You’re doing your weekend wrong

There is a wrong way to relax.
There is a wrong way to relax.
Image: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
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Just because you didn’t work last weekend doesn’t mean you had a good weekend.

White-collar workers are logging longer hours than a generation ago, and Americans excel at the losing game of competitive busyness. In this context, a weekend without email and spreadsheets might seem like a victory in and of itself—and it is, kind of. But if you don’t feel rejuvenated and keen to face Monday after two work-free days, there might be a reason: You’re doing your weekend wrong.

Here’s what The Bad-Good Weekend looks like. After a week of long hours and late nights, Friday comes at last. You shift into indulgent me-time mode, collapsing on the couch for a marathon of sports watching or Netflix. Add in some shopping, Facebooking, spa-ing, a bout of hard partying, and you the man, right?

No, you not. Positive psychologists advise that the path toward fulfillment lies in leisure of a different, and higher, order. According to University of Calgary sociologist Robert Stebbins, most leisure falls into two categories: casual and serious. Casual leisure pursuits are short lived, immediately gratifying, and often passive; they include activities like drinking, online shopping, and the aforementioned binge-watching. These diversions provide instant hedonic pleasure—quite literally, actually, as all these pastimes cause the brain to release dopamine and provide instant soothing comfort. In a culture where many people exist all week in an amped-up, overworked state, casual weekend leisure easily becomes the default for quick decompression.

But serious leisure is a far more beneficial pursuit. Serious leisure activities provide deeper fulfillment, and—to invoke a fuzzy ’70s word—“self-actualization.” Self-actualization is the pinnacle of human development, according to humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow, who describes it as “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” In other words, getting self-actualized is the whole point of life, and passive, hedonistic leisure (fun and occasionally necessary as it might be) won’t get you there.

Instead, the weekend goal should be “eudaimonic” happiness, which is a sense of well-being that arises from meaningful, challenging activities that cause you to grow as a person. This means spending the weekend on serious leisure activities that require the regular refinement of skills: your barbershop-quartet singing, your stamp collecting, or slightly less dorky, but still equally in-depth, projects. You pursue serious leisure with the earnest tenor of a professional, even if the pursuit is amateur.

If we’re not very good at leisure, it’s probably because we’re too good at work. In his famous essay “In Praise of Idleness,” published in 1932, Bertrand Russell bemoaned the quality of leisure in an increasingly mechanized world:

“There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency…The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.”

Russell couldn’t have imagined just how thick the ranks of the “cult of efficiency” would become. Devices keep us tethered to our workplaces at night and on weekends; our offices are in our pockets and purses. The concept of “free time” becomes obsolete—or looks like failure—when every second can be monetized. In a live-to-work society, where your career is also your identity and status, the instinct for leisure atrophies. Paradoxically, then, getting a good weekend means working at leisure. We need to be as vigilant about the quality of our free time as we are about the quality of our work.

In researching my book, The Weekend Effect, I talked to many people who protect their weekends and use them wisely. What I found surprised me: They weren’t just chilling. They had learned that a good weekend isn’t about turning off the brain and checking out. Instead, it’s about corralling that precious free time for meaningful pursuits—the harder the quest, the more rewarding the bounty.

So here are the components of A Really Good Weekend that will help you achieve a deeper level of contentment come Monday.

First, you need to socialize. Religion used to prop up the weekend, and partaking in its practices ensured reliable congregation at least once a week. With the increasing secularization of society, we need to make an effort to fill that hole. Social isolation is on the rise, with the percentage of Americans who define themselves as lonely doubling from 20% to 40% since the 1980s. In addition to helping those looming lonely feelings, socializing strengthens the immune system and boosts mental health, reducing depression. Passive, solo leisure activities like tending to social feeds and playing video games reinforce absence in lives already starved for presence. Digital networks are not the same as human networks, and they won’t provide the same benefits of community. (Facebook really does make you feel lonely.) So if you must binge watch, invite a friend over.

Or perhaps that socializing can take place around a hobby. I interviewed members of a Portland, Oregon origami club that meets in a library on the weekend every couple of weeks. Two different people described loving the concentration involved in constructing their elaborate creations as hard but exhilarating. Deep engagement unleashes the much-desired “flow” state, which arises from immersion and mastery so intense that time seems to drop away. Research suggests that the prefrontal lobe is inhibited during flow, which may open up the brain to creativity. Hobbies also have been proven to reduce stress and loneliness, and senior citizens with hobbies may be less susceptible to dementia.

Equally nourishing on the weekend is a bout of altruism. Most volunteers have a clear sense of purpose and meaning—the crux of self-actualization. They may also feel like they have more time. A 2010 study published in Psychological Studies found that spending time on others makes people feel highly effective and capable, which has the effect of expanding time. “The same duration of time is perceived as long when more has been accomplished—when it is fuller,” wrote the researchers.

Finally, it’s okay to temper the do-gooding with one more component of a beneficial weekend: play. By definition, play is fluid and has no known outcome or necessary beginning and end. We’re very good at turning leisure into labor, as per the phrase “working out” and the fitness tracker industry, which quantifies and gamifies our every move. But true play doesn’t try to tame time. Stuart Brown, leader of the National Institute for Play, advocates expanding your idea of play beyond the pick-up basketball game to include flirting, reading out loud to someone, daydreaming, and other purposeless and pleasurable moments. A life lacking in play is actually dangerous: One study found that an absence of play in childhood was a shared trait among a population of murderers.

Of course, most eudaimonic activities will include a hedonic component, and serious and casual leisure do overlap. A barbershop quartet is fun for someone. But remember that a truly good, work-free weekend might, in fact, take a little work—and you’ll reap the benefits on Monday.