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Give Yourself Permission to Have Fun First

Written by Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

It seems like there is never quite enough time in the day, the week, or the Summer for everything we want to do. As a therapist, I often encourage people to dedicate more time to self-care, particularly pleasurable and meaningful activities like spending time with friends, being in nature, exercising, or engaging in creative activities. Scientific studies have found that engaging in these types of positive activities improves mood and that increasing positive activities is as effective as more traditional cognitive therapy in the treatment of depression.¹

One of the things that can hold people back from taking the time to engage in these self-care behaviors is a belief that they won’t be able to enjoy them unless they’ve finished all of the other tasks on their to-do list. In fact, research shows that when people are scheduling their time, they usually try to do all of their work before starting their fun.² Perhaps that attitude is a holdover from early lessons in finishing our homework before we could play. But the problem is that many adults find themselves with a never-ending to-do list. If we wait to have fun until all of our work is over, we might never get to have fun at all. In fact, more than half of Americans don’t use all of their vacation time, and the most commonly cited reason is that people are afraid of coming back to a mound of work.³

The findings of a new study⁴ suggest that there is no reason to put off the fun until your work is done. Researchers asked people to estimate whether certain fun activities, like getting a massage or taking a vacation, would be more enjoyable before or after completing difficult tasks or work. Across a number of different types of situations and different respondents to the question, people consistently expressed that leisure would be spoiled if it came before instead of after work. However, when people were actually put in the situation of having a chance to engage in a fun activity, it was equally fun regardless of whether it came before work. In one part of the study, they gave students the chance to use a spa before or after their midterms. Even though students predicted that they would be distracted by midterms and not enjoy the spa as much if they went before the tests were over, in fact, the enjoyment was equal among students who went before or after midterm. Furthermore, students generally did not get as distracted by thoughts about midterms as they assumed they would be, and those thoughts did not have as much of an impact on their enjoyment of the experience as they had predicted.

Overall, people in the study underestimated just how powerful and immersive the experience of enjoyment can be. Our intuition that everything will be better if we can get our work done first is not accurate. So, consider this your official permission slip to take those vacation days or trip to the beach now— your to-do list will still be there when you get back and you might even have more energy to face it after some time having fun.

[1] Cuijpers, P., van Straten, A., & Warmerdam, L. (2007). Behavioral activation treatments of depression: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 27, 318-326.
[2] Ross, W. & Simonson, I. (1991). Evaluations of pairs of experiences: a preference for happy endings. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 4, 273-282.
[4] O’Brien, E. & Roney, E. (2017). Worth the wait? Leisure can be just as enjoyable with work left undone. Psychological Science.

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