Over the years, I’ve had opportunities to do over 200 in-depth interviews with a people of all ages on various aspects of their leisure. When I ask people to tell me about their “leisure,” some people confidently begin discussing their various passions – sports, playing instruments, gardening, painting; things they do to relax such as reading, yoga, or having a beer with friends; or activities they engage in to entertain themselves such was watching television, going to concerts or movies, or playing video games. Other people tread cautiously asking, “I like cleaning my house. Does that count?” or “I like mowing the lawn or tinkering with my car – is that what you mean?” For some physical activity or cooking a meal for friends is described as a favorite leisure pursuit, while others explain they do this during their leisure time, but do not consider it “leisure” – it is “work”. It provides no satisfaction despite a perception that it is or should be “leisure”.
What leisure scientists have learned and espoused over the years is that leisure is a subjective experience – it is different for each and every one of us. What is a satisfying leisure experience for you may not be experienced a satisfying leisure for your partner, your children, or your best friend. There is not a list of activities that are automatically leisure, nor is there a list of things that are not leisure (e.g., washing your car, mowing the lawn). Understanding the subjective nature of leisure is the first step toward creating or accessing your own satisfying leisure experiences.
Here are four things to think in consider when seeking to assess and increase your leisure satisfaction.
- Do you feel “free”?One of the key elements to experiencing satisfying leisure is having a sense or perception of freedom. This is sometimes hard to experience. With work to do (or a job to hunt for), errands to run, kids to feed and take to activities, dinner to make – it is sometimes a challenge to feel “free”. Even if you are able to grab some time when you are free from your obligations, you are not always “free” to choose what you want to do. You may not have the money to do what you want. You may not have the time – for example, you may want to go for an hour-long walk, but only have 20 minutes. The weather may not permit you the freedom to enjoy the outdoors in the way you would like. You may not have access to activities you would like to do – you would love to go for a paddle in a kayak, but you don’t live near water. We are not always as free as we would like to be and sometimes we are not free to choose to do exactly what we would like to do. However, when you are able to embrace moments that are free from obligation and are able to engage in something you want to do, this is one step toward an experience or activity being a satisfying leisure experience for you.
- Are you intrinsically motivated? Sometimes we need to ask ourselves, why am I doing this? Are you walking because your doctor said you need to do so for health reasons? Are you golfing with co-workers or clients to strengthen your networks or forge deeper bonds with them? Do you volunteer with the SPCA or at the YMCA to improve your resume? Or, are you pursuing activities because the activities are fulfilling in and of themselves? You walk because you love the feeling of exercise and getting outside. You golf because you love the challenges associated with the sport. You volunteer because you love working with animals or children or believe deeply in a cause. When the motivation for participating in an activity or experience comes from within you as opposed to from an external source (e.g., expectation of others, external rewards like great abs), that activity or experience is more likely to be a satisfying leisure experience.
- Are there positive feelings associated with your participation? Positive affect is something that needs to be present for us to be experience satisfying leisure. We need to experience enjoyment, pleasure, fun. If you dislike riding a bike, cycling with your child will probably not be a satisfying leisure experience for you. This may be an activity you do as part of your parenting role because you value physical activity for your child and this is something he/she loves. On the other hand, if you really enjoy swimming, taking your children to a family swim and teaching them some basic skills or challenging them to races, may be a satisfying leisure experience you have while still performing parenting roles. It’s fun.
- Do you perceive yourself as competent in the activity in which you are participating? Ideally, there is a balance in the challenge associated with the activity or experience you are engaging in and the skills you possess. If your skills extend far beyond the challenge, you may be bored. If the challenge is well beyond your skill level – anxiety may ensue (this is the basis of the concept of “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). If you perceive yourself as uncoordinated, dance or sport activities may not be satisfying activities. If you are a very skilled basketball player and join a recreational league where players may not have had as much training or possess as much skill as you, it may not be challenging enough for you. As a result, you may not find this to be a satisfying experience. In some cases, activities you start or try may not be satisfying in the beginning, but as you develop more skill or even perceive yourself as more competent, the activity becomes more satisfying.
A Few Tips for Improving Your Leisure Satisfaction
- Consider making a list of activities that you enjoy doing that you can access, afford, and that likely fit in time frames you have available. When you find yourself free from obligations, pull out this list. Rather than focusing on what you’d love to do, but can’t, choose something from your list. This may enhance your perception of freedom and allow the activity to be a more satisfying experience. See if you notice a difference between, “I wish I had an hour to go for a nice long walk. Twenty minutes just isn’t enough” and “I have 20 minutes, I’m going to go for a walk.” Or between, “I’m too tired to do anything fun this evening – I guess I’ll just read a book” and “I have just enough energy to read my book this evening.”
- When you try a new activity, keep in mind that in the beginning it may not be satisfying. Recognize that as you develop skill, you may also develop more positive feelings toward the activity and become intrinsically motivated. Also, if you find an activity is fun or you enjoy it to some degree, consider whether finding ways to improve your skill or decrease the challenge could improve your level of satisfaction.
- Although you may participate in some activities for the health benefits or because a friend wants you to, be sure that you are also aware of activities and experiences that you are intrinsically motivated to pursue. It could be as simple as 20 minutes with a cup of coffee and a book. Striking a balance between those activities you do for extrinsic reasons and those you do simply for the joy the activity brings you will help you have a more satisfying leisure life.
- And, if cleaning your house or mowing your lawn are satisfying experiences that you choose to do, are intrinsically motivated to do, bring you positive feelings – don’t worry that others may label these activities as work. Consider how fortunate you to find pleasure in something others may consider to be mundane tasks of everyday life.