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The way we view free time is making us less happy

BBC: All this can lead to 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 set 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 like 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 concoct the best vacation or leisure experience ever can fuel performativity.

In her 2011 research paper, Keinan first posited that some consumers work to 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 to 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 to signal their status and accomplishments in alternative domains  – in this case, the use of their free time.

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

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