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Starting with the ancient Greeks, scholars, clergy, and journalists, among other categories of humankind, have been weighing in with their definitions of leisure. Plato and Aristotle, for example, thought of it as freedom from labor, from the necessity of making a living, during which time the individual pursued self-fulfilling activities through, for instance, art, sport, and learning. Judeo-Christian thinkers from the Middle-Ages on have basically accepted this definition, although they by no means always valued leisure as Plato and Aristotle did (Sylvester, 1999). Thus, leisure was particularly scorned during the Protestant Reformation and in the Protestant ethic that it spawned. Still the phenomenon itself was always viewed as time away from work and other obligations – free time -- during which distinctive activities could be pursued. By implication these activities have always been agreeable, for why would someone do something disagreeable in free time. If an activity is disagreeable then there must be some sort of obligation forcing people to do it. Under this condition their time is no longer free.

A definition of leisure

Taking into account these ideas and others to be considered shortly, leisure may be defined as: uncoerced activity engaged in during free time, which people want to do and, in either a satisfying or a fulfilling way (or both), use their abilities and resources to succeed at this (Stebbins, 2005). This is an experiential definition (Mannell, 1999); one based on the experience of leisure. Two other definitions of leisure are examined later in this article. “Free time” is time away from unpleasant obligation, with pleasant obligation being treated here as essentially leisure where homo otiosus, leisure man, feels no significant coercion to enact the activity in question (Stebbins, 2000). This definition harmonizes well with the seven “essential elements of leisure” set out by Max Kaplan (Kaplan, 1960, pp. 22-25). He argued that leisure is a) an antithesis to “work” as an economic function; b) a pleasant expectation and recollection; c) a minimum of involuntary social role obligations; d) a psychological perception of freedom; e) a close relation to values of the culture; f) an inclusion of an entire range from inconsequence and insignificance to weightiness and importance; and g) often, but not necessarily, an activity characterized by the element of play. Articles on casual and serious leisure published in Citizendium give further substance to elements (f) and (g). And recent thought on deviant leisure (e.g., Rojek, 1999, Stebbins, 1997) argues for a modification of element (e), suggesting the moral basis of leisure be treated as a variable to be studied rather than assumed. In other words, leisure may be deviant or non-deviant.

Choice in definitions of leisure

Note that reference to “free choice” – a long-standing component of standard definitions of leisure – is for reasons discussed in detail elsewhere (Stebbins, 2005), intentionally omitted from the foregoing definition. Generally put choice is never completely free, but rather hedged about with all sorts of conditions. This situation renders this concept and allied ones such as freedom and state of mind useless as essential elements in a basic definition (Juniu & Henderson, 2001). They are hedged about with too many qualifications to serve in that capacity. Here is a sample of the qualifications:

When, as scientists, we speak of leisure choice, we must • further explain that what participants find appealing stems from socialization, from what they learned through friends, family, culture, and the like; • expand on the question of who has what rights to what kind of leisure, doing this along such lines as gender, tradition, ethnicity, social class, and social inequality; • expand on the question of ability and aptitude along such lines as age, disability, and mental capacity; • expand on the question of known alternatives and the role of leisure education in broadening and describing lists of them; and • expand on the question of accessibility of alternatives along such lines as temporal, spatial, and socioeconomic constraints affecting it.

When “choice” appears in a definition of leisure, there is now an intellectual obligation to qualify the idea with such considerations. Meanwhile behavior is uncoerced when people make their own leisure. Uncoerced, they feel they are doing something they are not pushed to do, something they are not disagreeably obliged to do. Emphasis is on the acting individual, which retains human agency in the formula. Lack of coercion to engage in an activity is a quintessential property of leisure. No other sphere of human activity can be exclusively characterized in this way.


Nor is leisure treated of here as synonymous with free time. We may be bored in our free time, which can result from inactivity (“nothing to do”) or from activity, which alas, is uninteresting, unstimulating (a common lament about some entertainment television). The same can, of course, happen at work and in obligated non-work settings. Since boredom is a decidedly negative state of mind, it may be argued that, logically, it is not leisure at all (Stebbins, 2003). For leisure is typically conceived of as a positive state of mind, composed of, among other sentiments, pleasant expectations and recollections of activities and situations (element [b] above). Of course, it happens at times that expectations turn out to be unrealistic, and we get bored (or perhaps angry, frightened, or embarrassed) with the activity in question, transforming it in our view into something quite other than leisure. And all this may happen in free time, which exemplifies well how such time covers a broader area of life than leisure does, which is nested within.

Other definitions of leisure

The idea that leisure takes place during free time is incorporated the experiential definition set out above. Nevertheless some scholars look at leisure strictly as use of time not spent making a living. Time-use studies, which examine the proportions of time spent at leisure vis-à-vis work, exemplify well this definition of leisure (e.g., Cushman, Veal, & Zuzanek, 2005). There rarely, if ever, any recognition in these studies of boredom during free time.

Other scholars view leisure as a social institution, which takes its place alongside the other institutions of society such as family, education, religion, and the economy. Interests here revolve around the ways leisure articulates with other institutions and with the culture of the larger society (e.g., Kaplan, 1975; Rojek, 2000). Histories of leisure are predominantly institutional in scope (e.g., Cross, 1990).