Professor Robert Stebbins researches leisure and hobbies, and looks at ways for society to facilitate pursuing optimal lifestyles.

What constitutes optimal leisure?


Across history, people have developed a host of leisure activities to occupy their free time.


Professor Robert Stebbins at the University of Calgary has provided a seminal framework – the Serious Leisure Perspective – which synthesises the science of leisure activities, and looks at ways society can facilitate healthy lifestyles.

Read more in Research Outreach.

Read more in his book, The Serious Leisure Perspective:

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Hello and welcome to ResearchPod! Thank you for listening and joining us today.


In this episode we will be looking at the Serious Leisure Perspective, the seminal framework devised by Professor Robert Stebbins at the University of Calgary.


Large sections of our society have had an increasing amount of time on their hands outside of work since the inception of the industrial age. People have developed multiple ways of occupying this time through varied and multifaceted leisure activities. These activities have been extensively researched and documented in recent decades, and Professor Robert Stebbins at the University of Calgary has provided a seminal framework – called the Serious Leisure Perspective – which synthesises the science of leisure activities.


This theoretical framework incorporates scientific research from various fields, including social psychology and sociology. This analysis includes individual and group level processes involving leisure activities. The schema of leisure is organised around three main forms of leisure: casual leisure; project-based leisure; and serious pursuits of leisure. These three components constitute Professor Stebbins’ Serious Leisure Perspective (SLP), the framework emergent from the study of serious leisure.


This framework is based on extensive research data regarding leisure, derived from interviews, participant observation of leisure activities, as well as numerous other accounts and documents. Professor Stebbins synthesises this data to develop the SLP framework and offers a schema which people can use to organise their understanding of the wide range of theoretical and empirical research conducted in the field. He explains that the study of leisure activities has been examined and reported on for many decades. The first of these areas of activity to be studied was that of serious leisure, with initial analyses of amateur musicians. Over time, the study of serious leisure came to include hobbies, volunteer activities, projects, and physical activities, with which people occupied their free time.


Serious leisure activities are those undertaken by people in their spare time which usually entail an element of care and commitment. These activities usually require the cultivation of special skills, knowledge, and experience, such as musical skill. Professor Stebbins identifies three groups of people who may be involved in serious leisure activities.


First, amateurs. Amateurs participate in serious leisure activities across many different fields, including the arts, sciences, sports, and entertainment. These amateurs may have relationships with professionals who undertake the same activities in public for commercial reasons and also with the public, when pursuing their leisure activities.


This sets them apart from the second group of people undertaking serious leisure activities, namely the hobbyists, who usually do not have these relationships. Hobbyists are classified into five categories of leisure activity. These categories are as follows: collecting; making and tinkering; participating in activities such as fishing; playing non-professional sports and games; and liberal arts hobbies, such as reading. 


The third group of people Professor Stebbins classifies as engaged in serious leisure activities are volunteers, who either casually, or on a serious basis, offer help for the benefit of others, usually with no pay for their voluntary efforts.


A fourth group of people engaged in serious leisure activities are people Professor Stebbins describes as involved in ‘Devotee Work’. People choosing these activities are usually inspired to pursue a specific occupation in their leisure time, motivated by a sense of achievement through the activity, that offers a pathway towards self-enhancement and self-growth. This category of serious leisure may offer a livelihood to the person, and Professor Stebbins says that it can thus be difficult to differentiate this category of serious leisure activity from a work activity. Examples include people involved in small businesses during their leisure time or skilled trades and even the liberal and consulting professions.


The defining characteristics of all serious leisure activities include a drive to persevere with improving in the leisure activity; that effort is required to acquire the skill and knowledge inherent in the leisure activity; there is a realisation of benefits from the activity; an attractive identity is linked to the leisure activity; and a unique ethos and vibrant social world are associated with the activity.


There are also casual leisure activities that do not share the characteristics of serious leisure activities, that people engage with and pursue to occupy their spare time. These include casual leisure activities such as play activities; relaxation activities, for example napping, or walking; passive entertainment, for example listening to music, reading books, watching a television series; active entertainment, such as games; social conversations; and sensory stimulation activities for example sex, eating, and drinking. Aerobic activities which people find pleasurable, rather than overtly challenging, as well as volunteering in a more unskilled manner, also fall into the category of casual leisure.


The third main component within the SLP incorporates project-based leisure activities. These are typically undertaken as a one-off, infrequent activity which occupies leisure time. These activities may require significant planning, effort, skill, and knowledge, and as such can be differentiated from Casual Leisure. They are also differentiated from serious leisure activities by the fact that these project-based leisure activities are not in themselves undertaken with the same degree of long-term interest. Project-based leisure activities may include similar activities to those within the serious leisure categories, such as making and tinkering, volunteering, and being involved in the arts.


Professor Stebbins says the way in which people occupy and allocate their time, typically gets spread across three domains of life; namely work, leisure, and disagreeable non-work obligations. These domains shape and constitute a person’s lifestyle even while this lifestyle may evolve and change at different points in time. The distinction between leisure and work, together with non-work obligations, is fundamentally that the first of these, leisure, implies flexibility and discretionary choice. While people may make commitments to their leisure activities, these commitments are fundamentally self-selected and autonomously driven.


Within leisure activities there are also differences in the levels of commitment, effort, and persistence required. For example, pursuing a one-off leisure project requires a different commitment to that required of an amateur or skilled/knowledgeable volunteer who is involved in a serious leisure activity. These commitments may imply future time commitments to maintain proficiency in a skill developed through a leisure activity.


Some project-based leisure activities can also require significant time commitments, as can casual leisure activities. There is thus an element of time analysis required for an understanding and analysis of serious leisure activities, but Professor Stebbins says that this issue of time allocation in leisure activities has not been extensively researched. Other elements important to include in an analysis of serious leisure include the understanding of geographies and space entailed in the pursuit of these activities, as this too has a broad implication for the understanding of leisure.


Professor Stebbins points out that while people may have different views of what constitutes an optimal leisure lifestyle, one of the main reasons for people getting involved in leisure activities is to create an optimal lifestyle for themselves. Leisure can have different meanings for different groups of people. For example, those with significant amounts of free time such as retirees and unemployed people may have significant free time to dedicate to leisure activities, depending on their individual circumstances. These leisure activities can in themselves become a key source of wellbeing, notwithstanding any costs that might be associated with pursuing a serious leisure activity.


Fundamentally, choices about leisure activities shape one’s lifestyle. Serious leisure activities all take place within geographic spaces that may be unique and offer different social interactions with others, as well as different sensory experiences. Serious leisure activities also typically involve cognitive activity inherent in the processing of information linked to a leisure activity. Knowledge can be acquired through the pursuit of serious leisure activities and there is thus an element of personal development and growth that has implications for a person’s wellbeing. Professor Stebbins proposes that educating people about leisure can help people find interesting and rewarding leisure activities. Leisure education thus presents a key opportunity to improve the lives of people.


A framework that helps people define, organise, and understand the different components of leisure facilitates people making choices about activities that enhance self-growth, development, flourishing and well-being. This ultimately brings people closer to establishing an optimally fulfilling lifestyle.


That’s all for this episode – thanks for listening, and stay subscribed to Research Pod for more of the latest science. See you again soon.

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