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Mental well-being

Your brain on play time

Making the most of your leisure time is going to help you perform better in the long run.

 Dan Murray-Serter
Dan Murray-Serter
March 10, 2020
4 min read

Why is leisure time important?

The positive effects of leisure and play time include better problem solving, improved work ethic, and improved creativity. Outside of a work performance realm, quality leisure time has also been shown to help with wider psychological and cognitive wellbeing, physical health, and quality of life. We really shouldn't down play the importance of leisure time.

And yet, it’s difficult to prioritise play. Maybe it’s generational—and we live at a time when the expectation is to work, work, work? Or, our identities have become so ingrained in what we do that work and leisure have become blurred and there’s no separation?

Perhaps it’s that the idea of leisure time is almost un-British? Take a look at some of our wise European neighbours with a built-in long, leisurely lunch, or the Nordics high happiness scores. The Netherlands in particular seem to have this sussed; with the highest OECD Work-Life Balance rating. 

On average, in Western society, we get about 5 hours of leisure time a day. Which is plenty of time to get involved in all sorts of things—but instead, most of us spend that time watching tv, which, according to this study from the University of Maryland, has a direct correlation with unhappiness. 

In short, we need to take a more active approach to our leisure time.

The impact of leisure activities on the brain

The networks of neurons that connect to different parts of the brain get stronger with use. And, if you do something frequently, they become permanent and change the way your brain works. 

Socially engaging or mentally challenging activities like adventure sports, art, or mental puzzles, require lots of different areas of the brain to connect, making them more resilient as you age. 

Even if your leisure activities don’t need your brain to be constantly forming new connections, doing the same activity regularly (like playing an instrument), strengthens those particular neural pathways. So, even if function in other areas might fade, those connections will stay strong.

What does the science say?

In a 294 person study, those with positive attitudes towards leisure activities, as well as active engagement in them generally suffer from less psychological distress, anxiety, depression and hostility. They also generally feel healthier, and are more motivated to succeed. 

Several studies have shown that outdoor leisure time like walking are also important. They resulted in improvements in mental health, and other physical activity can be especially beneficial for anxiety. Outdoor, as opposed to indoor leisure activities, were also shown to be helpful in restoring attention. 

Leisure activities have been shown to positively impact motivation and focus at work, but with a caveat. You either need to be dedicated to the activity and it have nothing to do with your work, or, not take the activity seriously at all and it be similar to your work. If you care too much, and it’s too similar to your work—it can have a negative impact.

Get inspired - the best leisure activities

Engaging in downtime is vital for our performance at work, our sense of mental wellbeing, wider health, and protecting our brain function as we age.

Social dinners, kickabouts in the park, reading in the bath—as long you’re engaged in it, and it’s ideally away from a screen—it all counts. 

Here are some non-Netflix ideas to get you started: 

  • Art is a great way to unwind, express yourself, improve focus, and engage lots of different areas of the brain. 

  • Number and word puzzles encourage the brain to be creative and think about things from different angles to solve problems. 

  • Trying to pick up a new language requires creative thinking, and engages the sensory areas in your brain. It is also great for neuroplasticity.

  • Practising a musical instrument you already know or learning something new is a great way to boost memory. 

  • Travel and new experiences engage your social skills, decision-making and ability to adapt.

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