Adjust the text

Interview: Leisure Pursuits, Pathways to Retirement Vitality


Old men ought to be explorers. – T.S. Eliot

Dr. Stebbins

Over the past four decades, sociologist Robert Stebbins has mapped the geography of leisure in 30 books and scores of articles. In a new release, Personal Decisions in the Public Square (Transaction Publishers), Stebbins presents a new "take" on leisure, opening up new pathways to vitality and meaning in retirement.

Dr. Stebbins is an award-winning scholar and faculty professor in the department of sociology at the University of Calgary. He was elected Fellow of the Academy of Leisure Sciences in 1996. In 1999, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

AHB reached him in Calgary.

Ruth Dempsey: How do you describe leisure?

Robert Stebbins: In the book, I focus on three forms of leisure: serious, casual and project-based leisure:

Serious leisure is the systematic pursuit of an activity as an amateur, hobbyist or volunteer. Serious leisure demands a commitment of time and energy and sometimes money in learning new skills. Think of the committed amateur golfer and chamber musician, hobbyist stamp collector and ceramicist, volunteer tutor in a class of second language teachers and coordinator in a seniors’ art programme.

Casual leisure could involve a walk in the woods or movie with a friend. Casual leisure is intrinsically rewarding. The payoff is immediate and usually short-lived. Some volunteering is casual: stuffing envelopes for a charity, collecting money on a street corner for the Salvation Army, or handing out leaflets at a public event. Little or no training is required to enjoy the activity. Other examples include sightseeing, listening to music or enjoying a hot tub.

Project-based leisure is a short-term, reasonably complicated activity or undertaking. For example, finishing a room in the basement or making an interlocking rug from a kit. Constructing the family genealogy, volunteering at an arts festival or producing a skit or a slide show. Such leisure activities may require a certain amount of planning, effort and sometimes skill, but they are one-off or occasional undertakings.

These three forms have been integrated into what we call the Serious Leisure Perspective. It serves as a way of looking at all three forms in relationship to each other.

RD: This is a different vision of leisure. What does it offer retirees?

RS: Retirees who engage in all three forms of leisure can enjoy a high quality of life.

For a start, serious leisure activities are absorbing and respectable enough to be real substitutes for work. Though of course, there is little or no money to be made from them. In fact for some retirees, this leisure is considerably more absorbing and possibly more respectable than their work was. And the payoffs are significant. Among them are self-fulfillment, finding a sense of group involvement and the satisfaction of contributing to the community. Add to that the buzz of building a beautiful table, or observing, as an amateur scientist, a stirring natural phenomenon. Not to mention the rewards of interacting with others, who share your leisure passion.

Moving on to casual leisure. Retirees look forward to time to relax with friends, visit grandchildren and do as they want. Casual leisure also affords the opportunity to recoup after periods of intense obligated activity such as a stage performance or competitive sport.

Finally, leisure projects have the advantage of being relatively short in duration. They appeal to people with little time or appetite for the long-term commitments demanded by serious leisure. While they last, they tend to be moderately fulfilling and absorbing. Some [leisure projects] may give rise to:

cherished experiences, such as volunteering in a natural or man-made disaster
the sense of group involvement while participating in a skit or a one-time backpacking trip
the chance to build community by helping to organize a local food drive or music festival

As individuals make the transition to retirement, they need to think about the things they have done, and what they would like to do now. The road to vitality will be different for each individual.

RD: Striking a balance is also important . . .

RS: That’s right. The greatest sense of well-being is reached when we develop an optimal leisure lifestyle. The term refers to the deeply rewarding, highly interesting pursuit of one or more substantial forms of serious leisure, complemented by prudent amounts of casual or project-based leisure or both.

RD: What new leisure activities currently interest you?

RS: New leisure activities are a diverse lot, found in serious, casual and project-based forms. They arrive at a much faster rate today, largely because of the impact of globalization.

The following three are at the top of my list:

Geocaching (serious leisure) is a high-tech treasure hunt similar to orienteering that uses the technology of the global positioning system (GPS). Though based on much older precursors of the activity, geocaching was only possible after May 1, 2000 following the removal of "selective availability" from GPS.

Board Games (casual leisure): New board games are being created at a remarkable rate. Furthermore, Monopoly and Scrabble now have customized "express-game" versions for players who, after 20 minutes or so, either have or want to do something else.

Volunteer Tourism (project-based leisure): Holidaying by people who volunteer in an organized way to substantially and altruistically benefit a specific target group or community.

RD: People shouldn’t wait for retirement to develop interests. Is that right?

RS: It’s easy to move into casual and project leisure activities. Not so with serious leisure. A person may have to engage in serious leisure – playing a musical instrument, painting landscapes, working effectively with autistic children – for many months, sometimes years before beginning to experience the most profound fulfillment it can offer.

I think part of finding a satisfying retirement hinges on deciding long before the actual date to develop as an amateur, hobbyist or skilled volunteer. This is not to suggest that interested retirees must become the equivalent of Yo-Yo Ma on cello, but they might want to be good enough to get into the local community orchestra or play in chamber music sessions.

Still, advancement, even from the starting point of neophyte, can be exhilarating, for we soon get a sense of career, of progress and improvement, in our chosen leisure. Even playing Jingle Bells on the cello is an advance over learning how to bow a note or play the C scale. And playing decently the cello part of an early Mozart symphony will come later with steady practice.

The trick is to make sure you choose an activity that is to your taste and that you have some aptitude for. If your chosen pursuit turns out to be unappealing, look for something else.

Which brings me back to the importance of an optimal leisure lifestyle. Include a mix of serious, casual and project leisure. Give priority to serious leisure, but also make time for rest and a change of pace. In the long run, vitality and a high quality of life flow from leisure pursuits that enable people to reach their full potential.