Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

The Health Benefits of Active Leisure

It’s not often that I find good advice on how to approach my depression in a diet book, but as Eric was reading his most recent volume on how to shed pounds, “The Structure House Weight Loss Plan,” by Gerard J. Mustante, he came to a page and handed it to me.

“Read that!” he said.

“That!” was four paragraphs of studies that show how active (as opposed to passive) leisure improves emotional health. Here they are (the four paragraphs):


Studies by Salvatore R. Maddi focused on the effects of stress on 2,000 people who all reported external stress (deaths in the family, divorce, illness, work stress, and so forth). Within this population of people experiencing stress, one group seemed more protected from the internal symptoms of stress–depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, overweight, misuse of food, and so forth. The other group had experienced stress, just like the first group, but it didn’t manifest the consequences. The researchers called this second group “stress hardy.” What do you think was the primary distinguishing feature between these groups? It was four to six hours a week of what the researchers called “meaningful activity.” For some reason, meaningful activity seemed to provide an element of protection against the effects of life stress.


Four to six hours. That’s less than an hour a day. What could that mean for you, to cultivate, defend, and prepare for an activity that would require about an hour of your time each day? This would be your stress management time, your relaxation time.

Another study–this one stemming from work by Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues–studied flow and optimal experience by giving people pages to use during their regular daily activity. Throughout the day, the researchers checked with the people being studied, asked them about their activities, and measured their sense of flow, happiness, concentration, and motivation. They would be reading the paper, playing with a child, driving to work, standing in the supermarket, or doing whatever else they were doing. They’d call in, and the researchers would ask, “What are you doing now? How engaged are you in what you’re doing? How do you feel?”


What emerged from this research was that the most overall rewarding experience associated with daily activities was in this category of “active leisure.” What does this term mean? Leisure implies that you’re doing what you’re doing for it’s own sake–because you want to, not because you need to, ought to, or are getting paid to. Active means that it’s not passive; you’re doing something yourself, not vicariously experiencing what others are doing, such as by watching actors in a TV show. Active leisure means that it’s your choice and you’re involved in what you’re doing. We’re talking about pursuing a hobby, exercising, playing sports, playing an instrument, engaging in social activities, and other discretionary activities.

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