Characteristics of Leisure

In “Motivational Foundations of Leisure” by Seppo E. Iso-Ahola and “Pathways to Meaning-Making Through Leisure-Like Pursuits in Global Contexts” by Yoshitaka Iwasaki, both authors are grappling with distinguishing leisure from other aspects of human life. To this end, they are trying to describe the basic characteristics that identify something as leisure as opposed to something not being leisure. However, the big problem for both of them is the elusive definition of “what is leisure,” since it is difficult to describe its characteristics if it hard to distinguish leisure from what is not leisure. This problem is made even more difficult in modern society, in that there is something of a continuum between leisure and non-leisure, with many activities seeming like a mix of the two.

For example, a part-time entrepreneur who sets up a party-plan business is engaging in an economic activity, but it is also fun for her (usually the entrepreneur is a woman), and she might see organizing sales parties as a side venture to something she considers work. So maybe this business starts out as a leisure activity, but as she makes more and more money, she may spend more and more time putting on parties to build a serious business. Thus, at some point, holding these fun parties may cease to be a leisure activity – but exactly when this occurs can be hard to tell.

This same problem of distinguishing leisure and not-leisure confronts both Iso-Ahola and Iwasaki in trying to discuss the characteristics of leisure, in that many of these characteristics they use to describe leisure can be true of non-leisure activities, commonly considered work. Iwasaki tries to get around this problem by calling things that he characterizes as aspects of leisure as “leisure-like” activities, and by the same token, one might character what people normally call work as “work-like” activities, but this is really more of a semantic sleight of hand. Calling something “leisure-like” — or “work-like” for that matter — merely provides a nomenclature that is fuzzier to identify a part of human life that is hard to define. In other words, using a fuzzy term to define what is considered an elusive hard-to-define quality simply points up the fuzziness, but it does not help to clarify the basic characteristics of what is leisure as compared to other aspects of human life.

For example, in the “Motivational Foundations of Leisure,” Iso-Ahola seeks to find an explanation for what is leisure in the “basic innate (psychological) needs that are the main energizers of human growth and potential.” From his perspective, this need which everyone is born with both defines what people consider leisure and directs them to be involved under various conditions to satisfy those needs. Given this driving need for leisure, then, Iso-Ahola suggests that having a sense of freedom or autonomy is “the central defining characteristic of leisure”. However, he distinguishes this feeling of freedom from the everyday characterization of leisure as “free time”, which people use for describing the time when they are not working, since only some of this free time may truly be free from any obligations so someone can do exactly what they want to do.

For instance, if someone performs chores during this free time period, this time would not be truly free, although Iso-Ahola suggests that the more a person thinks of his work as an obligation, the more free that person would feel when he is engaged in nonwork activities, and therefore that activity might truly be considered leisure.

From this perspective, then, if a person truly enjoys their work and participates in a variety of activities that contribute to success at work, though these activities might otherwise be considered leisure for someone who engages in these activities for reasons that have nothing to do with their job, these activities might no longer be considered leisure. An example of this is the salesman or CEO for a company that plays golf with other potential customers. On the one hand, golf is normally regarded as a leisure-time recreational activity. But it has become part of the salesman’s or CEO’s work, even though the salesman or CEO may freely choose to play golf or not, or engage in an alternate form of entertainment with prospective clients, such as taking them to a show or ballgame. If that person plays golf, goes to a show, or is a spectator at a ball game with members of his family and no work buddies are present, that might be more properly characterized as leisure. But in many cases, the salesman/CEO might take the family along on a golfing, show, or ballgame excursion with his work buddies, thereby muddying the conception of leisure. Under the circumstances, using a continuum from non-leisure to leisure activities might be a good way to characterize different types of leisure, rather than trying to make a distinction between what is leisure and what is not-leisure.

In any event, building on this notion that freedom is a basic characteristic of leisure, Iso-Ahola suggests that leisure activity is characterized by behavior that is self-determined, or which may start off as determined, but can become self-determined by the process of “internalization” Therefore, to the extent that people perform everyday activities because they want to do so, they make them leisure-like. An example might be if I hate gardening (which I really do), but I start doing it because I can’t afford to hire a gardener, and eventually I start to feel joy in it, which would turn it into a leisure activity. (But since I can hire a gardener, I have no compelling reason to do this, so for now this is definitely not a leisure-time activity for me).

Then, too, according to Iso-Ahola, leisure might be characterized by escaping, which can contribute to internalizing an activity, which makes it even more a form of leisure.

Iso-Ahola brings together all of these ideas into a pyramid in which the greater one’s intrinsic motivation and sense of self-determination, the more one is engaging in true leisure outside of the work context. On the bottom is obligatory nonwork activity participation, such as chores one has to perform in the house. On the next level above this, he distinguishes free-time activity participation in TV and exercise, which he feels are usually not true leisure, since people are not truly autonomous in participating in either activity. He claims people lack autonomy in watching TV, because they don’t really want to do this and it doesn’t make them feel good about themselves (though this opinion of TV is questionable), and in the case of exercise, he claims that they feel they should do this because it’s good for them, rather than because they want to. Finally, at the top of the pyramid is full leisure participation, where one feels complete autonomy and freedom, so one gains intrinsic rewards, a feeling of flow, and social interaction with others.

Finally, to briefly cite Iwasaki’s approach to characterizing leisure, he seeks to describe leisure as a way of generating certain types of meanings, although the particular meanings may differ for people experiencing different life experiences or coming from different cultures. In Iwasaki’s view, citing the World Leisure Association’s description of leisure, meaningful leisure provides “opportunities for self-actualization and further contribution to the quality of community life.” As such, leisure includes self-determined behavior, showing competence, engaging in social relationships, having an opportunity for self-reflection and self-affirmation, developing one’s identity, and overcoming negative experiences in one’s life. Iwasaki also goes on to describe the five key factors which are aspects of leisure (which he prefers to call”leisure-like” pursuits: 1) positive emotions and well-being, 2) positive identities, self-esteem, and spirituality; 3) social and cultural connections and harmony, 4) human strengths and resilience, and 5) learning and human development across the lifespan.

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