In the common narrative, we are all scheduled to the hilt. Our work lives are dictated by 15-minute slots on Outlook. So should you treat your leisure time the same way, scheduling in that workout and drinks with a friend?
No! Say researchers at Washington University. According to a series of studies (written up in Time — originally in Health — see link here), people who schedule their leisure time enjoy it less. It feels too much like work.
Longtime readers know I am quite a planner, and so I have to admit, I have been puzzling over this contribution to the marketplace of ideas since alert reader ARC sent me that link. I feel this conclusion is lacking some nuance, much like people used to think that fat makes you fat, and now we know it is not so simple. Other research has found that anticipation accounts for a major chunk of human happiness. It is hard to anticipate something you haven’t planned.
There are likely some other things going on too. Some people hate to plan and some people love to plan. If a study (and maybe the population at large) had more “Ps” than “Js” in the old Myers-Briggs taxonomy, you might decide that planning was problematic, when in reality it is problematic for some people and not for others. I also think it is quite possible that the researchers hit upon the phenomenon that we never feel perfect bliss in the moment. You can be unhappy at a party you have looked forward to for months because your feet hurt. (I would point out — if you planned to go, and enjoyed the anticipation, however, you still reaped real enjoyment! Just not during. But does it have to be during to count?).
But anyway, let us say this conclusion is true: planning our leisure means we enjoy it less. So what? The problem with accepting the logical conclusion — stop planning your leisure time! — is that in order to enjoy leisure time at all it has to happen. And if you have a busy life with moving parts — for instance, if you are a working parent of small children — you have to plan or there will be no leisure in your life beyond watching TV. That is the easiest thing to do, and it does not require any planning to do during the downtime that presents itself after the kids go to bed or are occupied with other things.
Now I grant that watching TV with a glass of wine can certainly be fun. I will even grant that if you have a dinner reservation at a hot restaurant with your two best friends — which required coordinating with their schedules, and calling the restaurant, and booking a sitter if you are the sole adult in charge — you may, while sitting on the couch watching TV, feel like it is a bit of trouble to roust yourself, get dressed, give the sitter instructions, and so forth. If a researcher talked with you at that moment, you might express your displeasure. However, in the grand scheme of things, you will probably still be happy you went. The evening will be a source of more happy memories than sitting on the couch with the wine would be.
I think this gets at the distinction between effortless fun, and effortful fun. Because effortful fun involves, well, effort, and effort can be unpleasant, it is always easier to under-invest in this side of life. But if we refuse to engage in effortful fun because of that unpleasantness, this would basically mean a life of no parties, no performances that could not be decided on as you were walking past the venue at the last possible second, no getting together with friends who have busy schedules, no book clubs, no volunteer gigs, etc. I find it hard to believe that such a life would be more enjoyable than one that was better planned.
A version of this article originally appeared on Laura Vanderkam’s website.