Retirement, Leisure and Quality of Life


February 25, 2016 by Jean

imageOur 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.

12 thoughts on “Retirement, Leisure and Quality of Life

  1. This was a great post Jean…I am still working on these 4 areas and especially trying to figure out #4…..this helps.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I’m pleased that you found this helpful. I’m finding that the ideas in Stebbins’s book give me a new perspective on these issues.

  2. Roslyn Berg says:

    Jean, in thinking about/planning my imminent retirement I very much related to your summary of this book, thank you. A balance of work, rest and play at any age is healthy, but I guess more so when work is no longer traditional paid employment.
    On a different note, have you read any of the work by Gene Cohen – ie. “the Mature Mind – the positive power of the aging brain” or “The creative Age”.? I think you would enjoy them

    • Jean says:

      Roslyn, Thanks for the tip about the Cohen books. I hadn’t heard of them, but now have added them to my wish list at the library. (Whenever I log into the library web page, it tells me which of the books I’ve flagged to read later are currently available.)

  3. Jean R. says:

    You are going to love your Master Gardener Volunteer program. I know two ladies who have gone through the program and they donate their leisure time to working at our world famous sculpture park.

    Living alone, I struggle with a lot of guilt probably because my balance of work, rest and play is way out of proportion. Being able to stop and play whenever I want still comes with a nagging feeling that I should be doing something else. (Play for me means writing, reading, knitting or art work.) I go to lectures, on tours and to Red Hat Society events for stimulation but I’ll tell you a secret. While I’m doing those things I’m often thinking about how I will write about them when I get home. I guess I could classify those activities as ‘work’ because they usually provide opportunities to learn new things and keep my brain from getting stagnant. But when I think about it, this has been a life-long thing for me starting from when my mom would ask me, “What did you learn at school today?” and ending when I could no longer share my explorations with my husband. I guess I blog because I still need the “sugar-high” of someone telling me, “That’s interesting.” There’s my sense of continuance.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I must confess that I never feel guilty about living alone or about my balance of serious leisure, casual leisure and non-work obligations. I wonder if it’s that last category that actually feels out of whack for you. Living with others can increase the level of non-work obligations (especially for women), and I imagine that during your years as Don’s caregiver non-work obligation dominated your life. Stebbins would definitely put your writing and art work into the category of “serious leisure.”
      I am already loving the Master Gardener course — although I need to spend an hour or two a day on homework and the pre-test they gave us during the first class was humbling. (Nice to realize that I’ll know the answers to most/all of those questions 14 weeks from now!)

  4. pagedogs says:

    One important quality of life component during retirement is the availability of local institutions to help support the routes you mention. I’ve been fascinated by the role of our local YMCAs in mid-coast Maine in enriching the lives of retirees. They provide classes throughout the day geared towards all levels of activity for seniors. There is a whole group of retirees (primarily women) who spend much of their day at the Y. It provides fitness, friendships, and social time (there are tables for eating and socializing–with a lot of laughing and chatting going on). At the same time, it doesn’t segregate retirees into a “senior” center, but keeps them as part of the larger community. I don’t know if Ys function similarly in other places, but they are a tremendous resource here.

    • Jean says:

      Brenda, Thanks for pointing out the importance of institutions in creating what the World Health Organization calls “age-friendly communities.” Your local Y sounds like a wonderful institutional resource. A number of Maine communities (e.g., Bowdoinham and communities on Mt. Desert Island) have been creating new organizations to meet the needs of seniors who want to age in place. When I went to the Maine Summit on Aging last year, I chose a breakout session on transportation because that is such a difficult issue for those who can no longer drive, especially in rural areas where there is no public transit.

  5. Dr Sock says:

    This quote from you above really captures my dilemma as I consider my transition to retirement:

    “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 like many aspects of my work, but it demands far too much time from me and I am beginning to experience negative health effects. So I am thinking about retiring, and am excited to think that I will now have more time for all the interests and projects that I have been deferring. But at the same time, I am scared. Will I feel as if I have no purpose in life or way of meaningfully contributing once I step away from the structure of work? It is interesting to read about how you have addressed that challenge.


    • Jean says:

      Jude, That’s pretty much where I was when I retired — liking most aspects of my work, but not the number of hours it required. I’ve discovered that I can continue to use many of the skills that I enjoyed using at work as a volunteer. I know that some people, however, find it demeaning not to be paid for their professional skills. I consider myself fortunate that I’ve never felt that way.
      Have you checked out my “Retirement Transition Reading” page? I’m thinking that you might find Mary Lloyd’s book, in particular, helpful. The book has a series of exercises to help would-be or recent retirees figure out what they want less of in their life, what they want more of in their life, and how to achieve those goals.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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