Research on Leisure Time and Stress

Why You Goof Off When Stressed, And Why That's Okay

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Have you noticed that when you’re swamped with work and feeling stressed, you sometimes have a strong urge to do the opposite of what you need to do—work—and waste time with t.v., social media, or curling up with a good book?  This kind of procrastination can add to your stress as your time to get things done runs out and your work remains untouched.  But before you berate yourself for being lazy, you may want to know that there’s a reason you’re tempted to do this, and it may not be a bad thing.

  (Besides, you shouldn’t berate yourself, anyway—there are better ways to change your unwanted habits, which you can read about here.)

Research suggests that when you’re under heavy pressure to get a lot done and are feeling stressed from this and other pressures, the urge to spend more time in leisure activities may actually be a smart response.  In a study by researchers from the University of Minnesota and Pennsylvania State, 2022 subjects kept diaries for eight days and recorded how they spent their time, including daily stressors and leisure time activities.  (Stressors included arguments and tensions as well as home, school, and work stressors.)   It was found that high daily stress reduced positive affect (or good mood) and prompted people to allocate more time to leisure activities than usual, which increased their positive affect and helped buffer them from the damage of high daily stress frequency.

  The study also found that those with less leisure time in general were more likely to create additional leisure time as a coping mechanism, while those who had plenty of free time didn’t need to do this as much.  

But does this drive to manage stress with leisure activities work in one’s favor, or is it just a form of procrastination and self-sabotage?

  Does it help to be in a good mood in order to get work done, or is it more important to just do the work and let the good mood follow from that?

It turns out that some research does support the positive-affect-makes-us-more-effective-at-life theory.  Not only do leisure activities and other positive-affect-promoting pastimes work to lift our mood and relieve stress in the process, but we are generally more resilient toward stress and effective in our lives as a result when we work on lifting mood to reduce stress.  This is because we tend to build our inner and outer resources when we are feeling happier, so those resources are more available to us in times of distress.   (You can read more about the research behind this and how it all works for stress management here.)

What does this mean for you?  It means a few things.  If you find that when the going gets tough, you just want to goof off for a few minutes, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It’s your mind trying to help your body relax so you can be more effective in the tasks at hand.

  It may also be healthy for you to balance your stress levels before getting started with more work.  If you’re temped to indulge in leisure activities when you have excessive work to do, you’re not unusual, and you’re not unwise.  Leisure activities can help us to maintain balance, and can be important coping activities; it’s just important to handle them the right way.

It’s best to find ways to be productive when you have high-demand days, or you’ll just feel more stressed as you try to get your work done after hours of procrastination.  The key here is to find balance—to find ways to relax your mind and body and get into a better mood (which is what you are trying to do with leisure activities), so you can put more energy and enthusiasm into getting things done.  Here are some ways to do that.

Sources: 

Schiffrin, Holly H.; Falkenstern, Melissa. The impact of affect on resource development: Support for the broaden-and-build model. North American Journal of Psychology. 2012, Vol. 14 Issue 3, p569-584. 

Quan, X., Yarnal, C., and Almeida, D.  (2014).  Does leisure time moderate or mediate the effect of daily stress on positive affect?  Journal of Leisure Research, 46(1), 106-124.

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