Work demands in the 21st century can be all-consuming. First there was the rise of “always-on” devices that allowed work to follow us home (has anyone seen my PalmPilot???). Then, just as we mastered the “do not disturb” function on our phones (kids, when I was your age my phone had an “off” button), the pandemic made our home our workplace.

All these increasing work demands can take a toll on our health and wellbeing. We’ve written before on the research that shows that not being able to psychologically detach from work negatively affects our general wellbeing. And it’s not surprising that studies also show that getting too little leisure time away from work harms wellbeing as well.

But if constant work and too little leisure time harms wellbeing, does that mean that unfettered leisure time, putting our feet up and sipping wines or lattes is the high road to optimal wellbeing?

Surprisingly, no. More leisure time does not automatically equal greater health and wellbeing.

Scientific studies consistently find that both too little and too much leisure time can make us feel worse. In fact, in a retrospective study of time use among 21,000 people, researchers found that wellbeing initially increased as free time in the past 24 hours increased. But then wellbeing levelled off at about two hours of leisure time and began to decline after five hours of leisure time.

So, if increased wellbeing isn’t a given from having leisure time, how can we make sure that our leisure time supports our ability to recover and recharge from work (and enjoy life!) and contributes to good mental health and wellbeing?

Here’s a few research-backed keys to maximising wellbeing through leisure time.

  1. Check your mindset towards leisure time

    Feeling that leisure time is wasteful can potentially increase stress and depression. A series of studies by researchers from the University of Ohio found that people who strongly agreed with the “leisure time is wasteful” belief not only enjoyed leisure less, but also reported poorer mental health in the form of lower levels of happiness and higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress. And it didn’t matter whether the leisure activity was active (exercising) or passive (watching TV), social (hanging out with friends) or solitary (meditating). So are you a “leisure time is wasteful” kind of person? The researchers suggested an initial step toward enjoying your leisure time more may be through doing more “productive” leisure activities rather than just packing everything in and putting your feet up.

  2. Get the right leisure time “mix”

    As noted earlier, too much leisure time can actually make you feel worse. But there’s a catch. Lower wellbeing was only reported by people who had a lot of leisure time and chose to spend that time in “unproductive” activities such as watching TV or on social media. Study participants who had a lot of leisure time but spent it in what the researchers labelled “productive” activities, such as working out, hobbies, or learning something new, actually reported high levels of wellbeing. What’s going on here? Well, it seems that when we have too little time for leisure we feel stressed and that impacts on our wellbeing. But when we have too much leisure time and don’t use it well, we feel unproductive and that also lowers wellbeing. How can we use this information? Well, don’t overdo the binge watching for a start. If you have moderate amounts of leisure time then a mix of productive and more idle activities will probably both contribute to feeling good. But if you have a lot of time on your hands, you’ll probably need to focus on doing activities that make you feel more productive, or give a sense of  “purpose”.

  1. Using your leisure time well can also boost longevity and health

    Getting the right mix of leisure time is important to our mental health. But how we spend our leisure time can also affect our physical health – good physical health boosts wellbeing. A recent study found that healthy adults aged 40 to 60 years who spent their free time in sedentary activities, such as using a computer or watching TV, and got minimal physical activity, had an increased risk of stroke. The least active group, the super-couch potatoes, had approximately 7x the stroke risk of active groups (we did say mind the binge watching, right!). There is good news though. Leisure time physical activity is associated with longer life expectancy. And the even better news for couch potatoes is that this benefit happens even at relatively low levels of activity and regardless of body weight! So while the recommended amount of weekly activity is 2.5hrs, and getting this amount of activity was associated with life expectancy gains of as much as 4.5 years, even people who said they got half of the recommended amount of physical activity still added 1.8 years to their life.

  2. The most simple way to recharge may be on your doorstep

    People may differ in whether they like “productive” or “idle” leisure time, but recharging and boosting wellbeing really doesn’t require anything more fancy than spending time at the local park or forest – and we’re blessed with lots of those green spaces in NZ! In fact, a huge analysis of 140 studies on 290 million people found that spending time outside in green spaces reduces salivary cortisol, a physiological marker of stress, as well as reducing diastolic blood pressure and heart rate. The researchers also found that more exposure to green spaces was associated with a reduced risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death and preterm birth, and increases in sleep duration. It’s not clear why we get all these benefits from being in nature and living near nature. The researchers speculated it could be more opportunities for physical activity and socialising but Japanese researchers have also pointed to exposure to a diverse variety of bacteria present in natural areas that may benefit our immune system and reduce inflammation.

So it’s easy to fantasise about throwing in our jobs and lying on the beach all day but who would’ve thought that too much lying around can make us feel bad as well? As we head into another year of work, it may be worth asking yourself how do you spend your leisure time away from work? Are you getting enough? And what does your leisure time “mix” look like? Can you spot any opportunities to use your leisure time to better support your wellbeing?