A recent study (http://bit.ly/ClocksAndFun) argues that when leisure activities are scheduled, people report them as being less enjoyable than when such activities take place in the spur of the moment. This makes sense, but only up to a point, in my opinion. After all, who doesn't like spontaneity?
Do Calendars Change Desired Activities into Required Obligations?
I agree that scheduling things can potentially make them feel obligatory, transforming what feels like an internally-generated desire into an externally-induced expectation. For example, when students were expected to read a certain number of books across different literary genres (e.g., fantasy, adventure, drama, biography, etc.), they fulfilled their assignments but began to show less interest in reading for pleasure in their free time. The expectation of obligation drained the innate reward and changed their subsequent behavior. Similarly, employers learn - sometimes the hard way - that incentivizing behaviors that employees were spontaneously doing uninvited, the target behaviors dropped away. What had been an expression of individual entrepreneurialship became a competitive and reward-linked behavior now "owned" by the company. Producing behavior "on behalf" of the company was less rewarding than when the behavior was self-initiated, and where the company was an indirect beneficiary.
Thus, there is evidence that scheduling, obligating, and shifting sources of reward can impact the degree of desire, pleasure and enjoyment people experience when engaged in an activity. But, what about the flip side? Aren't there times when having something on the calendar increases enjoyment, too?
Is it the Schedule or Calendar that Makes the Difference?
I am particularly interested in the answer because of the work I do with clients traversing the challenges of the second halves of their lives. For too many, a loss of daily pleasure and a diminished sense of joy regarding their anticipated futures is linked to lives that have become too routine, too structured or scheduled. The absence of novelty and spontaneity can erode curiosity and lead to a diminished desire to remain engaged in their lives in ways that challenge, stimulate and enliven their lives. This finding would seem to correlate with findings of the study cited above.
Anticipation of Reward Matters, Not Whether we Rely on a Schedule
However, what I've found is that the reward experienced isn't necessarily a function of whether the activity is on a calendar. What does matter is whether there is positive anticipation of the upcoming activity. Counting the days until you get together with a close friend, or scheduling a novel activity you've never done before, or anticipating the day of arrival for the departure on a vacation are all examples of scheduled activities that are strongly associated with pleasure and enjoyment. In fact, we know from brain science that dopamine surges in anticipation of an expected, high reward activity, only diminishing once the pleasurable activity is finally at hand and we claim the desired prize.
So, what seems to matter most when it comes to reinvigorating a stale life isn't whether or not the activities are scheduled. A mix of planned and spontaneous activities can all contribute to an enriched life that helps maintain a healthy and youthful brain. As long as the activities combine a mix of challenge, novelty, the unexpected, and refreshing curiosity, our brains respond with neuroplastic growth and expanded neural reserve to protect our brains well into our later years.