Leisure Reflections 37: The Emotions in Leisure: Positive and Negative Influences

By Bob Stebbins, University of Calgary. Photo by Shashwat Nagpal.

Emotion and emotions are hardly foreign ideas in leisure studies, even if they are rather far from being among the most popular objects of theory and research in that field. Some theoretic work has been done on general emotion, as in emotional intelligence and emotional labour (e.g., Rojek and Blackshaw, 2013) and on the general emotions characteristic of leisure such as fun (enjoyment) and excitement (Kleiber, 1999, pp. 5-6). There is also research on the emotions aroused by particular leisure activities, exemplified in sports activities (Kerr, Fujiyama and Campano, 2002) and in the emotions accompanying leisure negotiation among women suffering from depression (Fullagar, 2008).

What has not yet been attempted is to link particular emotions with types of leisure. The object in this regard is to expand the study of emotions by generalizing beyond the idiographic case studies of particular leisure activities while retaining some specificity, which is absent in the generalist approach. To this end, we look at the sets of emotions commonly aroused when pursuing the various types of casual and serious leisure. Each type generates its distinctive set, even while some emotions are found in more than one set. The closest we have come to this approach in leisure studies is what we might call ‘sensory geography’ or ‘psycho-geography’, a relative new field that studies the link between emotion and particular spaces (Crouch, 2013; Elkington, 2014, p. 104).

The Nature of Emotions

Robinson (2009) has advanced three criteria for defining fundamental emotions. He says that emotions:

  1. have a strongly motivating subjective quality, like pleasure or pain;
  2. are in response to a real or imagined event or object;
  3. motivate specific types of behaviour or actions.

In line with the American Psychological Association’s definition, I wish to add with reference number 1 that an emotion is a complex pattern of changes involving physiological arousal, feelings, and cognitive processes and that, with reference to number 2, the real or imagined event is perceived as personally significant (http://www.apa.org/research/action/glossary.aspx). The emotions covered in this article have been identified as such by one or more of the following: Robinson (2009), Parrott (2001), and Plutchik (2001). This is not to argue that their lists are the last word on this difficult-to-define idea, but only that they have the scientific authority to make plausible assertions in this area.

The Emotions of Casual Leisure

Casual leisure is immediately intrinsically rewarding, relatively short-lived pleasurable activity requiring little or no special training to enjoy it (Stebbins, 2007a). It is fundamentally hedonic, pursued for its significant level of pure enjoyment, or pleasure. Still, a close examination of the specific emotions associated with the different types of casual leisure shows how varied those emotions can actually be. There is much more than pure enjoyment aroused when we pursue particular casual activities, as is evident in the eight types covered below.


The most common emotions aroused during play are amazement, surprise and excitement (play is defined with reference to leisure in Stebbins, 2013). It is probable that in most play these occur in combination and possibly simultaneously. True, as with other casual leisure, play is enjoyable, but it is also often and more particularly amazing, surprising and exciting. Furthermore, in Stebbins (2013) I explore ‘play activities,’ which specialized as they are, drive and motivate — they are enormously fulfilling — the spur-of-the-moment manoeuvres in sport, interpretations in music, choices of words in creative writing, implications of exploratory data in science, artistic renderings of raw craft material, among many other possibilities in the serious pursuits. Nevertheless, play even in this pivotal context is casual leisure.


The common emotions in relaxation are contentment (satisfaction) and relief (from pain and stress). This psychological state is pleasurable, but it is so more particularly for these emotional reasons. As a leisure activity relaxation includes idling, napping, strolling, sitting, lounging, and sun-tanning. That which is relaxing is, as the term implies, inactive or close to this state, as in strolling and lazily rowing a boat[1]. Kleiber (2000) explains the benefits of ‘deactivation’ as leisure.


The emotions commonly found in the pleasurable sphere of entertainment are amusement, enjoyment (joy) and thrill realized in quasi-flow activities. Entertainment has been defined as an object or occasion intentionally provided to a public for their enjoyment, or pleasure, that is meant to hold their attention for the period of time the object or occasion is perceived (Stebbins, 2007, p. 179). These emotions are aroused in both passive entertainment (e.g., popular TV, pleasurable reading, mass-market recorded music) and active entertainment (e.g., games of chance, party games). One reason for this distinction is to separate those kinds of entertainment that are also relaxing from those that are not. In other words, the latter, though unskilled, still require us to pay attention to what is happening in, for example, a game of craps, bingo, roulette or Monopoly.

Casual leisure thrills deliver the diversion which is an essential quality of entertainment. Riding on a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, water slide, or bungee cord are passive, unskilled activities that command full attention but are not, by strictest definition, flow. For example, a person can be deeply involved in a film or a roller coaster ride without having to be competent at doing that activity or feel a sense of control or both. These two conditions – competence and control – number among the eight ‘components of flow’ set out by Csikszentmihalyi (1990, pp. 48-67).

Sociable Conversation

Sociable conversation, compared with the preceding two types, roots in a substantially different set of emotions and combinations thereof, namely, fondness, liking, affection, attraction and sentimentality. Such interaction is exemplified in gossiping, joking, talking about the weather and other kinds of idle chat. Liking and attraction of the others in the exchange may be considered common denominators to all instances of sociable conversation, in that it would cease to be pleasurable (and sociable) were these emotions absent. By contrast, affection would be present only in more or less intimate gatherings, and sentimentality present only where there were shared emotional experiences (e.g., of a crisis, evening of absorbing entertainment, hike in breathtaking natural surroundings, dinner in a fine restaurant).

Sensory Stimulation

The emotional loadings for this type of casual leisure vary to some extent by the sense being stimulated. Thus, visual stimulation tends to arouse the emotion of amazement, epitomized in viewing natural scenery (e.g., waterfalls, mountains, seascapes, fields of flowers, rivers and creeks). Sexual stimulation generates a different set of emotional responses, as in arousal, lust, love, tenderness and passion. Gustatory stimulation arouses satisfaction (pleasure) through food and drink. Both taste and smell stimulate these two emotions. Drinking alcohol is a special form of gustatory stimulation leading when consumed in sufficient quantities to a happy state or, more rarely it appears, to one of amorousness, moroseness or belligerence.

The physical sensations are experienced through movement, exemplified in the previously mentioned casual entertainment thrills. Pleasurable aural stimulation can arouse contentment or relief, if not both, as can tactile stimulation. Massaging and caressing are two main ways of emotionally stimulating a person by touch.

Casual Volunteering

Casual volunteering, unlike its serious leisure counterpart, requires little or no skill or knowledge to carry it out. Both kinds are motivated by altruism (an emotion). The three emotions that commonly accompany altruism are compassion, generosity, and gratitude (Stebbins, in press). Eric Cassell (2009) holds that compassion is experienced when one sees another suffering through serious troubles that are not self-inflicted and that the first also senses could be experienced personally. Troubles that are not self-inflicted result from an ‘unjust fate’, such as war, murder, mayhem, unprovoked violence, natural disaster, and the like. Some of these calamitous situations trigger through compassion in people outside them a desire to volunteer, to help in some way.

Expressing generosity results in the same inter-human connection, albeit accomplished from a somewhat different angle. As an emotion (Robinson, 2009) it is aroused by a desire to help somehow magnanimously using one’s resources. Here volunteers typically serve by giving to the target of benefits their time, effort, money or other goods (e.g., food, clothing and tools). As for gratitude it is, when conceived of with reference to volunteering, a main reward, a kind of satisfaction that volunteers often look for from the target of their benefits. This is one of many aspects of the self-interested, or egotistic, side of the altruism/self-interestedness equation, a question of balance that distinguishes volunteering from the other serious pursuits.

Pleasurable Aerobic Activity

Pleasurable aerobic activity refers to physical activities requiring effort sufficient to cause marked increase in respiration and heart rate (Stebbins, 2004). As used here the term ‘aerobic activity’ is broad in scope, for it encompasses all activity calling for such effort. Yet, as with its passive and active cousins in entertainment, pleasurable aerobic activity is basically casual leisure. That is, to do such activity requires little more than minimal skill, knowledge or experience. Examples include the game of the Hash House Harriers (a type of treasure hunt in the outdoors, see http://www.gthhh.com); kickball (a cross between soccer and baseball, The Economist, 2005); ‘exergames’ for children and adults (a video game played on a dance floor); and such children’s pastimes as hide-and-seek.

One main emotion aroused by such activity is pride, as based on comparatively good conditioning for and performance in, say, a game of kickball or a session of a Hash House Harriers treasure hunt. Another common emotion in this activity is amusement. Thus, children are amused while playing hide and seek and the above-mentioned exergames.

Negative Emotions in Casual Leisure

Any instance of casual leisure activity can turn out to be disappointing. It might also arouse irritation, anger or disgust. Thus, the scenery is beautiful, until a heavy rain storm obliterates everything, disheartening the tourists present. Or the sociable conversation, superficial as it is, culminates in boredom. And how annoying it is to have one’s nap interrupted by the neighbour’s barking dog. Casual leisure is inherently positive experience, but alas, it is also subject to conditions that can spoil it.

The Emotions of Serious Leisure

We turn first to the positive emotions, affect that comes with gaining and expressing skill, knowledge and experience, all being hallmarks of serious leisure.[2] The main emotions in these activities are pride (in achievement) and the one of hope that achievement will occur. Achievement can also contribute to growth in self-confidence. These three emotions are found throughout the amateur, hobbyist and career (serious leisure) volunteer pursuits. They are aroused as much in amateur sport and science as in hobbyist collecting and craft work as in volunteer search and rescue and service in self-help groups.

These emotions are associated with long-term personal development and self-fulfillment, with the unfolding of a person’s career in a serious leisure activity. Positive emotions can also be experienced during short-term events, such as playing in an orchestral concert or a volleyball match, acquiring a collectable or reading a belletristic novel, or fighting a fire (as a volunteer) or reading a short story to a group of senior citizens. Pride can also be felt in short-term events. But uniquely short-term are emotions like joy, triumph and elation. Such are the feelings of, for example, musicians, athletes and fire fighters who have just performed well at their passion. At the time of serving the target of benefits, volunteers might feel a sense of generosity, while their altruism toward that target would seem to be a long-term emotion. Finally, the curiosity of the amateur scientist is probably sharply piqued at times when in the field observing birds, insects, stars, plants and what not. Surprise might also be aroused on these occasions.

And what about the negative emotions, which it appears, are largely short-term? Fear can occur as stage fright or as the result of a physical threat (e.g., menacing animal on the hiking trail, engine trouble in hobbyist aviation, breaking a leg while caving). Embarrassment or shame may arise from a botched artistic or athletic performance, or less acute perhaps, a sense of disappointment or frustration. One common, long-term, negative emotion in serious leisure is jealousy of the successes of certain other participants.

These are among the most common negative emotions, with others like anger and disgust being rarer. Moreover, leisure being dominantly positive activity will probably be abandoned when the negative emotions start to outweigh its favorable side. Viewed from a different angle, positive and negative emotions number among the rewards and costs of the serious pursuits. and these rewards and costs must be kept in balance if true leisure is to continue (Stebbins, 2007/2015, pp. 13-17).


These specific emotions make a difference. The positive ones are an important part of what we seek in a casual or serious leisure experience. The negative ones, if anticipated, are to be consciously avoided in an effort to maintain the overall positive quality of that experience. In other words, both the immediate leisure experiences and the long-term serious pursuits are influenced by these emotions, whether positive or negative. We need to be alert to these psychological forces as we theorize about and do research on free-time activities.


[1] Inactivity in a leisure activity is not an oxymoron. An activity is a type of pursuit, wherein participants in it mentally or physically (often both) think or do something, motivated by the hope of achieving a desired end (Stebbins, 2009, pp. 4-7). One such end is relaxation.

[2] This section also applies to devotee work, which combined with serious leisure falls under the umbrella of the ‘serious pursuits’ (Stebbins, 2012).


Cassell, E.J. (2009) ‘Compassion’ in S.J. Lopez and C.R. Snyder (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 393-403), New York: Oxford University Press.

Crouch, D. (2013). ‘The feeling of leisure’, Leisure Studies Association Newsletter, 94 (March): 22-24.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: Harper & Row.

The Economist. (2005) ‘Up off the couch’, 22 October: 35.

Elkington, S. (2013) ‘Sites of serious leisure’, in S. Elkington and S. Gammon (eds.) Leisure in Mind: Meaning, Motives and Learning (pp. 93-111), London: Routledge.

Fullagar, S. (2008) ‘Leisure practices as counter-depressants: emotion-work and emotion-play within women’s recovery from depression’, Leisure Sciences, 30(1): 35-52.

Kerr, J. H., Fujiyama, H. and Campano, J. (2002) ‘Emotion and stress in serious and hedonistic leisure sport activities’, Journal of Leisure Research, 34(3): 272-89.

Kleiber, D.A. (1999) Leisure Experience and Human Development: A Dialectical Interpretation, New York: Basic Books.

Kleiber, D.A (2000) ‘The neglect of relaxation’, Journal of Leisure Research,32:82-88.

Parrott, W.G. (ed.) (2001) Emotions in Social Psychology: Key Readings, New York: Psychology Press.

Plutchik, R. (2001) ‘The nature of emotions: Human emotions have deep evolutionary roots, a fact that may explain their complexity and provide tools for clinical practice’, American Scientist, 89(4): 344-50.

Robinson, D.L. (2009) ‘Brain function, mental experience and personality’, The Netherlands Journal of Psychology, 64: 152-67.

Rojek, C. and Blackshaw, T. (2013) ‘The labour of leisure reconsidered’, in T. Blackshaw (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Leisure Studies (pp. 544-59), London: Routledge.

Stebbins, R.A. (2004) ‘Pleasurable aerobic activity: A type of casual leisure with salubrious implications’, World Leisure Journal, 46: 55-8.

Stebbins, R.A. (2007/2015) Serious Leisure: A Perspective for Our Time, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction (paperback edition with New Preface, 2015).

Stebbins, R.A. (2007) ‘The sociology of entertainment’, in C.D. Bryant and D.L. Peck (eds.), 21st Century Sociology: A Reference Handbook, vol. 2 (pp. 178-85), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Stebbins, R.A. (2009) Personal Decisions in the Public Square: Beyond Problem Solving into a Positive Sociology, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Stebbins, R.A. (2012) The Idea of Leisure: First Principles, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.   

Stebbins, R.A. (2013) ‘Leisure studies and the study of play: Differences and similarities’, Leisure Studies Association Newsletter, 96 (November): 13-16 (also available at www.seriousleisure.net – Digital Library, Leisure Reflections No. 34).

Stebbins, R.A. (in press) Leisure and Positive Psychology, Philadelphia, PA: Springer.

By Bob Stebbins

University of Calgary


Website (personal): http://soci.ucalgary.ca/profiles/robert-stebbins

Website (Perspective): www.seriousleisure.net

Forthcoming in LSA Newsletter No. 100

(March 2015): Robert Stebbins’

Leisure Reflections No. 38

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