changing how we view leisure


Leisure can be defined as time away from paid work and obligations and is meant to be enjoyed. However, how one perceives leisure is going to affect how much one enjoys it. 


One way of getting around this issue for some skeptical people would be to reframe leisure activities as being 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,” says Rebecca Reczek, one of the study’s authors.


Gabriela Tonietto, another author of the study, found that for those who believe leisure is wasteful, “it may be helpful to think about the productive ways that individual leisure activities can serve their long-term goals.” In other words, connect each leisure activity to something you want to accomplish. Malkoc suggested that one should “find ways to make fun activities part of a larger goal in your life; think about how it is productive, instrumental and useful.”


If you do fall among the skeptics who do not see the inherent value of engaging in leisure activities, before you hit the gym, take that much needed coffee break, go for a massage, or take a day off work with friends or weekend away, take time to frame the leisure activity as useful and beneficial. Think about how the activity will lead toward greater productivity–or you may just come out of your massage feeling more stressed  and depressed than you did going in.

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