We are taught as children that we must finish our work before we play. This has been the mantra for generations before us, as the belief is that enjoyment not earned will ultimately taste sour and feel unsatisfying. However, new research finds that leisure experiences tend to be pleasurable regardless of when we experience them.
This concept may seem foreign and completely false upon first impression, but the researchers believe that people are more inclined to save leisure for later because they think that feelings of guilt or distraction will somehow lessen their enjoyment.
Perhaps it is the fear of not knowing how we will feel in the future that makes us feel this way.
“Our research suggests that people may over-worry about waiting for a ‘right time’ to enjoy themselves, continually postponing fun rather than having it. We find that people intuitively care a lot about saving leisure until work is finished, but it turns out that this doesn’t always do much for us. It’s easy to forget that fun activities are, after all, fun activities. Getting a massage will likely feel good regardless of what else is going on,” says Ed O’Brien of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
The initial part of the study surveyed members of a university community, students in an MBA program, and online participants. The overall consensus by participants was that they would expect to not enjoy leisurely experiences if they happened before some sort of experience that required effort, such as work.
To help validate this initial finding, an experiment was constructed and presented to 181 museum patrons. The experiment consisted of two activities: the Magic Marker task and the Fixed Labor task. For some visitors, a random card draw was done to determine the order in which they would complete each task. Other visitors were asked to simply imagine going through the two tasks.
Both groups reported their reactions or predicted reactions, rating how much they liked or disliked the tasks, how much pleasure or displeasure it brought them, and how positive or negative it was.
Expectedly, those who were asked to simply imagine their reaction to the purpose tasks asserted that the enjoyable Magic Marker task would be less enjoyable if completed before the more grueling Fixed Labor task.
Those who actually experienced both tasks and engaged in the fun task first found it was just as enjoyable as the other participants.
Another experiment done involved 259 students during their mid-term examination. Some were asked to enjoy a spa day complete with massage, foot bath, candles, and calming music, while others simply imagined how it would feel.
Participants who were asked to predict their feelings gave a similar response to the participants of the previous experiment mentioned. The student who actually participated in the spa day admittedly did feel distracted by their looming exams, but it did not seem to dampen their ability to enjoy the moment of relaxation.
Using this information to our advantage
“Engaging in leisure comes with a host of benefits that people may miss out on. In many cases, we might be laboring towards an ultimate payoff that we could have enjoyed just as much at the start,” said the study authors.
The researchers of this study believe that their results can be used to improve the accuracy of peoples predictions, ultimately removing biases that influence behavior based on false information. However, they say that there may be instances where putting off an important task will distract you from your ability of enjoyment. The notion that work needs to be done before play helps us get through the day-to-day grind.
Related: 10 Tips for happiness