Last month, I took two weeks off to vacation in Bali—and I don’t mean “vacation” in the 2019 sense, whereby a person is physically out of office but still checking in on emails, fielding client texts, and being quasi available. Rather, I did what many experts say to do when asked how to stop stress: I intentionally disconnected from everything related to work for the entire 14 days.
I fantasized about this trip for months before I left, imagining how breezy I’d feel traipsing through rice paddies and sipping on fresh coconut water without the usual cloud of deadlines hanging over my head. But once I crossed the Pacific Ocean, my worries shifted to a different subject. See, as a freelancer, I don’t get paid vacation time, meaning my savings account would surely take a pretty sizable hit from this trip. Beyond spending money on hotels and restaurants, I was also missing out on half of my monthly income. For the first few days, as I wandered jet-lagged through the traffic- and tourist-clogged streets of Ubud, a troubling thought kept entering my mind: Is this really going to be worth it?
I’ve come to know this sensation as enjoyment anxiety, and as it turns out, I’m not alone in feeling it. A few days after I returned, a colleague admitted that she felt the same way whenever she was faced with a high-stakes experience—like buying tickets to an expensive show or booking a weekend away with her S.O. “I have this need to feel value derived from situations in which I invest time, money, and energy,” she said. “This extends to travel with friends, everything surrounding weddings, and really anything potentially memorable.” Both of us agreed that the pressure we put on ourselves to make our hard-won leisure time the most fun ever takes us out of the moment, making sitting back and savoring our adventures tough.
The rise of enjoyment anxiety can be linked, in part, to a societal shift from spending on things to spending on experiences. Millennials, specifically, are leading the charge here—a 2016 survey by private equity firm McKinsey & Company found that millennials outspend Gen X and Baby Boomers on things like entertainment and fitness memberships in an average month, sometimes twofold. Yet unlike material goods, experiences are highly subjective. If you drop $300 on a handbag, you know exactly what you’re going to get. But if you spend the same amount on music festival tickets, myriad variables can potentially impact the outcome—it might rain, your favorite act could cancel, your AirBnB accommodations could be a bust. So again, if these things happen, many are left to wonder: Was it worth it?
“Think about the weekend. It’s like, ‘I only have these two days, and I really better make these them count, because it’s nonstop during the week.’” —psychotherapist Sepideh Saremi, LCSW
Compounding stress derived from conditions beyond control is the commodity of time and how little of it so many people have. A 2014 Gallup poll revealed that half of full-time workers reported racking up more than 40 on-the-job hours per week, with 40 percent saying they work more than 50 hours. (Given the fact that work-related burnout was recognized as an actual medical condition this year, it’s safe to say the grind hasn’t let up since.) This kind of schedule makes any off-duty time even more precious—and pressurized, says psychotherapist Sepideh Saremi, LCSW. “Think about the weekend. It’s like, ‘I only have these two days, and I really better make these them count, because it’s nonstop during the week,’” she says.
The stress derived from this endless loop of “work, work, work” can make free time harder to enjoy when it is available. But that doesn’t stop millennials from trying: Despite their hustle, the debt-laden generation also has a lower net-worth, on average, than Gen-Xers and Boomers did at their age, says Janet Shiver, LCSW, MPH. And spending beyond your means—even if you rationalize to yourself that you deserve to, given all the hard work you’ve been doing—causes stress of its own, especially when your friends have no trouble footing their shares of the bill.
Finally, we can’t talk about millennials without mentioning the ill effects of social media: “We’re constantly bombarded by images of the best moments of people’s lives,” says Saremi. “When you do go on a vacation, it’s normal to have low points, but nobody posts that unless it’s a funny story. We have unrealistic expectations based on things we’re absorbing unconsciously.” So, thanks to the toxic effects of comparison, if experiences don’t feel as picture-perfect as others may make them appear, the effect can feel psychologically worse.
If you find yourself sweating as you click the “buy” button for Lizzo concert tickets—and second-guessing your decision to have splurged when a lengthy bathroom line makes you miss the first song—just know there are lots of ways to shift your perspective. Here, experts share their tips for how to stop stress of enjoyment anxiety from ruining your fun. Follow their lead, and your memories are sure to be just as happy as they look to your Instagram followers.
For many of us, work seeps into our nights and weekends—whether we’re bringing projects home with us or simply Slack chatting with co-workers during Bachelor in Paradise. It’s no wonder that when we actually do manage to disconnect, we feel obligated to make the absolute most of it.
To combat this, Saremi says it’s important to unplug at regularly scheduled intervals throughout each day. “Make sure to leave your desk to have lunch so taking a break doesn’t feel so precious,” she says. “You can also turn off notifications on your phone so you aren’t on high alert all the time. The pressure to do free time ‘right’ is a symptom of not having control over your time.” Trust me, the world won’t fall apart if you take 30 minutes to eat your salad in the park.
Another part of the problem, says Shiver, is that many people don’t even know what activities they enjoy because they’re so focused on work. When the weekend rolls around, they let their friends take the lead with making plans—and sometimes they wind up disappointed. Her advice? “Make a list of 25 things you like to do, used to do, or want to try. Then, carve out time to practice those things.”
“Every negative experience gives you information about what you want, and that’s a positive thing.” —Saremi
She recommends scheduling your leisure time into your calendar, like any other appointment, to hold yourself accountable. And if you don’t end up loving the activity you signed up for, use that information to your advantage. “Think of every experience you’re investing in as another way to get to know yourself,” says Saremi. “Every negative experience gives you information about what you want, and that’s a positive thing.”
It’s hard to enjoy an experience when you’re stuck in your head analyzing it. To drop into the moment, Shiver recommends connecting to your five senses and intentionally focusing on the various things you can hear, touch, taste, smell, and see. It’s also important to remind yourself that every feeling you have during an experience is temporary, adds Saremi. “It takes the pressure off of having a good time the whole time, and gives you permission to ride the wave of whatever feeling comes up,” she says. “We think if we have a negative thought or feeling it’s going to ruin everything, but that doesn’t have to be true. You can just let it pass.”
Finally, remember that every opportunity to experience something new is a cause for celebration—even if it doesn’t turn out the way you expected. “Make an active effort to find the good in things, no matter what,” says Saremi. “People who are oriented toward looking for the good are happier people.” This was the tip that snapped me out of my Bali funk fast. Once I stepped back and realized how grateful I was to simply be where I was, I stopped worrying about whether I was wasting my day at a spa when I really should have been climbing a volcano or swimming under a waterfall.
In the end, the highlight of my trip wasn’t a specific activity. It was the elusive feeling of peace and inspiration I had after not looking at a computer screen for half a month—even if I didn’t have many epic Instagram photos to show for it.