There is growing pressure to spend our free time improving ourselves or the world around us, whether it’s training for a triathlon, volunteering in a developing country, or climbing the highest peak on each continent (known as the “seven summits” challenge). Why is it so hard for Americans to relax unless we feel we’ll have something productive to show for it?  In the past, being able to idle away your time enjoying the finer things in life was a mark of wealth and status (think Downton Abbey, think The Great Gatsby). 

Over the course of several studies, Georgetown researchers found that the majority of Americans today consider being busy a status symbol. This obsession with productivity and efficiency has spilled over from our professional lives to our leisure-time. As success and busyness at work have become the primary source of our identities and social status, there is growing pressure to spend our free time in productive pursuits. Is there any way to escape our fixation on busyness and allow ourselves to relax? 

While we may not be able to completely unlearn the “productivity orientation”, new research from Georgetown suggests that reframing how we think about leisure pursuits can help. Having a “functional alibi” that articulates a purpose for an activity lets us indulge with less guilt. For example, a relaxing week at the beach might be seen as a necessary break to recharge and return a better worker, parent, and friend. While some decry companies for co-opting activities such as mindfulness in the service of productivity rather than personal well-being, perhaps we can embrace these pursuits as having dual benefits. If giving ourselves a functional alibi is what we have to do to relax, it may be our best option—at least, for now.