While I was writing REST, one of the things I realized about practices like daily walks and deep play is that, in addition to the direct benefits they provide in the way of restoration and creative stimulus, they’re also valuable to people because they give structure to their lives.

For them, a daily routine isn’t an impediment to creativity. Routine provides a scaffolding that makes them more productive, and setting aside time for deliberate rest helps increase the odds* that they’ll be more creative. A routine also makes it easier to say no to less-important tasks. It also provides a greater sense of control over your life. When Nelson Mandela was in prison, he still maintained his boxer’s workout routine, even though he was doing manual labor. This wasn’t because he needed to be extra buff to break rocks. It was a way of asserting his own control over his life.

Now, a new study looks at the role leisure can play in helping provide structure in the lives of the unemployed.

The article, “Leisure activities are linked to mental health benefits by providing time structure: comparing employed, unemployed and homemakers,” is in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Unemployment has consistently been linked to negative mental health outcomes, including elevated risk for depression. This emphasises the need to characterise the mechanisms underlying how unemployment negatively influences mental health. Two factors and their interplay will be examined in the current study: recreational activities and time structure. Previous studies have indicated significant detrimental effects of unemployment on physical activity, leisure activities and social contacts/interactions. Interestingly, each of these activities provides time structure to various degrees. Further, employment by nature imposes a structured routine on an individual, defines the passage of time through regular activity, and provides a sense of purpose. Not surprisingly, previous research suggests that unemployed individuals have reduced time structure, and this, in turn, is linked to poorer mental health and overall well-being. Hence, the current study aimed at testing whether dependent on employment status, fewer leisure activities may contribute to higher risk for negative mental health via decreased time structure.

Of course, one of the ironies of the study is that “leisure” is one of the things that “welfare reformers” would argue should be denied to the unemployed; that if you’re on welfare, making the experience unpleasant will provide an incentive to find a job. But one of the consequences of such punitive policies is that they’re likely to increase depression as well.

*I originally wrote “guarantee” rather than “increase the odds, but to be honest there are no guarantees when you’re talking about techniques to increase creativity. The best you can do, I think, is nudge your subconscious to work on problems, to tempt it with interesting challenges; but you can’t command it.