A "Leisure" Study

In January, President Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address to America and to the world. Within his speech, he made reference to two concepts basic to the parks and recreation field--happiness and leisure. Unfortunately, he presented them as a contrast, not as the connected concepts they are.

Defining Happiness

Throughout past centuries, there have been many interpretations of what “happiness” actually means. To ancient Greeks, who often are credited with developing the concept of leisure, happiness was the reward for a life well-lived. Parks and recreation managers know in their hearts--and have seen with their own eyes--that the people they serve are happiest when playing at local facilities, literally re-creating their lives in the process.

In the middle of his remarks, President Obama revealed an all-too-common misunderstanding about happiness and leisure when he said, “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation … our journey … has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work.”

Truth be told, the path to leisure is not for the faint-hearted either.

Consider the following definition of leisure, in its full measure: “The freedom to make informed choices about how to invest ourselves to create meaningful lives for ourselves and our fellows.”

The Role Of Recreation

The Figure depicts the conditions necessary to experience a full measure of leisure.

First, there is freedom. Unless a person believes that a variety of choices exist--to do this and not that, or even to do nothing at all--the leisure experience will be diminished or prevented from even occurring. The degree of freedom ranges from low to high, and the perception of being free rests with the individual.

The third component is the degree to which participants believe they actually have the ability to perform at the activity’s required skill level. It is one thing to want to ice skate, and quite another to skate well.

The second condition depends on who is making the choice. If someone is commanding another to participate--like a parent forcing a child to play on a recreational sports team--the internal desire to participate is very low.

The appropriate strategy for fulfilling the leisure experience is for managers to offer recreation activities at levels that match each participant’s characteristics: freely chosen, intrinsically motivated and personally inspired to take part.

However, the challenge for managers is two-fold. The first task remains as it always has been--to offer a wide variety of activities, to design attractive promotional campaigns and materials, and to provide well-organized programs. The second task (which ideally precedes the first, but may be overlooked) is to develop and use proper methods of identifying and assessing participants’ degrees of freedom and levels of choice and competence, and to creatively address any deficiencies. In other words, to honor “the promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

Kim S. Uhlik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism Management at San Jose State University. He can be reached via e-mail at kuhlik@casa.sjsu.edu.