When I first took my husband to Turkey, I tried to prepare for anything that could go wrong – delayed flights, language difficulties, digestive issues.
But I wasn’t ready when, as we walked into a beautiful beach club on the Aegean coast, he grumbled, “What are we going to do?”
“What do you mean?” I said. “Lie down, enjoy the sun and the sea.
“But what about the things to do – beach volleyball, frisbees, water sports?”
“There is none of that. We are just here to relax.
It was the first time that I had an idea of our cultural differences. He is American and I am Turkish. He needed to “do stuff”. I wanted to relax. Over the years it has gotten better for chilling out – more Turkish, if you will.
But I started to notice all the ways the imperative to “do things” continued to work in the United States.
He transformed and migrated into pithy slogans like YOLO – “you only live once” – and “assemble and grind. “I’ve seen it in the way people boasted of being busy, as if it were a badge of honor. And I noticed it in the rise of “culture of restlessness“or the collective desire to do the most in a minimum of time, while always keeping an eye on the next opportunity.
At the root of it all is the belief that resting or relaxing is a waste of time.
I asked myself: how could these attitudes influence the well-being of people? And are some cultures more likely than others to promote such beliefs?
Ruin all the fun
In one study, 141 undergraduates participated in our behavior lab at Ohio State University. They arrived to complete a series of surveys in which we asked them how much they agreed with certain statements – “Time spent on leisure activities is often time wasted”, “Most leisure activities are a way to burn time ”- which measured whether they endorsed the idea that leisure is unnecessary.
During these otherwise monotonous and tedious studies, participants watched four fun and popular YouTube videos that were rated as entertaining by a different set of participants. After watching all four videos, participants reported how much they enjoyed them.
We found that participants who thought recreation was a waste did not enjoy the videos as much.
In a follow-up study, we asked participants how much they enjoyed engaging in a variety of leisure experiences – some active, like exercising, and some passive, like watching TV. Others were social – hanging out with friends – or lonely, like meditating.
We found that those who viewed recreation as waste tended to enjoy different types of activities less. In addition, these people were also more likely to be stressed, anxious and depressed.
An attitude that is difficult to shake
In another study, we wanted to see to what extent this was a uniquely American phenomenon. We therefore recruited participants from France, the United States and India – countries chosen to be low, medium and high respectively, on The industrial-indulgence dimension of Hofstede, which captures the extent to which a given culture is work-oriented and values autonomy.
We asked them to rate their level of agreement with the idea that recreation is a waste. Consistent with prevailing stereotypes, there were far fewer French participants who thought leisure time was a waste compared to Americans and, most importantly, Indians.
But the French who viewed leisure negatively were as likely to be stressed, anxious and depressed as their American and Indian counterparts. So while Americans and Indians might more easily believe that recreation is a waste, the consequences of this belief are universal.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a pronounced effect on how we live, work and socialize. During this period, many people took a step back and reassessed their priorities.
We wondered if people’s attitudes towards recreation had changed. Since we had data from pre- and post-pandemic studies, we were able to compare the two.
To our surprise, we found no evidence of a decline in these beliefs after the pandemic.
For us, it revealed how deeply ingrained the belief that recreation is a waste can be.
Another study confirmed this. In it, participants read an article that discussed the effectiveness of coffee makers or described recreation in one of three possible ways: wasteful, unproductive, or productive. Participants then played the Tetris video game for five minutes and told us how enjoyable it was. We found that those who read an article describing hobbies as unnecessary and unproductive did not enjoy gambling as much as those who read hobbies as productive or about coffee makers.
However, describing leisure as productive did not increase pleasure beyond its basic levels. So it seems that viewing leisure as productive – say, a good way to deal with stress or recharge your batteries – doesn’t increase people’s enjoyment.[Get the best of The Conversation, every weekend. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.]
Not all leisure activities are created equal
In the studies I described above, we have focused exclusively on what psychologists call “terminal recreation” – recreation that takes place only for fun.
It differs from “instrumental hobbies” – hobbies that can serve a larger purpose, such as making friends or staying healthy, and therefore feel more productive.
We therefore investigated whether negative attitudes towards leisure would be less detrimental to instrumental leisure activities.
In 2019, the Monday following Halloween, we asked attendees to remember what they had done and tell us how much they enjoyed it. We found that the belief that leisure was a waste was particularly detrimental to the enjoyment of terminal activities such as going to a party. On the other hand, it boosted the enjoyment of instrumental activities, like getting their children to make treats, which could be considered a bonding experience.
The good news? Whether a particular activity is a terminal or instrumental hobby is relative and depends on the person and the situation. For example, people may exercise for fun (terminal motivation) or to lose weight (instrumental motivation). The frame can always be changed.
It might not be easy to change the way you think about hobbies. But by reframing leisure activities as instrumental, more people can hopefully derive their true benefits: satisfaction, recovery, improved mental health – and, yes, relaxing on the beach to relaxing on the beach. .