In his book The Gift of Therapy, Irvin Yalom explains the vital role of learning about a client’s “leisure-time activities,” “hobbies” and “recreation habits,” yet he never defines what leisure is and how it is connected to mental health or mental health counseling. Many other well-known mental health theorists have duplicated this same pattern of highlighting the relationship between leisure and mental health/mental health counseling but not explaining leisure with much precision, depth or breadth.
Historically, Sigmund Freud’s pleasure principle, Erich Fromm’s humanistic psychoanalysis framework, Eric Berne’s transactional analysis structuring of time and social activities and William Glasser’s genetically encoded need for “fun” within control/reality counseling theory have provided a superficial overview of leisure. More recently, Allen Ivey and his colleagues have mentioned the importance of leisure within their framework of developmental counseling and therapy but have never explained or defined leisure. Likewise, Russ Harris and Judith Beck follow this pattern of mentioning, but not explaining, leisure related to acceptance and commitment therapy and behavioral activation within cognitive behavior therapy, respectfully.
So, what is leisure, and how can it be utilized during mental health counseling?
SLP and the optimal leisure lifestyle
Approximately 13 differing theories of leisure exist. The serious leisure perspective (SLP) is one of the more credible theories, with hundreds of studies from more than 30 years of research from diverse researchers throughout the world supporting its theoretical and practical basis.
Robert Stebbins developed SLP in 1982 when he authored a conceptual paper in the Pacific Sociological Review. Since then, he has written 34 books related to SLP, along with hundreds of research articles. Today, as Stebbins has outlined in his more recent books, SLP comprises three main forms of leisure: serious leisure, casual leisure and project-based leisure. (The information about SLP that follows in this section is taken from Stebbins’ most recent book, The Serious Leisure Perspective: An Introduction, which he co-authored with Sam Elkington in 2014, and Serious Leisure: A Perspective for Our Time, which Stebbins wrote in 2007.)
The pursuit and balance of serious leisure, casual leisure and project-based leisure can lead to what Stebbins terms an “optimal leisure lifestyle.” He defines this as the deeply rewarding pursuit during free time of at least one serious leisure activity, supplemented by casual and project-based leisure.
Serious leisure is defined as the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist or volunteer activity participants find so substantial, interesting and fulfilling that they launch themselves on a leisure career centered on acquiring and expressing special skills, knowledge and experience. The quintessential element is the development of special skills, knowledge and experience — which can take months or even years to develop. For example, it can take years to develop the skills needed to play a musical instrument well enough to become a member of a community orchestra or to track a bird by sound in a birding club.
Serious leisure can be divided into three types: amateur, hobbyist and career volunteer. Amateurs are found in the worlds of art, science, sport and entertainment, where they are inevitably linked in many ways to a professional counterpart, such as tournament bass anglers or members of an amateur community theater. Hobbyists lack the professional ego of amateurs but maintain small publics with similar interests. An example of serious leisure hobbyists are members of small stamp, coin or comic book collection organizations in which local collectors can buy and sell items and have conversations about their shared interest.
Career volunteering, the third type of serious leisure, is exemplified by a person who uses specialized skills, knowledge or experiences as an uncoerced means of helping that is not aimed at material gain. An example is a retired plumber who likes to volunteer his or her skills to help build homes for Habitat for Humanity, or a retired accountant who volunteers his or her specialized skills for a Boys & Girls Club.
Serious leisure provides many human wellness benefits such as personal fulfillment (meaning-making in life), personal enrichment (self-actualization), regeneration of oneself, financial return, self-expression and creativity, social attraction and the development of friendships, and group and personal accomplishments.
Casual and project-based leisure
Casual leisure is defined as immediate, intrinsically rewarding, relatively short-lived activities that require little or no specialized training to enjoy. The quintessential element of casual leisure is hedonism or pleasure.
Casual leisure can include relaxation (e.g., napping in a hammock), passive entertainment (e.g., watching television) or sociable conversation (e.g., chatting outside an ice cream parlor). Beneficial outcomes derived from casual leisure include development of interpersonal relationships, regeneration in life, serendipitous discovery/creativity, edutainment and general well-being (e.g., distraction from stressors).
Project-based leisure is defined as a short-term, reasonably complicated, one-shot or occasional (though infrequent) creative undertaking carried out in a person’s free time. It lies between serious and casual leisure because it requires considerable planning, effort and, sometimes, specialized skills like serious leisure, yet it is not intended to develop into serious leisure or become a long-term sustainable leisure activity. Examples include establishing a family reunion or getting involved in fundraising efforts toward a social cause, such as Mental Illness Awareness Week, in a local community.
Integrating leisure into the counseling process
With an understating of SLP, counselors can easily integrate discussion of leisure into the counseling process. As part of the intake process, counselors can have clients complete a leisure measure and inquire about their history of leisure and current level of activity. Gathering this information can inform counselors about how active clients are physically, socially and psychologically.
An optimal leisure lifestyle has been linked to one’s overall wellness, life satisfaction and ability to cope with emotional distress. According to a study published in Counselling and Psychotherapy Research by Elizabeth Marley in 2011 regarding self-help strategies to reduce emotional distress, mental health is improved by leisure, which can include such serious and casual activities as playing cricket, shopping, gardening, dancing, socializing and even driving a car.
With this in mind, clients may also benefit from integrating leisure activities into their counseling treatment. As indicated above, counselors can assess clients’ interest in various leisure activities by using formal assessment tools such as career, leisure and interest inventories. In addition, assessment tools from the areas of leisure services and therapeutic recreation, such as the Serious Leisure Inventory and Measure or the Leisure Motivation Scale, can be helpful. On the basis of these types of assessments and a client’s leisure history, counselors can encourage a discussion about how clients can engage in serious, casual or project-based leisure and which type of leisure would be most beneficial to add to their treatment.
Following the intake process, counselors can integrate goals regarding leisure into the treatment plan. Counselors can use active listening skills to find an avenue to introduce the idea that leisure can serve as an adjunct to other counseling activities. As the counselor listens to the client’s story, he or she will gain insight into those areas of the client’s life that may be amenable to such an approach. For example, clients will often mention how they spend their free time or what activities they enjoy. Such revelations occur naturally in sessions and provide a trailhead for counselors to follow to provide psychoeducation about the importance of leisure in overall well-being.
Once the concept has been taught and understood, counselors might reserve the first few minutes of each session to review what clients have done since the last session to engage in some form of leisure. Alternatively, the last few minutes of each session could be used to brainstorm possibilities for leisure and make assignments.
It is important to remember that the development of a serious leisure pursuit often takes time and requires patience. Clients should be encouraged to be deliberate in their approach, resisting the temptation to rush the process. They may need to try a number of different activities before finding something that will have the desired effect.
Throughout this process, the client’s views should be given preference when it comes to deciding on which activities to focus. When a particular activity is difficult or the client experiences setbacks and failures, the counselor should encourage the client to exercise self-compassion and nonjudgmental self-evaluation.
Two case examples
“David,” a former client of one of this article’s authors, struggled with debilitating anxiety and felt hopeless after being discharged from an inpatient unit. During the course of therapy, the counselor noticed that David talked frequently about wanting to help others who struggle with mental health issues. David and the counselor collaborated on a plan to provide him with opportunities to volunteer — as leisure — at a local community mental health center.
David frequently had days in which he failed to show up for his shift, but he was able to recommit after exercising self-compassion. He was eventually able to become more consistent and began to increase his capacity to offer support to individuals at the center by becoming involved in various programs. David later chose to further develop his interest in helping others by studying to become a counselor himself.
“Sally,” also a former client of one of this article’s authors, was able to develop an optimal leisure lifestyle related to her involvement in quilting. As previously mentioned, an optimal leisure lifestyle is possible when the SLP subtypes are pursued and balanced. This occurred to Sally, who became a well-known quilter, when her husband was out of the country for an extended period of time.
As a consequence of being left alone with a struggling young family, Sally found herself slipping into deep depression and anxiety. She had previously been involved in crafting as a casual pursuit, and when she brought this up in session, the counselor recognized this as an opportunity to introduce leisure as a part of the process. This casual pursuit was identified as an exception to the lack of energy and withdrawal Sally was showing as her depression deepened. The counselor provided some information about the importance of these types of leisure activities to overall well-being, and Sally agreed that she would benefit from becoming more involved in quilting.
As she got more involved, Sally started a blog so that she would have a venue for displaying her work and to show her husband what she had been able to accomplish. Growth in the readership of her blog led to recognition throughout the quilting community and provided Sally with opportunities to associate with others who held similar interests. Quilting also provided Sally an avenue for building her sense of self-worth, and she began to emerge from the darkness of depression.
Although Sally’s development of a serious leisure pursuit had produced valuable fruit, it was at this point she realized that her relationship with her children could suffer because of the amount of time she was quilting. So, with the help of the counselor, she decided to balance her pursuit of quilting with family-centered casual leisure. She began spending more time developing her relationship with her children and attending to their developmental needs. As a result, her relationship with her children was strengthened even as she continued to grow and develop as a quilter.
Today, Sally is a sought-after speaker and instructor by quilt guilds throughout the nation. She offers an inspiring perspective on the changes that have been brought about in her life through her leisure pursuits. In this case, a hobby was incorporated into Sally’s change process and has since been developed into an example of an optimal leisure lifestyle.
Although various mental health theorists have mentioned the importance of leisure, little has been written about it in an in-depth manner related specifically to mental health counseling. SLP is a mature theory of leisure with hundreds of studies supporting its theoretical and practical basis. We have presented two case studies to explain how SLP can be used in the counseling process to help clients manage life challenges and mental health struggles.
To learn more about SLP, counselors can visit seriousleisure.net. In addition, the authors of this article wrote a more research-based and theoretically explained article on integrating SLP into mental health counseling in the first issue of the 2015 Counselling Psychology Quarterly (volume 28, pages 97–111).
Rodney B. Dieser is a professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services at the University of Northern Iowa. He is a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, national certified counselor and temporary licensed mental health counselor in Iowa. He practices as a therapist 10-15 hours per week. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jacob Christenson is an assistant professor in the marriage and family therapy program at Mount Mercy University (Iowa) and serves as the clinical director for the Olson Marriage and Family Therapy Clinic in Cedar Rapids. He has practiced as a therapist for more than 10 years and specializes in working with adolescents who are treatment resistant and those suffering from severe mental illness. Contact him at email@example.com.
Darcie Davis-Gage is an associate professor in the clinical mental health counseling program at the University of Northern Iowa. She has more than 10 years of various counseling experiences, including working in private practice. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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