Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Leisure and flow

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Leisure and flow:
What is the relationship between leisure and psychological flow?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Jackson is a 34-year old office worker who has just gone back to university to get a degree in palaeontology. He remembered loving dinosaurs and learning about the nature of the periods they existed in as a young teenager, but eventually stopped pursuing the interest when he was pushed toward finding a job in a reliable field of work. His renewed spark of interest began when he found himself watching a dinosaur documentary on public broadcasting. Despite initially wanting to go to sleep, his attention was captured until the documentary ended at midnight. It's obvious enough what happened here: Finding himself enticed by an enjoyable pastime, Jackson lost track of time and gave his attention wholly to the documentary. The important thing to consider is how the enjoyable pastime affected the onset of this engagement state, and if we can predict how these two aspects would interact across a variety of contexts.

"Time flies when you're having fun." Even if you've never encountered this specific phrase, the meaning may be clear - activities that we find enjoyable often seem to end far too soon. You may have noticed that this happens even when what we enjoy takes the same amount of time as a long, boring task that we're only doing by obligation. But why, one might wonder, does this happen? It all comes down to that experience of being in the zone.

Many people have had an experience where they were completely absorbed in an activity, barely paying any attention to the passing of time or the immediate surroundings. If you've had an experience like this, you'll understand the absolute focus that people in these situations feel. This phenomenon, referred to as psychological flow (or even just flow), can happen in various contexts depending on the individual, as long as the individual is considered to be in an 'active state' (Ullén et al., 2012). One might experience this at work or at home; in these situations, 'flow' is often described as 'being in the zone', and is defined by a number of properties to be discussed later in this chapter.

In these kinds of situations, one might feel satisfied and not register their activity as work - instead, we often consider ourselves to be in a leisurely state. Leisure states' are defined as 'a type of pursuit, wherein participants... think or do something, motivated by the hope of achieving a desired end (Stebbins, 2017). Examples of leisurely activity may include playing video games, building a model plane, or reading a book. Notably, the goals must be considered psychologically positive (the aforementioned "desired end") by the individual, as reflected in behaviour, as well as considered leisurely on a sociological level (Stebbins, 2017).

The current state of flow research shows methods of physiological and neurological measurement have been devised to observe it (Cheron, 2016), while comparisons have been drawn between the flow state, personality and levels of intelligence (Ullén et al., 2012), demonstrating a unified understanding of flow's existence. Concurrently, leisure study currently utilizes the 'serious leisure' concept and subsequent theories when considering measurement of leisure states (Veal, 2017). For this chapter, we will lay out the fundamentals of the relationship between leisure and psychological flow as are currently understood. We will start by describing the flow phenomenon as an experience and how it is affected by context; follow up by comparing leisure and flow states while determining their respective effects; and finish with a look at falsifying information that should be acknowledged for future investigation.

Focus questions
  • To what extent do flow and leisure occur simultaneously?
  • How can we chiefly differentiate flow from the enjoyment of leisure?
  • What effect, if any, does leisure have on the strength of flow?

The components of leisure and flow[edit | edit source]

Flow, as a concept, was originally conceived by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose ideas on this phenomenon were popularized in his 1975 book 'Beyond Boredom and Anxiety' (Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1975). Since his original conceptions, numerous developments have occurred in this field of study, which have more accurately defined flow and how it interacts with various contexts.

Flow as an inner and outer experience[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. This photo depicts a painter in Paris. Painting is one such activity that may induce flow.

Flow is mediated by a number of factors which affect both the overall state and each other actively. Contemporary research, such as that by Ullén et al. (2012), Payne et al. (2011) and Jackson & Marsh (2002), suggest that there are a total of nine core factors.

Table 1.

Important factors of the flow state:

Factor Description
Merging of Action & Awareness In the flow state, people's actions feel smooth and effortless, no matter how hard they are actually trying.
Clear Goals A person will know exactly what they want and the path they have to take to get there; in other words, it is tangible.
Challenge-Skill Balance The challenge one approaches in this state is suited to their skill level or abilities.
Loss of Self-Consciousness People won't pay attention to how they look while in this state or what other people might think of them.
Autotelic Experience The experience is enjoyable or satisfying, essentially defined by positive affect, or a positive emotional state.
Unambiguous Feedback The progress that someone makes while in this state is very obvious, such that they can easily describe it.
Concentration on the Task at Hand Since no attention is paid to oneself or other people, all focus is centred on the current task.
Transformation of Time Someone is unlikely to keep track of time in this state, and so will often work for far longer than they originally expected.
Sense of Control Because all attention is on this task with little or no distraction, people feel as though they are in complete control of the task and its outcomes.

According to various contemporary articles on flow research, as outlined in Ullen et al.'s (2012) study, flow is experienced in similar ways between a variety of individuals, regardless of cultural or social contexts. As such, you are likely to see these kinds of characteristics in someone experiencing flow no matter where you are in the world (see Fig.1)! This allows cognitive researchers to use similar frameworks between cultures, with few issues outside of adapting to the unique practices of each culture. The original scale used for testing this phenomenon was the Flow State Scale (FSS) (Jackson & Marsh, 2002), which contains 36 questions to measure the nine factors previously discussed, and which has been adapted into a number of different cultures for usage with those cultural populations. A revised version of this scale (FSS-2) was developed later on to revise LoSC and ToT items (Jackson & Eklund, 2002) that were outdated. This current understanding of flow's nature is what we will use when considering the relationship between leisure and flow, as it provides a basis for flow research and thus is best represented in research literature.


- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the flow hypothesis

- Nine core factors make up, affect and define the flow state

- Flow is experienced similarly cross-culturally

- FSS-2 is the current measurement scale for flow experiences

Quiz question 1[edit | edit source]

Which of these is not a core factor of flow experiences?.

Transformation of Time
Automatic Experience
Clear Goals
Unambiguous Feedback
Merging of Action and Awareness

Leisurely experiences[edit | edit source]

As previously stated, leisure activities involve pursuing desirable goals through action in the mind or in behaviour. These pursuits can vary across individuals and cultures, but all of them still share some key similarities. Namely, the goals of these pursuits must be perceived as freely chosen, without obligation and intrinsically positive, as suggested by Stebbins (2017) as part of his serious leisure perspective (SLP). For this perspective, Stebbins suggests that leisure is primarily 'un-coerced' and 'satisfying or fulfilling', and yet that leisurely activities will usually differ enough to fit into one of three types of leisure activities.

Table 2.

Leisure activity styles according to the Serious Leisure Perspective (SLP):

Leisure activity style Description
Casual These activities provide immediate intrinsic rewards and do not require any specific skill-set or training to be undertaken and enjoyed. Hedonism is the core aspect of these activities, with purely pleasure-oriented goals being considered and no form of career opportunity can be derived from them. (Stebbins, 2017). Stebbins (2017) identifies eight types of casual activities, being play, relaxation, passive entertainment, active entertainment, sociable conversation, sensory stimulation, casual volunteering and pleasurable aerobic activity. Even when any activities cross over with those performed by professional workers, they are usually in an amateurish fashion referred to as 'dabbling' (Stebbins, 2017).
Serious Serious pursuits are split into leisure and devotee work, differentiated by degree of personal investment in the work. Serious leisure involves pursuing activities that can lead into career opportunities, with the prerequisite that the activities are interesting and fulfilling for the participant. Devotee work occurs when one becomes personally and positively invested in their work, to the point that achievement sense is elevated and work-leisure discrepancies disappear (Stebbins, 2017). Stebbins (2017) identifies six qualities defining these activities, including perseverance through trials, finding a career through leisure, personal effort, durable benefits to self-aspects and material gain, a unique ethos (set of beliefs) that allows pursuit of leisure, and strong identification with chosen pursuits.
Project-based Project-based leisure is defined by short-term work, similar to casual, except with a significant degree of planning and effort. This differentiates from serious leisure as this effort is only for a one-off or occasional project instead of a lasting career pursuit. These pursuits usually occur in tandem with an important life event, such as a holiday celebration or a wedding, that is seen as worth the expended effort. Unlike serious or casual leisure, these pursuits may also be interrupted for variable periods of time before being re-uptaken at one's discretion (Stebbins, 2017).

Despite their differences, all the activities associated with these styles generate a leisure experience, associated with increases in positive emotions like pride and confidence, and equally risking increases in negative emotions if one's skill at an activity is threatened (i.e. making mistakes) (Stebbins, 2017). In turn, these experiences can facilitate interpersonal relationships, promote spiritual and mortal contemplation, provide opportunities for semi-altruistic behaviour, improve quality of life, generate opportunities for happiness states and encourage creative play. As a practical methodology, this perspective serves as the basis for the Serious Leisure Inventory and Measure (SLIM), developed primarily to assist in recognising leisurely activities as 'serious' in research (Gould, 2008). This instrument contains eighteen dimensions that are derived from the aforementioned core qualities of serious pursuits (perseverance, career, effort, durable benefits, ethos and identification), and is presented in a questionnaire format for self-reporting research (Gould, 2008). This serious leisure perspective will be applied to our understanding of the relationship between leisure and flow, as reflected in the numerous studies that make use of these definitions.

As you've seen, leisure appears quite complex in spite of its relaxing nature, but this perspective is not without its flaws. Criticisms brought forth by Veal (2017) and peers suggest that while the perspective provided gains in the study of leisure and work, leisure activities are only described at a surface level that lacks sufficient explanation for these differences between leisure types. Further, there are issues with minimal evidence of implementation alongside other theories, underdeveloped and under-explained concepts across the serious leisure qualities, a paradigm shift in typology toward continuum rather than dichotomous scales, and overlap between activities in types (e.g. volunteering being both a casual and serious leisure option). While these do not completely invalidate the ideas presented in this theory, it does signify a need for shifts in the underlying structure to better reflect current understanding in psychology.


- Leisure involves pursuit of desired goals through action

- SLP defines leisure through three types, with serious leisure being most important for operating through life

- Current issues with SLP include lack of development, overlap and changes in the psychological paradigm

Quiz question 2[edit | edit source]

Choose which statement is most accurate.

Project-based leisure is shorter than serious leisure, but requires more effort than casual leisure.
Pursuits are only defined through being freely chosen and intrinsically positive
The Serious Leisure Perspective provides deep explanation for leisure type differences
Devotee work is differentiated from serious leisure by degree of effort investment
'Dabbling' occurs in all eight forms of casual leisure

The relationship between leisure and flow[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Although there may be social or monetary reward for participating in a marathon, many people often engage for the positive experience of running.

To understand how leisure relates to the flow state, we must first identify what elements they share. Based on our prior information, we can see that both require an active engagement with a task - even if one is obligated to perform such a task, there is an intrinsic willingness to act. Additionally, the task in both cases must also be intrinsically positive, such that enjoyment can be found in simply performing the task as opposed to just perceived or actual rewards for doing so (see Fig. 2).

However, there are also a number of clear differences that prevent these two from occurring simultaneously at all times. Despite involving activity and positive experience, leisure does not require most of the other flow state aspects (time perception skew, challenge, concentration, etc.). Further, leisure is primarily a goal-based pursuit where the goal is desirable and drives action - while a goal may be desirable in flow, it is not required for an activity to be enjoyed.

With these basic comparisons, we can observe a connection between flow and leisure that provides the basis for much research into the two phenomenons and their relationship. One such piece of research was performed by Lee, Shin & Park (2015), who used the SLIM instrument to test 113 randomly selected, diversely situated older adults for leisure seriousness and flow activity. Initially, results suggested that flow quality and frequency of occurrence were positively related with leisure seriousness, yet only quality had a significant relationship with 33% of flow quality predicted by the seriousness of a leisure activity. While demonstrating a direct link between the two phenomena, this study also shows that leisure is mostly a qualitative measure - it is much better for influencing the intensity of mind states than the rate at which they occur (Lee et al., 2015).

From these pieces of evidence, the leisure-flow relationship becomes clearer and clearer. Yet to fully understand the nature of this relationship, the directness must be evaluated, with research by Cheng, Hung & Chen (2015) suggesting that there is a third factor to be considered - commitment. Through collecting data on 409 recreational hikers via survey, researchers tested the degree to which commitment would mediate the relationship between leisure and flow experiences. This approach was based on prior research suggesting that commitment is positively associated with both phenomena individually (Cheng, Hung & Chen, 2015).

Indeed, results demonstrated that flow, leisure and commitment were positively related and interconnected, but the most important finding was of the relationship between leisure and flow when commitment was controlled (Cheng, Hung & Chen, 2015). Leisure, previously intensifying flow experiences (shown in-study as a <.001 significance relationship), now fails to have any significant effect on flow intensity whatsoever (now above .05) (Cheng, Hung & Chen, 2015)! These researchers described this mediating effect as a behaviour response model, where the organism's behaviour (commitment) mediates the antecedent (leisure) and the consequence (a flow experience) (Cheng, Hung & Chen, 2015). Current research takes these findings into account, such as in a study on motorcycle tourism where serious leisure required greater commitment and induced greater flow states (Frash Jr. & Blose, 2019).


- There are numerous similarities and differences between flow and leisure

- Leisure predicts an increase in the intensity of flow, but not in how often it occurs

- Commitment is a vital mediating factor between flow and leisure

Quiz Question 3[edit | edit source]

When controlling for ___, flow is not significantly affected by ___.

Confidence; commitment
Flow; leisure
Positivity; leisure
Commitment; leisure
Commitment; positivity

How contexts affect the relationship[edit | edit source]

As for contextual effects on this relationship, gender differences can be observed in some cases. In Chang's (2016) study on Taiwanese extreme sport participants, the involvement in the sport was measured using an adapted set of items, based on work by Ragheb (2002, as cited in Chang, 2016), McIntyre & Pigram (1992, as cited in Chang, 2016), to determine how gender may impact one's level of perceived involvement and thus, the likelihood to induce a flow state - the predominant belief in this sport being that females are generally less involved and capable. The results of this study suggested support of these beliefs to a certain degree: male participants on average held greater involvement scores, particularly regarding personal significance of the sport, while females valued health and social benefits. Additionally, higher involvement scores were more likely to result in flow being experienced, providing a greater average occurrence among male participants.

While these results may seem to demonstrate a gender disparity in the ability to experience flow, we should recognise that these results are for a single context only, and that we may find opposing results when the context is more suitable to prototypical feminine values (Chang, 2016). It would be more appropriate to say that these results simply demonstrate a gender difference in flow-experience contexts (Chang, 2016). It should also be noted that the greater male involvement was attributed to greater commitment attitudes toward the sport (Chang, 2016), which supports claims from the Cheng et al. (2015) study.

Flow research suggests that age does not have a detrimental effect on flow experience (Payne et al., 2011), yet an interesting interaction can be seen when including leisure. Research by Chang & Chen (2017) used Stebbins' (2017) model of serious leisure when evaluating the circumstances under which 20 well-off older adults experienced flow-related feelings after daily life events. When applying these circumstances to the SLP, it was found that a majority of flow-inducing activities (73%) were associated with serious leisure, while casual leisure was much less likely be associated, although positive gains outside of flow experience were found to occur in these circumstances (Chang & Chen, 2017).

Figure 3. An retiree may play a skill-based game like chess, but research suggests that they may value the simple stimulation of engagement over testing their skills.

Additionally, older research on this contextual interaction (Heo, Lee, McCormick & Pedersen, 2010) tested 22 older adults with similar instrumentation. While leisure and well-being had positive relations, flow was initially found to be negatively related! Post-experiment, it was considered that this was due to an overemphasis on challenge-skill balance, which is less important for older individuals; this led to a re-evaluation of flow measurement in older adults (Heo et al., 2010). As such, more recent research has determined that cognitive stimulation is the core aspect of serious leisure activities that would induce a flow experience in older individuals (see Fig. 3) (Lee & Payne, 2016).

Finally, some flow-specific contexts should be observed and evaluated in relation to what we know of leisure. While difficult tasks typically prevent a flow experience from occurring, teamwork can lighten the load and make these tasks more enjoyable (Tse et al., 2018), which likely increases their chances of becoming leisurely rather than exhausting. Further, confidence augments the flow experience and can even help channel anxiety into helpful forms (Koehn, 2010), with confidence in a task improving the chances of making it seem leisurely. Lastly, the effects of virtual reality training on flow are shown to be beneficial, with usage of an implicit point system providing the main reinforcement (Gruzelier et al., 2010) - by optimising the effort exerted for optimal quality, it is likely these techniques can make stressful circumstances fall within skill boundaries and become a leisurely task.

Leisure and flow applications[edit | edit source]

In mental health counselling, there is potential for this interactive effect to facilitate treatments. Research by Dieser, Christenson & Davis-Gage (2014) yields a set of possible applications for these ideas to result in empowering clientele toward recovery. These applications involve counsellors working to:

  1. Understand leisure types and their uses so that they may provide this information to clients effectively;
  2. Recognise, apply and evaluate assessment instruments associated with measures of flow and leisure;
  3. Integrate 'serious leisure' methodologies into treatment by providing opportunity, encouraging involvement and helping set goals;
  4. Encourage clients toward becoming 'agents of change' toward societal issues that they express discomfort with, thus enabling and legitimising their concerns while providing an answer.

The kinds of serious leisure activities shown to work in enabling this 'change' mentality included workshops, narrative writing and quilting, which all enabled flow experiences that mitigated the negative effects from external issues such as family hardships and prejudice (Dieser et al., 2014). While we now know that these approaches would only be effective if commitment to recovery was also moderated (Cheng, Hung & Chen, 2015), one can clearly see how leisure can be used to induce and facilitate the therapeutic effects of a flow experience.


- Gender differences in this relationship are contextually dependant at most[explain?]

- Ageing changes what dimension of flow is important

- Flow research results can be considered in terms of their effect on leisure, given how heavily they intertwine

- Practical applications in counselling show promising effects

Quiz question 4[edit | edit source]

Which of the following factors are beneficial to leisure and flow development?

Serious leisure
Virtual reality training
All of the above

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Through the findings we have outlined in this chapter, it becomes clear how leisure and flow relate to one another. Flow is not only attainable through leisure, it will also have increased effectiveness, which is mediated through commitment to the activity. Further, the nature of the relationship changes with age as certain aspects of flow, namely challenge-skill balance, become less valuable to everyday well-being. Despite issues in current literature, flow's nature as an active state phenomenon ensures that leisure must involve an activity to facilitate flow, thereby supported by the current models. In summary, leisure is a positive predictor of flow quality across multiple contexts, as long as one intrinsically values aspects of flow experience.

Aside from this research, it is important to consider what else we have learned from studying flow and leisure separately. We can see that flow is facilitated by a number of other factors besides leisure, such as teamwork, confidence and even constructive anxiety. As such, it is important to consider what aspects of your life you value the most, and thus are willing to work the most for. As we discussed, commitment to an activity is ultimately the main link between leisure and flow experiences, and so may also have such an influence with other contributing factors. After all, the optimal challenge focus isn't likely to stay important for one's whole life, and so one should be flexible enough to know what is worth focusing on when the time is right. In short, taking the time to find out what is emotionally satisfying for you, and making time for yourself to commit, are the best things you can do to motivate flow and well-being.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Chang, H. H. (2016). Gender differences in leisure involvement and flow experience in professional extreme sport activities. World Leisure Journal, 59, 124-139. doi:10.1080/16078055.2016.1166152

Chang, H. H. & Chen, S. F. (2017). The comparison of flow experience in retiree’s serious and casual leisure participation. World Leisure Journal, 59, 38-44. doi:10.1080/16078055.2017.1393876

Cheng, T. M., Hung, S. H., & Chen. M. T. (2015). The influence of leisure involvement on flow experience during hiking activity: using psychological commitment as a mediate variable. Asia Pacific Journal of Tourism Research, 21, 1-19. doi:10.1080/10941665.2014.1002507

Cheron, G. (2016). How to measure the psychological "flow"? A neuroscience perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1823. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01823

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Frash Jr., R. E. & Blose, J. E. (2019). Serious leisure as a predictor of travel intentions and flow in motorcycle tourism. Tourism Recreation Research, 1, 1-1. doi:10.1080/02508281.2019.1626118

Gould, J., Moore, D., McGuire, F., & Stebbins, R. (2008). Development of the Serious Leisure Inventory and Measure. Journal of Leisure Research, 40, 47-68. doi:10.1080/00222216.2008.11950132

Gruzelier, J., Inouea, A., Smart, R., Steed, A., Steffert, T. (2010). Acting performance and flow state enhanced with sensory-motor rhythm neurofeedback comparing ecologically valid immersive VR and training screen scenarios. Neuroscience Letters, 480, 112-116. DOI: 10.1016/j.neulet.2010.06.019

Heo, J., Lee, Y., McCormick, B. P., & Pedersen, P. M. (2010). Daily experience of serious leisure, flow and subjective well‐being of older adults. Leisure Studies, 29, 207-225. doi:10.1080/02614360903434092

Jackson, S. A. & Eklund, R. C. (2002). Assessing flow in physical activity: the Flow State Scale-2 and Dispositional Flow Scale-2. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 24, 133-150. Retrieved from:

Jackson, S. A. & Marsh, H. W. (2002). Development and validation of a scale to measure optimal experience: the flow state scale. Human Kinetics Journals, 18, 17-35. doi:10.1123/jsep.18.1.17

Koehn, S. (2010). Effects of confidence and anxiety on flow state in competition. European Journal of Sport Science, 13, 543-550. doi:10.1080/17461391.2012.746731

Lee, C. & Payne, L. L. (2016). Experiencing flow in different types of serious leisure in later life. World Leisure Journal, 58, 163-178. doi:10.1080/16078055.2016.1143389

Lee, C., Shin, N., & Park, D. (2015). The role of seriousness of leisure on flow experience. The Gerontologist, 55, 102. doi:10.1093/geront/gnv502.05

Payne, B. R., Jackson, J. J., Noh, S. R., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. L. (2011). In the zone: Flow state and cognition in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 26, 738-743. doi:10.1037/a0022359

Stebbins, R. A. (2017). Leisure and the positive psychological states. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13, 8-17. doi:10.1080/17439760.2017.1374444

Tse, D. C. K., Fung, H. H., Nakamura, J. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2016). Teamwork and flow proneness mitigate the negative effect of excess challenge on flow state. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13, 284-289. doi:10.1080/17439760.2016.1257059

Ullen, F., de Manzano, O., Almeida, R., Magnusson, P. K. E., Pedersen, N. L., Nakamura, J., Csíkszentmihályi, M., & Madisone, G (2012). Proneness for psychological flow in everyday life: Associations with personality and intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 167-172. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.10.003

Veal, A. J. (2017). The Serious Leisure Perspective and the experience of leisure. Leisure Sciences, 39, 205-223. doi:10.1080/01490400.2016.1189367

External links[edit | edit source]