Blog #65 – Leisure and well-being
By Dr. Mark Barry
When we think of leisure time, certain images tend to come to mind. It is not unusual to imagine leisure as an exercise in self-indulgence, whether sprawled on a couch watching yet another box-set on television or perhaps on holiday, stationed at poolside with a full glass close at hand.
However, there is a lot more to leisure than that, and psychology has long since appreciated the beneficial role it can play in our mental life, with recent research making a specific connection between leisure-type activities and well-being.
As with so much else, the key is not whether we make time for leisure, but what activities we engage in during those moments and what our priorities are regarding the personal time we have at our disposal.
Attempting to define leisure can be tricky, as different definitions emphasise different aspects of the experience, but academic psychologists tend to prefer wording that emphasises states of mind. In 2016, Dorothy Schmalz and Kerstin Blomquist offered the following, defining leisure as: “unobligated time, away from work, personal maintenance, evaluation and judgment, during which freely chosen and intrinsically motivated activities, both active and passive; social and solitary, are pursued for enjoyment and relaxation towards achieving a state of mind that supports rejuvenation, and contributes to overall quality of life, health, and wellbeing.”
Seppo Iso-Ahola has been writing about leisure and recreation for many years, and in 1980 – in his book The Social Psychology of Leisure and Recreation – proposed that five key elements must be present for any activity to qualify as ‘true’ leisure. Those elements are:
- Intrinsic motivation (you engage in the activity first and foremost because you enjoy it)
- Perceived freedom (engaging in the activity by choice)
- Locus of control (even if it is a challenging/difficult activity, you are confident that your abilities will prove equal to the task)
- Perceived competence (you feel that you have an aptitude for the activity)
- Positive affect (engaging in the activity will lead to the experience of pleasant emotions)
Paula Loveday, Geoff Lovell, and Christian Jones published an article in The Journal of Positive Psychology earlier this year explicitly exploring the psychological mechanisms involved in the process through which leisure can enhance well-being. They did so by undertaking a line-by-line analysis of pre-existing Best Possible Self written data from more than one hundred participants.
As detailed in an earlier blog in this series, participants in Best Possible Self studies are asked to produce written accounts of how they imagine their life unfolding when asked to picture themselves as having achieved all/some of their main goals.
When reporting their results, the first point the authors noted was that 41% of the 447 sentences analysed mentioned leisure-related pursuits, while 59% were described as ‘non-leisure’. Ten participants (9%) made no mention of leisure at all, while four were said to have produced BPS accounts entirely focused on leisure.
They coded the BPS data through the DRAMMA framework. This model identifies five core psychological mechanisms – Detachment-recovery (disconnecting from work/life pressures for the purposes of rest and recovery), autonomy (self-determination in your life), mastery (overcoming challenges and nurturing skills), meaning (purpose and value), and affiliation (a sense of achieving well-being through social connection).
Breaking down the sentences deemed to have referred to these five mechanisms and therefore linked with leisure activity, the authors reported that affiliation was most commonly identified (mentioned in 33% of the leisure sentences) – consistent with psychological literature on the correlates of well-being – followed by autonomy (23%), detachment-recovery (21%), mastery (12%), and meaning (11%).
Even though mastery and meaning trailed behind, the authors emphasised that 59% of participants mentioned one or both, meaning that even though these mechanisms may not have been mentioned over and over again by individuals, they were still regarded as important. On mastery, they write, participants indicated “a drive towards achievement and improvement which suggest continual growth and forward movement.” With regard to meaning, they state: “Our participants described wanting to contribute to society, develop deeper, more spiritual natures and to live lives that reflected the higher moral and social values to which they aspired.”
Long-time readers of this blog might find these ideas resonant of both the set-point theory of happiness and Seligman’s idea of the Three Happy Lives, and yes, there does appear to be some crossover.
Set-point emphasises the importance of volitional activities in terms of individual happiness, i.e., how you choose to spend the personal time at your disposal, and how this, combined with genetic factors and life circumstances combine to influence happiness. The logic is that genetics account for about 50% of our capacity to experience positive emotions and happiness, with life circumstances only accounting for about 10%, with volitional activities accounting for the rest, suggesting that if we can make the most of our nominal leisure, then we can impact positively on our general happiness and well-being.
Seligman’s Three Happy Lives model, meanwhile, emphasises pleasure, engagement, and the meaningful life, with the latter two of these most relevant to the deeper, more considered sense of leisure.
What we can take from this is that the idea of leisure as being purely about self-indulgence and ‘taking it easy’ is far too narrow. Instead, the leisure time choices we make can be of vital importance to our well-being and we should not underestimate the possibilities associated with that.
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.