Society perceives activities such as woodworking, writing, and playing a sport differently when performed as a job than when performed as a hobby. This anomaly led psychologists to question the nature of leisure. What is it that makes an activity “leisure,” and are the consequences of performing these activities as a job different from the consequences of performing these as leisure?

Psychologists began the systematic study of leisure in the early 1970s. Two works influenced psychologists’ study of leisure behavior. In his 1974 book The Psychology of Leisure, John Neulinger proposed that activities be distinguished based on the extent to which the activity was freely chosen and was motivated by a desire to receive intrinsic rewards (i.e., rewards that are unavoidable consequences of the act of participation). Leisure occurs when individuals freely chose intrinsically satisfying activities. Work occurs when individuals respond to behavioral constraints to achieve extrinsic rewards. Neulinger’s view that leisure is more than the mere absence of work opened the door to psychological investigations of the similarities and differences in leisure and work activities.

Howard E. A. Tinsley and Diane J. Tinsley’s 1986 theory of transcendent leisure experiences provided a more multifaceted paradigm for the study of leisure. The theory postulated four conditions that are necessary for an activity to be experienced as leisure: freedom of choice, intrinsic motivation, optimal arousal, and involvement. The theory identified seven attributes of leisure experiences and suggested that leisure experiences are necessary for physical health, mental health, and personal (psychological) growth.

Attributes of Leisure Experience

Leisure experiences vary from intense, life-transforming experiences to routine experiences that occur on a daily basis. Psychologists have focused on the most intense experiences because the attributes of intense leisure experiences are more readily identifiable than in routine experiences.

Five theorists have shaped psychologists’ conceptions of leisure. Abraham Maslow’s theory of peak experiences is the earliest and most comprehensive theory. Tinsley and Tinsley’s transcendent leisure experiences theory was influenced by Maslow’s work, but it deals more directly with leisure behavior. Maslow and Tinsley and Tinsley believe the attributes of routine leisure experiences are the same as, but less intense than, the attributes of transcendent leisure experiences. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed a theory of flow experiences that formed the basis for Chester F. McDowell’s theory of leisure consciousness. Kathleen D. Noble’s theory of transcendent religious and meditation experiences has the narrowest scope.

Several common themes are discernible in these theories. The strongest consensus exists for the following attributes of leisure experiences:

  • Unity. The individual and the experience become integrated and participants report a sense of unification with the world.
  • Absorption. Participants focus exclusively on the activity and lose self-awareness.
  • Enriched perception. Continued participation across time leads to a greater awareness of the nuances and complexities of the experience.
  • Positive outcome. Leisure experiences provide a desirable way of truth finding that can lead to insights into universal truths.
  • Passive awareness. Participants relinquish their control and allow the experience to unfold.
  • Loss of inhibition. Participants feel confident, expressive, and daring; anxiety, defensiveness, restraint, and self-criticism are set aside.
  • Perceptual distortion. Participants lose track of time and space.
  • Feelings of freedom. Participants feel free and unconstrained by rules.
  • Intrinsic motivation. Participants gain enjoyment from the mere act of participating in the activity.

Causes of Leisure Experience

According to transcendent leisure experiences theory, freedom of choice, intrinsic motivation, optimal arousal, and psychological commitment are necessary prerequisites for an individual to experience leisure.

Freedom of Choice

Social psychologists refer to freedom of choice as the illusion of control because the individual’s subjective interpretation of the situation determines how the experience will be perceived. For example, individuals may perceive themselves as freely choosing to engage in behaviors that appear to others to be the result of external constraints. Leisure, developmental, and motivational psychology all view freedom of choice or the illusion of control as an expression of two of the most powerful motivations underlying human behavior: the desires for personal autonomy and for competence.

The illusion of control is important for maintaining mental health and successful functioning. Threatening an individual’s sense of freedom generates psychological reactance. Reactance is an aversive feeling that increases the attractiveness of the threatened freedom, stimulates aggressive feelings, and motivates the person to undertake action to regain the lost freedom. An individual’s willingness to substitute one leisure activity for another is inversely related to the amount of external pressure to make the switch.

Research supports the position that freedom of choice is related to the perception of an activity as leisure. In one study, for example, leisure activities were regarded as voluntary approximately 40% of the time, whereas paid employment was seen as voluntary 5% of the time.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to the desire for rewards that are unavoidable consequences of the act of participation. For example, an individual who desires social contact would find visiting with close friends to be intrinsically rewarding because the very act itself involves social contacts. Extrinsic motivation refers to the desire for rewards that are not unavoidable consequences of performing the activity. Common extrinsic motivations include external coercion (e.g., work deadlines and imposed goals), the desire to avoid negative outcomes (e.g., criticism), and the desire for rewards such as money, grades, and recognition. From 40% to 65% of study participants described leisure activities as intrinsically motivated, but fewer than 5% described paid employment as intrinsically motivated.

Providing extrinsic rewards for intrinsically rewarding activities can destroy intrinsic motivation if the extrinsic rewards become too salient. Mark R. Lepper, David Greene, and Richard E. Nisbett demonstrated this effect in 1973. Preschool children who originally chose to play with colorful felt-tip markers were much less willing to play with the markers after an intervening time in which they had been promised and subsequently given a reward for playing with the markers. For this reason, parents should not provide extrinsic rewards to encourage their children to participate in activities that are intrinsically enjoyable.

Optimal Arousal

Walter B. Cannon observed in 1932 that all living organisms have a natural tendency to maintain a state of internal balance or equilibrium. He called this tendency homeostasis. For the most part, homeostasis is maintained automatically. For example, we breathe without having to think about how much oxygen we need. In 1954, Henry W. Nissen extended this concept to include the cognitive functioning of the brain. He reasoned that there is an optimal level of cognitive stimulation (i.e., optimal arousal) that is maximally satisfying to the brain. Individual differences in sensation seeking, curiosity, and exploratory behavior are expressions of individual differences in optimal arousal level.

Wilhelm Wundt’s general law of hedonic tone provides an explanation of the mechanisms underlying optimal arousal. He theorized that every stimulus has both a pleasant and an unpleasant effect. As the strength of a weak stimulus increases, the strength of its pleasantness component increases more rapidly than the strength of its unpleasantness component. Therefore, the stimulus is perceived as more and more pleasant. However, the pleasantness component reaches its maximum level while the unpleasantness component is still relatively weak. Once the pleasantness component has reached its maximum, further increases in the intensity of the stimulus increase only the strength of the unpleasantness component. That explains why increases in the intensity of a stimulus (e.g., adding salt to a bland dish) results in more pleasant sensations up to a point, after which further increases make the sensation less pleasant.

Daniel Berlyne, Marvin Zuckerman, and Charles Spielberger all proposed dual process explanations of optimal arousal. For example, Spielberger proposed that curiosity and exploratory behavior result from the simultaneous influence of curiosity and anxiety. Initially, increases in the strangeness, novelty, or complexity of an experience are pleasant (i.e., they increase curiosity or exploratory behavior). Pleasure is optimal when strong feelings of curiosity are accompanied by mild feelings of anxiety. As the stimulus becomes stronger, however, the salience of its negative component (i.e., anxiety) increases and the pleasantness of the experience decreases.

The effects of optimal arousal are difficult to investigate because many factors influence the level that an individual will regard as optimal. For example, breadth of interest—the tendency to seek varied, changing, and novel stimuli from a variety of sources—is an enduring personality trait. Some people have broad interests, while others have a limited range of interests. Other personal factors that influence the stimulus intensity an individual will find optimally arousing include curiosity (satisfied by novelty), sensation seeking (satisfied by risk or increased stimulus intensity), and skill (satisfied by challenge). Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model, for example, postulates that optimal arousal (i.e., flow) occurs when there is a balance between the challenge of the activity and the skills of the individual. Individuals who differ in skill level will also differ in the level of challenge that will be optimally arousing.

Despite these difficulties, it is clear that optimal arousal occurs more frequently in leisure than in work activities. Across multiple studies, about 60% describe novelty as an attribute of their memorable leisure experiences, but only 2% mention novelty as an attribute of their memorable work experiences. In general, participants describe their memorable leisure experiences as novel and intrinsically rewarding, their common leisure experiences as relaxing and intrinsically rewarding, and their memorable work experiences as extrinsically rewarding.


In 1947, Muzafer Sherif and Hadley Cantril proposed the concept of psychological involvement to explain the process by which individuals relate their personal sense of identity to a social object (e.g., a sports fan’s elation when a favorite team wins). Involvement is a psychological state of arousal, interest, or motivation that has personal relevance to the individual. The strength of involvement influences the extent to which a person will seek out and process information about an activity, expend time and energy pursuing the activity, and continue to pursue the activity across time. Involved individuals place a higher value on the long-term benefits of participation in the activity, are more willing to sacrifice in order to continue the activity, and are more willing to derogate alternative activities to make them seem worse than they are.

Constraints and Affordances

Constraints are factors that limit or prevent participation in leisure. There are three general types of constraints. Intrapersonal constraints involve individual attributes (e.g., personality characteristics) and psychological states (e.g., a temporary depression or elation). Lack of interest in an activity or prior unpleasant experiences with the activity are examples of intrapersonal constraints. These constraints prevent the individual from forming the desire or intent to participate in the activity (i.e., they prevent the formation of intrinsic motivation).

Structural constraints intervene between the formation of leisure preferences or intentions and actual participation. An individual may find it difficult to participate in a preferred activity because of health problems, the lack of time, or inadequate financial resources. Interpersonal constraints involve other people (e.g., family responsibilities or the absence of a leisure partner). Structural and intrapersonal constraints limit the individual’s freedom of choice.

Leisure participation is not dependent on the absence of constraints but on the successful negotiation of constraints. Furthermore, affordances (i.e., factors that facilitate leisure participation) influence participation. At present, leisure psychologists know little about the strategies used to negotiate constraints or the dynamic interactions between constraints and affordances. Integration of these constructs into a more comprehensive psychosocial model of leisure behavior is needed.

Benefits of Leisure Experience

A benefit is a beneficial change or the maintenance of a desirable situation. Psychologists have examined a wide variety of potential benefits of leisure, including physiological and physical health benefits, mental health benefits, social benefits, economic benefits, environmental benefits, and benefits to the community.

Both individuals and social groups obtain benefits from leisure. Individuals obtain benefits such as increased life satisfaction, but this outcome also may contribute to an improvement in the morale of a family, a classroom, or a community. Social groups may receive direct benefits, such as when vandalism is reduced or community pride increases as a result of a leisure program.

Leisure activities provide 11 psychosocial benefits. In order of importance, they are:

  1. Exertion. Activities high on exertion emphasize vigorous physical activity; those low on this dimension offer relaxation and stress reduction.
  2. Affiliation. Activities high on affiliation provide opportunities to be with other people; activities low on affiliation satisfy the need to be alone and enjoy solitude. The importance of this benefit and nurturance (see below) are consistent with motivation theorists’ conclusion that relatedness is one of the primary intrinsic motives.
  3. Enhancement. Activities satisfying the need for enhancement give individuals an opportunity to use their talents and develop their skills; activities low on enhancement provide little opportunity for personal development. This and the next benefit are consistent with motivation theorists’ conclusion that competence is an important intrinsic motive.
  4. Self-expression. Activities high on self-expression emphasize variety and the flexibility to try unique approaches and ideas. Activities low on self-expression provide an opportunity to follow a familiar, comfortable routine.
  5. Nurturance. Like affiliation, nurturing activities offer a chance to be with and enjoy the company of others, but they also provide opportunities to support, encourage, and help others. Activities low on nurturance satisfy individuals’ needs to pursue their own self-interests.
  6. Compensation. Activities high on compensation provide an opportunity to experience things that are missing from one’s job or other routine activities; activities low on compensation provide pleasures similar to those obtained from other aspects of one’s daily routine.
  7. Sensibility. Activities high on sensibility provide intellectual and artistic stimulation while those low on sensibility provide opportunities to reduce cognitive demands.
  8. Conscientiousness. Leisure activities high on conscientiousness emphasize responsible behavior and personal restraint; activities low on conscientiousness allow individuals to escape feelings of obligation and to focus on pleasant aspects of the present situation.
  9. Status. Activities high on status provide opportunities to receive attention, influence others, and feel important; those low on status allow individuals to avoid attention and the obligations of leadership.
  10. Challenge. Activities high on challenge emphasize personal skill and high levels of performance; activities low on challenge emphasize process more than outcome.
  11. Hedonism. Activities high on hedonism provide immediate pleasure without the need for long-term planning or commitment. Activities low on hedonism typically involve long-term goals.

Applications of Leisure Psychology to Counseling

In the 1970s, Robert T. Overs and his associates at the Curative Workshop of Milwaukee developed an innovative leisure counseling program to address the needs of older persons and clients with disabilities. In addition, several practitioners in the United States began to specialize in leisure counseling. Despite the encouraging results reported by these pioneers, however, mainstream counseling psychology has given scant attention to leisure.

Future Directions

Almost everyone experiences leisure in some form, and almost everyone enjoys and values leisure, but leisure is presently an understudied aspect of life. Nevertheless, leisure behavior provides an amazingly fertile applied laboratory within which to study phenomena of interest to cognitive, social, motivation, human factors, vocational, and counseling psychologists. The growing interest in developing a positive psychology of the healthy personality may direct increased attention to leisure.


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