Leisure and Vocational Psychology
by Andrew D. Carson, Ph.D.

This essay explores aspects of leisure and vocational psychology. It very much a work in progress; I would very much appreciate comments from readers as I refine it. On the one hand, I want to develop some ideas related to defining leisure in relation to work and play. (Is leisure merely a complement to work, to help us satisfy our needs? Or does it have--perhaps like play--its own and perhaps higher sphere of importance, which work in at least some measure serves?) On the other hand, I want to report where the field is, and what vocational psychologists interested in the topic are doing. I would like to extend the coverage of such research and researchers, as well as introducing some evidence that support for many vocational theories (especially person-environment fit theories) may actually be higher in the leisure than the work sphere.

Leisure Defined

Leisure is the engagement in discretionary, enjoyable nonwork activities, where following conditions are met:

  • the activity is freely chosen; one cannot be forced to engage in leisure
  • the activity is experienced as enjoyable by the individual engaging in it
  • the activity is not simply a form of required maintenance activity or a way to meet basic sleep needs; doing unpaid chores or a normal night's sleep are not forms of leisure activity, but knitting and a spontaneous probably would be.

One can distinguish leisure time and leisure activities. Having available leisure time allows the engagement in leisure activities, but simply having leisure time available does not mean that anything that fills it is a leisure activity. It is essential that the activity meet the previously stated requirements.

The Roots of Leisure in Chilhood Play

Leisure is closely related to play, another nonwork activity. Play is the engagement in effortful activities intended to secure advantages or resources in the realm of the imagination, as opposed to the the real world. The imagination may be a private imagination of one person, or it may be a shared, consensual imagination created in concert with others. The activities need be effortful only insofar as they involve real action, movement, or communication with others; without such action, the activity is merely reverie as opposed to play. Play is in a sense the opposite of work, in that one has imagination as its aim, while that of the other is effectiveness in the real world. However, it is possible to represent one's experience in play; this activity can be a form of work, which we call art. In addition, one can work at helping others play, as do individuals making their living in the leisure industries.

Much of childhood is dedicated to play activity. One can also devote one's leisure time to play, even as an adult. However, leisure activity is not necessarily always a form of play, as defined here. It need not express itself through effortful, imaginative activity. Leisure can involve an absense of mental effort, and often does; it can include a random stroll in which the mind takes a vacation from directed thought. Still, leisure activity--even when not engaging the imagination--still has its roots in childhood play, in the sense that play develops the habits of nonwork, of the ability to withstand the compulsion to be efficiently productive.

Work dysfunctions related to overcommitment to work and workaholism may be related to deficiencies in the capacity to realize pleasure in leisure, which may arise from earlier difficulties in play behavior in childhood.

Theories of Leisure and Work

A popular approach in vocational psychology is to assume that individuals maximize their overall life pleasure by compensating--through choice of leisure activities--for the satisfaction of needs left unsatisfied through work activity. Several person-environment theories of career development might be applied to explore this issue, e.g., Holland's theory and the theory of work adjustment.

Leisure, Rather than Work, Can Be Focus

Leisure may provide a focus of activity for individuals for whom work does not play that role (see Herr & Cramer, 1992). In the 1938 motion picture Holiday, Cary Grant played Johnny, who took time off from work to explore (and enjoy) the world around him, believing it made more sense to enjoy life when you were still young enough to enjoy it, rather than wait for old age and retirement.

Retirement and Leisure

And in retirement, much of the focus of activity is on leisure. In fact, and as Donald Super proposed in his "life-career rainbow" concept, as individuals transition from their adult work years to their retirement years, the relative emphasis on work and leisure changes substantially.

An interesting question may be whether the capacity to engage successfully in leisure activities during retirement years depends, in part, on having learned how to do so during the years of young and middle adulthood.

In addition, more adults are continuing to work later into old age, in part because of difficulties in accumulating sufficient funds on which to retire. How do such older adults integrate such sustained work activity with leisure time and activity?

Leisure Time Varies

Individuals vary greatly in the amount of free leisure time they have, both within and across nations, and across the lifespan. The amount of leisure time available to individiuals has, at least in modern economies, changed over time, with the growth of the labor movement and demands for work weeks of more limited duration. However, in several nations--notably the United States and Japan--the average length of the work week is substantially higher than in other nations and shows no sign of decreasing. Japan has become concerned over the possible negative health effects of excessively long hours of work--perhaps leading in some cases to death through overwork, or karoshi--that it created a Ministry of Leisure to cope with the problem.

Research on Leisure, Work, and Career

A number of vocational psychologists have investigated the relationship between work and leisure activities. The most active in recent hears have been Tony and Diane Tinsley and Barbara Eldgredge. Tinsley and Tinsley (1982) proposed four categories of leisure couneling: leisure guidance, leisure decision making, leisure education, and leisure counseling. More recently, T. Tinsley and Eldredge surveyed nearly 4,000 individuals to gain information about their primary leisure activities. They then classified these activities into 82 leisure activites, and then further into 12 leisure clusters based on the degree to which the activities appeared to meet various psychological needs, such as competition and companionship. This system allowed the creation of a taxonomy of related leisure activites. This taxonomy also supported counseling based on the ability to substitute one leisure activity for another (that met similar psychological needs). Likewise, assessments of psychological needs might then be used as a basis for recommending particular leisure activities.

Other vocational psychologists who contributed to the field included Donald Super (1981) and Carl McDaniels (1997). Super described the leisure role as one of several into which inividuals could invest their time (the "leisurite" role). McDaniels proposed a developmental trait factor approach to career development that integrated the concepts of leisure, work, career, and career development.

Much of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's research on flow and creativity relates as much to leisure as work. In one study, he asked individuals to refrain from engaging in their favorite leisure activity and then studied the effects; there were several negative consequences. This suggested that leisure (or play, via leisure) contributes to important ways to adjustment, and indirectly to productive work activity. It also suggested that leisure in its various forms may satisfy needs that, if unmet, can lead to undesirable symptoms.

Websites of interest

Tony Tinsley: Research on leisure.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Thinker of the year, including links to related sites.


Herr, E. L., & Cramer, S. H. (1992). Career guidance and counseling through the life span: Systematic approaches (4th ed.). New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

McDaniels, C. (1997). Career = Work + Leisure (C=W+L): A developmental/trait factor approach to career development. Online: Accessed 10/29/02, http://icdl.uncg.edu/ab/051099-03.html (ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services, Greensboro, NC)

Super, D. E. (1981). Approaches to occupational choice and career development. In A. G. Watts, D. E. Super, & J. M. Kidd (Eds.), Career development in Britain. Cambridge, England: Hobsons Press.

Tinsley, H. E. A., & Tinsley, D. J. (1982). An analysis of leisure counseling models. The Counseling Psychologist, 9, 45-53.