February 25, 2016 by Jean
Our understanding of retirement is bound up with our understanding of leisure. The dream of retirement is the dream of leisure, time for deferred dreams and for activities that were difficult to combine with the demands of paid work. But the nightmare of retirement is also about leisure, about too much of it and time that hangs heavy, about a life without meaningful activity.
I was drawn to a career in sociology in large part because it is a discipline that can help us understand our own experiences, so it is not surprising that, as I anticipated retirement in the later years of my career, I looked to sociology for help. In particular, I turned to two fields that I hadn’t studied in graduate school but that are relevant to understanding retirement, sociology of aging and sociology of leisure. I used some grant money made available by my employer during my last two years at Gettysburg College to purchase an ereader and a collection of scholarly ebooks that would facilitate continuing my study of these fields in retirement.
Recently, when it was time to choose a new book for my “serious reading” time of day, I decided to plunge into the sociology of leisure and opened a book that promised to lay out the basics, The Idea of Leisure: First Principles by Robert A. Stebbins (Transaction Publishers, 2012). I have only finished the introduction and first chapter of this book, but already it has given me a new understanding of leisure and its importance. For Stebbins, leisure is not a quality of time (time that is free of obligation); it is a quality of activity (what we do with that time). He defines leisure as
Uncoerced, contextually framed activity engaged in during free time, which people want to do and, using their abilities and resources, actually do in either a satisfying or a fulfilling way. (p. 14)
In this definition, if we are using “free time” to do something that we don’t want to do (e.g., a non-work obligation) or if we don’t experience the activity as satisfying or fulfilling, it is not leisure. Note also that leisure as defined here is not necessarily the opposite of work. Those who are lucky enough to work at activities that they want to do and that they find satisfying and fulfilling may not be able to distinguish at least some aspects of their work from leisure. Stebbins also makes a distinction between “casual leisure,” simple pleasurable activities like watching television, chatting with family or friends, or just sitting and relaxing, and “serious leisure,” more complex kinds of activities that draw on our skills and require concentration.
I was particularly interested in the connections Stebbins makes between leisure and quality of life. He identifies a number of different “routes” to a positive (desirable, meaningful) life, and sees each of these routes as linked to leisure. It turns out that my leisure activities in retirement are helping me to follow all four of these paths to a positive life:
- Stebbins’s first route to a positive life involves striking a favorable balance among work activities, leisure activities, and non-work obligations. I found it very difficult to achieve this balance when I was working; although many of my work activities were desired and fulfilling (and thus would be counted as leisure by Stebbins), the number of hours I had to spend on work activities didn’t leave enough time for everything else. This lack of balance was one of my major motivations for retirement. Now that I no longer have work obligations, the positive balance I am looking for is among serious leisure, casual leisure and non-work obligations.
- Finding a sense of continuous, positive self-development and self-fulfillment is Stebbins’s second route to a positive life. In other words, a meaningful life is one in which we have a sense of ourselves as developing, growing human beings. I was lucky to have a profession that provided me with that continuous sense of self-development and self-fulfillment. The trick in retirement is to replace work with serious leisure activities that build on and continue my professional development. This is why I enjoyed teaching at the Senior College so much. It connected to my career as a college professor, drew on the skills I had developed during that career, and provided opportunities to grow as a teacher.
- Stebbins’s third route to a positive life is through warm, attractive interpersonal relationships. Having time to devote to such relationships is an important part of my experience of retirement. Because I live alone, developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships requires an extra level of intentionality. Although I still struggle a bit with my hermit tendencies, I have made a point of scheduling activities with friends (my monthly lunches with a group of retiree friends, my weekly dinners with my neighbor) and have also been making new friends through leisure activities.
- Stebbins fourth route to a positive life is being favorably involved in a community. One way retirees do this is through volunteer activities. My first attempts to get involved in volunteer activities that would connect me to my local community failed (see Kissing Volunteer Frogs). In my second year of retirement, I’m focusing less on geographic community and more on finding communities of people with whom I share interests. The Senior College provides one such community. The choral singing group that I joined last month is another. Today, I began training to become a Master Gardener Volunteer, which will connect me to another community of like-minded souls and provide a route for making contributions to my local community doing something I love.
Thinking about how my leisure activities in retirement connect to all four of these routes to a positive life has helped me to understand why I have not wanted to replace work with one all-consuming interest or activity (see Not One Thing). For me, retirement provides an opportunity to create a rich, meaningful life through multiple routes and a variety of leisure activities.