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How Relaxing Can Make You Unhappy

Paradoxically, kicking back on the couch might be making you unhappy. Here's what to do instead.
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After a long day at work, the only thing you might want to do when you get home is kick back and relax on the couch, but according to experts, this very natural impulse may actually be making you unhappy. The latest person to point out the dangers, not only to your waistline but also to your mood, of being a couch potato, is iDoneThis CEO (and occasional Inc. columnist) Walter Chen.

"It turns out that watching TV after a stressful day at work doesn't relax or rejuvenate you. It's worse, according to a recent study. Watching TV after a stressful day leads to feelings of guilt and failure. It doesn't give you the downtime you need to prepare for the next day, nor does it keep you in a neutral state--it actually depletes you," he wrote recently on the company's blog.

Why does planting your butt firmly on the couch have this effect? Largely because most of us tend to view such slacking off as a weak self-indulgence, making the whole approach guilt- rather than relaxation-inducing in the long run.

If you want to really enjoy lounging about watching your favorite shows, "Don't think of watching TV after work as a failure of self-control, think of it as a reward for a hard day's work," instructs Chen.

A Better Alternative to Sloth

That's one way to fix the problem of relaxation making your feel guilty (and Chen is right--you deserve to really unwind without beating yourself up!), but other experts who have noted the same tendency of sloth to end up making us unhappy suggest another remedy--be less slothful.

That doesn't mean not getting in leisure time to refresh and relax. It just means rethinking exactly how you spend those hours. For instance, time use expert Laura Vanderkam suggests that to enjoy the most refreshing weekends possible, you should resist the understandable impulse to not do much of anything at all. Instead, planned activity beats aimless channel surfing or listless snoozing.

"Other kinds of work--be it exercise, a creative hobby, hands-on parenting, or volunteering--will do more to preserve your zest for Monday's challenges than complete vegetation or working through the weekend," she insists.

More Activity = More Hours

Science has demonstrated this paradox as well: More-meaningful activity tends to make you feel less stressed and rushed. Recent research from Wharton compared those who spent their off hours simply decompressing with those who used that time helping others. You'd think just kicking back would be more relaxing, but instead the researchers found that lazing about left folks feeling more stressed and pressed for time, while being of service expanded people's sense of the hours available to them.

"Decompressing in front of the television or getting a massage might be fun and relaxing, but activities like these are unlikely to increase feelings of self-efficacy. Indeed, people's choice to spend additional leisure time on themselves may partly explain why the increase in leisure time in modern life has not increased people's feelings of time affluence," researcher Cassie Mogilner explained.

No one is saying you should quit watching your favorite show entirely, but could a little less couch time make you a little more happy?

 

Last updated: Aug 15, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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