Leisure and the Qol Construct: a Review and Some Modest Proposals

Lynette S. Unger, Miami University
Jerome B. Kernan, University of Cincinnati
ABSTRACT - Consumer researchers have demonstrated an interest in the leisure construct both as a result of the broadened concept of consumer behavior and a specific interest in quality of life (QOL) assessment, with which leisure seems so closely to be associated. This paper reviews the voluminous literature of leisure, emphasizing construct definition and measurement, and develops a proposal for enhancing our understanding of this construct and hence that of QOL as well.
[ to cite ]:
Lynette S. Unger and Jerome B. Kernan (1981) ,"Leisure and the Qol Construct: a Review and Some Modest Proposals", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 607-611.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 607-611


Lynette S. Unger, Miami University

Jerome B. Kernan, University of Cincinnati


Consumer researchers have demonstrated an interest in the leisure construct both as a result of the broadened concept of consumer behavior and a specific interest in quality of life (QOL) assessment, with which leisure seems so closely to be associated. This paper reviews the voluminous literature of leisure, emphasizing construct definition and measurement, and develops a proposal for enhancing our understanding of this construct and hence that of QOL as well.


Since the adoption of the broadened concept of consumer behavior (Jacoby 1976, Zaltman and Sternthal 1975), consumer researchers have addressed domains that extend considerably beyond these of traditional concern to marketing. Leisure is one of the domains considered germane under this expanded concept. The leisure experience is frequently associated with the acquisition of products/services and even more often requires that the person invoke a choice process-he/she must choose from among activities, uses of time or money budget alternatives. Perhaps most appealingly, leisure can generate satisfaction--a criterion most familiar to consumer researchers. While the for-profit leisure industry has long commanded marketers' attention, leisure's demonstrated contribution to life quality encourages research attention for social purposes as well.

The leisure domain is generally recognized as a significant component of life satisfaction across the total American population and particularly among certain segments. Leisure's importance to life quality has been noted frequently in non-empirical research across many disciplines: in psychology (Neulinger 1974), sociology (Dumazedier 1974, Riesman et al. 1950), philosophy (de Grazia 1962), anthropology (Huizinga 1950), communications (Stephenson 1967), and economics (Morgan 1962), and most empirical studies of life quality include measures of the leisure domain (Andrews and Withey 1976, Campbell et al. 1976, Cantril 1965, Canadian Minister of Supply and Services 1977, George 1979, Liu 1973, 1976, U.S. Department of Commerce 1977).

More importantly, in two recent subjective studies of life' quality, satisfaction in the leisure domain was found to contribute significantly to global well-being. Andrews and Withey (1976) found that satisfaction with "how much fun you are having," a leisure domain item established by earlier perceptual mapping, was the strongest contributor to global satisfaction among twelve selected predictors. In a second subjective study (Campbell et al. 1976), satisfaction with "the ways you spend your spare time," designated as the leisure domain by the authors, was the individual domain which most strongly correlated with an index of global well-being. In multiple regression, the leisure domain was ninth in importance among twelve selected predictors.

Among certain segments of the population, leisure's contribution to perceived happiness is underscored. Because the elderly have more leisure time, satisfaction in this domain seems to have a greater impact on overall perceived well-being. The gerontological literature largely indicates that there is a positive relationship between leisure participation and global satisfaction (Barfield and Morgan 1978, Edwards and Klemmack 1973, Graney 1975, Hepner 1969, Knapp 1976, Larson 1978, Lemon et al. 1972, Markides and Martin 1979, Szewczuk 1966, Toseland and Rasch 1978, Wolk and Telleen 1976). Finally, Neulinger (1974) has noted other specific groups of people with leisure-related problems (alcoholics, drug addicts and the urban poor) that " seriously impair life quality.

Current trends also augur well for the continuing importance of the leisure domain. Innovative changes in work time such as flextime, shared jobs, the four day/forty-hour week and three-day weekends will create larger blocks of time for leisure activities (Clawson and Knetsch 1966, Poor 1971, Roberts 1971). Total leisure spending (an estimated $160 billion in 1977) has proved itself largely resistant to energy shortages and recessions, enjoying an average eleven percent annual growth rate over the past decade (Commerce America 1977). Demographic and social developments also point to growth. The sixty-five and older segment will increase dramatically over the next twenty years, the feminist movement will continue to expend leisure horizons for women, and Americans' heightened interest in health and physical fitness, now well beyond the fad stage, promises continued leisure growth.

Because it has been shown to contribute significantly to overall life satisfaction, accurate assessment of leisure quality becomes essential. Several researchers have warned against "rushing to the data" without sound constructs and measures (Churchill 1979, Reynolds and Barksdale 1978). The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to review the leisure literature, emphasizing construct definition and measurement. Based on that review a set of properties is proposed that adequate leisure domain/QOL measures would seem to require. Finally, some "next steps" toward achieving those measures are discussed.


Leisure has generally been measured in three ways: as time, as expenditures, or as activities. These are also used as surrogate measures of leisure quality, both as domain-specific items in QOL studies and in empirical leisure studies by psychologists, sociologists and recreation scientists.

Measuring Leisure as Time

Leisure is often equated with leisure time, and there are two common objective measures. In one method, leisure time is defined as time free from paid work (total time -work time - leisure time), a viewpoint rooted in the microeconomic labor-leisure analysis (Henderson and Quandt 1971, Robbins 1930). Trends in aggregate working conditions such as average workweek length, number of paid vacation days or holidays and length of average working life are used to trace longitudinal changes in the amount of leisure available. While the workweek has declined very little since World War II, researchers generally conclude that Americans are enjoying greater '"blocks" of leisure time as a result of increased vacation/holiday time (de Grazia 1962, Moore 1971, Neulinger 1974, Wilensky 1961).

The second objective measure is the time diary or time budget. With variation among studies, respondents record their activities during short time intervals aver the course of one day, and these data are aggregated. Alternately, subjects might be asked simply to estimate how much time in a day or week they spend engaged in particular activities. The methodological problems of time diaries and budgets have been widely discussed (Bishop et al, 1975, Ennis 1968, Foote 1961, 1966, Holman and Venkatesan 1979, Szybillo et al. 1979). In these studies leisure tine is generally defined as that time remaining after hours devoted to work and nondiscretionary activities are subtracted from total time. This is based on the tripartite model of time (total time - (work + nondiscretionary time) = leisure time), which has been described by s number of researchers (Bell 1975, Brightbill 1963, de Grazia 1962, Hendrix et al. 1979, Jacoby et al. 1976, Parker 1971, Voss and Blackwell 1975) and is based on a modification of the traditional labor-leisure analysis (Becker 1965, Mincer 1963, Voss 1967). Many early time diary studies were conducted during the 1930s, when the Depression's "forced leisure" generated interest in the use of free time (Lundberg et al. 1934, National Recreation Association 1934, Sorokin and Berger 1939). Renewed interest in leisure study during the 1960s and 1970s resulted in a number of new studies (Chapin 1974, Hawes 1977, Robinson 1977, Szalai 1972). In addition, most of the recent objective QOL studies contain at least one measure of leisure quality expressed as amount of discretionary time (Canadian Minister of Supply and Services 1977, Terleckyj 1975, U.S. Department of Commerce 1977).

There are three conceptual problems with measuring leisure as leisure time. First, it is often difficult to segregate work, non-discretionary and leisure time components (Bell 1975, Dumazedier 1974, Moore 1971, Murphy 1974, Schary 1971). There are many gray areas where the characteristics of each type of activity overlap. Where, for instance, does one classify time spent gambling or commuting or caring for children? Second, a priori classification of time spent pursuing a specific activity as "leisure" may be inappropriate. An activity typically categorized as a leisure pursuit may not be perceived at all as leisure by some individuals. Playing golf with friends, for example, may be a thoroughly enjoyable pastime for one person and a terrible chore for another. Even within the same person, a particular activity may shift from leisure to non-leisure, depending on situational context. A third problem with using leisure time as a surrogate measure of leisure is the question of direction. A "more is better" normative stance is implied when quite the opposite may be true, as in the case of too much leisure time among the unemployed, youth or the elderly. Inherent in all three problems is the fact that leisure has existential elements which extend beyond time constraints. Time diary researchers frequently suggested that subjective qualities differentiated leisure from other nonwork activities. Chapin (1974) and Szalai (1972) proposed categorizing activities according to their position along an obligatory/discretionary continuum. Robinson (1977) pointed to three criteria to segregate leisure from other nonpaid activities: enjoyment, discretion and spontaneity. Extensive empirical testing of subjective leisure elements was beyond the scope of these large-scale time diary studies, however.

Measuring Leisure as Expenditures

Researchers measuring leisure expenditures generally combine secondary data sources such as aggregate leisure sales data (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census 1972a, 1972b, U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis 1977) and aggregate leisure consumption data (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics 1976, 1978a, 1978b). Several authors have used objective leisure indicators of this type (Canadian Minister of Supply and Services 1977, de Grazia 1962, Ennis 1968, Fisk 1963, Kaplan 1960). Measuring leisure as expenditures presents two problems similar to those encountered regarding leisure time. First, it is difficult to segregate leisure from nonleisure spending as, for example, in the case of gasoline (Eisenpreis 1971, Fisk 1963). Second, the validity problem reappears. One cannot assume direction, that more leisure spending means higher quality leisure.

Measuring Leisure as Activity Participation

Leisure is often defined as participation in recreational activities. This view of leisure grew out of the "recreation movement" of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The "classic" theories of play, prominent during this time, suggested that recreation served certain functions such as restoration or release of surplus energy (Ellis 1971). Because recreation was often viewed as a cure for social problems, it acquired a certain moralistic flavor. People were encouraged to recreate because it was good for them (Arnold 1950). There are two objective measures of activity participation. The first measure aggregates individual participation rates, association memberships, institutional attendance records or number of leisure facilities as gauges of leisure quality. Some researchers have Indicated that these measures may underestimate actual participation (Ennis 1968). Indicators of this sort, however, are commonly used as leisure measures in QOL studies (Canadian Minister of Supply and Services 1977, Liu 1976, Terleckyj 1975, U.S. Department of Commerce 1977).

A second group of activity-based studies is generally not used in quality of life research, yet its prominence in the leisure literature warrants discussion. The theoretical basis is the same: activity participation frequency is used as a surrogate measure of activity enjoyment or leisure quality. In this body of research, however, activity participation frequency is used an a criterion variable. Four major types of predictors are used: socioeconomic variables, early leisure behavior, demographics or personality variables.

Socioeconomic Variables.  Studies of this type use either occupational prestige/social class or occupational role to predict participation in leisure activities. Some researchers have found that differences in leisure activity participation are explained by differences in social class or occupational status (Clarke 1956, Dowell 1967, Reissman 1954, Romsa 1973, Settle et al. 1979, White 1955). This is based on the theory that leisure activities are economically determined. Others, by contrast, found these variables did not predict leisure activity (Burdge 1969, Deles, et al. 1974, White 1975). in a slightly different approach, some researchers have linked occupational role with activity participation (Bishop and Ikeda 1970, Gerstl 1961). Inconsistencies in findings using socioeconomic predictors have been explained as conceptual problems (Gerstl 1961) or resulting from the changing U.S. socioeconomic system (Settle et al. 1979).

Early Leisure Behavior.  In leisure socialization studies, leisure activity participation early in life is used to predict frequency in later life. With few contradictions, studies have found that childhood leisure behavior can be used to predict activities pursued in adulthood (Burch 1969, Sofranko and Nolan 1972, Yoesting and Burkhead 1973), and that early adulthood activity is linked to later adult behavior (Kelly 1974, 1977). In studies attempting to relate pre-retirement leisure behavior with post-retirement activities, results are conflicting. Atchley (1971), Bultena and Wood (1970), Dye et al. (1973), Lambing (1972), McPherson and Guppy (19791, Peppers (1976), Pfeiffer and Davis (1971) and Szewczuk (1966) found poet-retirement activity was strongly related to pre-retirement leases. Others, however, found overall activity declined with age, as a result of health or mobility problems (Barren 1961, Palmore and Cleveland 1976, Palmore and Luikart 1972).

Demographic Variables.  In addition to age-related differences, other demographics have also been used to predict activity participation frequency. Sexual differences in leisure participation have been noted, usually as a part of larger studies (Duncan 1978). Family life cycle stage has also been used as a predictor (Landon and Locander 1979). Rural/urban residence effects on leisure activity have been demonstrated by Hendee (1969) and Knopp (1972). Some studies grouping several demographic and socioeconomic variables have isolated significant predictors of activity participation frequency (Tatham and Dornoff 1971), while others have concluded that demographics are not helpful in grouping leisurers (Romsa and Girling 1976).

Personality Variables.  This genre of studies uses personality variables to predict leisure activity participation frequency. The theory of this research is that people tend to favor those activities which satisfy certain needs (Hawes 1978, London et al. 1977). Examples of this type of study include: McKechnie (1974), Procter (1962), Tinsley et al. (1977) and Weller and Brasch (1979). The amount of variance in participation frequency explained by personality varies widely across these studies.

In using leisure participation frequency as a measure of leisure quality, construct validity again comes into question. While the inconsistent findings in the four types of empirical activity-based studies may be due to theoretical problems peculiar to each area, it is also likely that the criterion variable, participation, lacks validity as a surrogate leisure measure. Some authors have stated (Meyersohn 1972, Murphy et al. 1973) that this measure assumes intrinsic enjoyment of an activity when situational/extrinsic motivation might better explain participation. Indeed, researchers have shown that situational variables such as antecedent conditions (Balk 1975, Markides and Martin 1979, Witt and Bishop 1970) and social situation (Cheek et al. 1976, Field and O'Leary 1973) can be used to explain participation.

Overall, the questionable construct validity of the three "objective" measures of leisure--time, expenditures, and activity participation--suggests a need for more subjective measures of leisure quality. While many authors have called for psychological investigation of the leisure experience (Mannell 1980, Murphy et al. 1973), objective measures remain the most widely used. The development of subjective measures of leisure domain life quality has begun in two directions: in QOL studies and in the empirical leisure literature. Among most QOL studies, the bulk of the "subjective" items are actually based on objective indicators. In the gerontological literature, for example, leisure activity is measured almost universally in objective terns: number of social contacts, organization affiliations, activity participation (Edwards and Klemmack 1973, Graney 1975, Knapp 1976, Larson 1978, Lemon et al. 1972, Wolk and Telleen 1976). Out of six "subjective" leisure indicators in the Andrews and Withey (1976) study, three are time-based: "the amount of relaxation in your life;" "your chances for relaxation - even for a short time;" "the amount of time you have for doing the things you want to do;" and one is activity-based: "the way you spend your spare time, your nonworking activities." Two measures, however, approach a subjective concept of leisure: "how much fun you are having," and "the amount of fun and enjoyment you have." Importantly, one of these items was also the leading predictor of global QOL, as discussed earlier. In a second direction, several empirical leisure studies have attempted to identify subjective experiences enjoyed during participation in specific activities (Hawes 1978, Hawes et al. 1975, Tinsley et a1. 1977). These, however, are not designed to measure overall leisure quality. In summary, development of a subjective measure of leisure is needed, one that transcends specific activities and approaches leisure from a number of existential dimensions.


As Churchill (1979) has stated, the first step in measurement development is to specify the domain of the construct in question. The literature should be reviewed, and the various dimensions of the domain should be assembled. Most definitional discussions of leisure compare it to three closely-related concepts: free time, recreation and play (Miller and Robinson 1963). As discussed, free time and recreation correspond to "leisure as time" and "leisure as activities," objectively measurable dimensions of leisure. Play, like leisure, however, is frequently described in more subjective terms. Some authors distinguish the concepts (de Grazia 1962, Pieper 1952). Leisure is described as being restful or contemplative and is limited to adults while play is generally seen as the activity of children and animals and is characterized by its apparently "useless" nature. Conversely, other authors have suggested that it is impossible to segregate the subjective properties of leisure from those of play, and that the concepts are inextricably intertwined (Arnold 1980, Ellis 1971, 1973, Kaplan 1975). Some researchers use the terms synonymously, implying that leisure is simply the play of adults (Berlyne 1969, Smith 1980). All the major subjective properties of leisure described below have also been used to describe play, attesting further to the similarity of the two constructs. Because the concepts are so closely related, it appears appropriate to include both leisure and play in the construct domain.

There appear to be several major subjective properties of leisure discussed in the literature: intrinsic satisfaction, perceived freedom, high involvement, arousal, feelings of mastery and spontaneity.

Intrinsic Satisfaction

Most leisure definitions suggest that the leisure experience offers pleasure or gratification. Leisure is pursued for its own sake and is an end in itself rather than a utilitarian means to an end (Berlyne 1969, Caillois 1961, de Grazia 1962, Douglass 1960, Kaplan 1975, Kerr 1962, Lee 1929, Piaget 1962, Riesman 1963, Schary 1971, Smith 1980, Stephenson 1967). Because of its intrinsic rewards, leisure offers a means of self-expression and affirmation (Dumazedier 1974, Farina 1969, Murphy et al. 1973, Pieper 1952).

Perceived Freedom

Leisure is often described as "free," something one does voluntarily, without coercion or obligation (Caillois 1961, Douglass 1960, Ennis 1968, Huizinga 1950, Kaplan 1975, Stephenson 1967). At least two authors have maintained that perceived freedom is the single precondition of subjective leisure (Bregha 1980, Neulinger 1974). As noted earlier, many time-oriented researchers recognized this subjective leisure element and proposed an obligatory/discretionary continuum to segregate leisure from other nonwork activities (Chapin 1974, Hendrix et al. 1979, Robinson 1977, Szalai 1972).

High Involvement

Some have suggested that true leisure means high involvement or total absorption in an activity. When we leisure, we become so involved that we enter a microcosm distinct from daily life (Anderson 1961, Berlyne 1969, Douglass 1960, Dumazedier 1974, Erikson 1950, Foote 1966, Huizinga 1950, Kaplan 1975, Lee 1929, Piaget 1962, Riesman 1963, Stephenson 1967). Some have described this experience as a fantastic escape from reality while others simply call it an interlude from the ordinary. While the microcosm may be relatively free from social control, it is governed by its own rules and order (Caillois 1961).


Several researchers indicated arousal or tension are present in leisure (Berlyne 1969, Ellis 1971, Lee 1929, Murphy et al. 1973, Piaget 1962, Riesman 1963). Novelty-seeking, exploration and risk taking behavior have been noted. Also related to arousal is the repetitious or ritualistic nature of leisure activity (Huizinga 1950, Stephenson 1967).


Feelings of mastery have been identified as another property of the subjective leisure experience. One has the opportunity to test one's self (Murphy et al. 1973) or conquer the environment in some way (Berlyne 1969, Erikson 1950, Piaget 1962, Riesman et al. 1950, Riesman 1963).


Finally, several authors have noted leisure's spontaneous nature (Lee 1929, Piaget 1962, Riesman 1963, Robinson 1977).

It seems desirable to relate currently-used objective measures and the proposed subjective properties. Churchill (1979) stressed that bringing together widely varying definitions of a construct was a way to synthesize current knowledge and to avoid future confusion. Old measures of a construct should be considered along with new viewpoints in order to avoid "throwing the baby out with the bath-water." Importantly, QOL researchers also maintained that, while subjective measures may offer improved construct validity in measuring satisfaction, they must be tied in some way to objective conditions in order to contribute to policy making (Schneider 1976). Obviously, in terms of measurement development and policy application, it is necessary to relate the objective conditions and subjective properties of leisure.



The two-dimensional matrix in the Exhibit provides a framework for relating objective measures and subjective properties. The rows of the matrix represent the major objective indicators of leisure quality. The EiCs equal the general evaluation of the objective conditions across subjective properties. For example E3C would indicate how much amount of expenditures contributes to leisure quality. The columns show the major subjective properties of leisure, and the ECjs indicate the evaluation of subjective properties across objective conditions, EC2 would measure, for example, how perceived freedom across all objective leisure conditions contributes to overall leisure quality.. The grand mean (E..) would provide a general evaluation of leisure quality "as-a-whole." It is important to note that the lists of properties and objective conditions shown are by no means complete, and that a general evaluation of leisure quality would optimally include as many measures as possible. Finally, on a more specific level, the Eijs would measure leisure quality under a particular objective condition with respect to a particular subjective property. The relationship between each objective condition and subjective property could then be determined.


Next steps include the development and integration of subjective and objective leisure measures and the exploration of personal and situational antecedents of the subjective leisure experience. The development of subjective leisure measures should be continued, following the steps Churchill (1979) has enumerated. This would entail a more extended review of the leisure literature to add other properties not included above. The construct domain should be adequately sampled and items generated for each dimension. Following data collection within the proposed framework, the measures should be purified and reduced to a parsimonious set, and reliability should be assessed. Convergent validity of the measure eight be evaluated by correlating an overall leisure quality measure developed from the various items with existing one-item leisure domain satisfaction measures such as those used in subjective QOL studies. Discriminant validity could be assessed by correlating the overall leisure quality measure with QOL study measures of other, theoretically unrelated domains (satisfaction with safety, home or money, for example). In assessing construct validity, one might expect the overall leisure domain satisfaction measure to contribute significantly to global satisfaction, as demonstrated in past subjective QOL studies. The matrix discussed above might be used to relate subjective properties with objective measures for policy purposes. This could be done using simple Pearsonian correlations or canonical correlation. Further, analysis of variance or multiple regression could be used to assess the subjective properties and objective measures as predictors of leisure domain satisfaction. Research could be conducted on an individual level of analysis or between communities, as done by Schneider (1976).

Further investigation of the antecedents of subjective leisure is warranted, paralleling similar studies of objective measures. As discussed above, socioeconomic variables, early leisure behavior, demographics and personality variables have been related to objective leisure measures, albeit often weakly. These same personal variables might be tested as predictors of subjective leisure properties as well. Further, the subjective leisure experience appears to be highly situational, varying across different experiences with the same activity or even within the same person. This situational quality of leisure also has been discussed by several researchers (Huizinga 1950, Stephenson 1967). Some have begun to investigate the effects of situational variables such as antecedent conditions or social surroundings on objective measures (Field and O'Leary 1973, Witt and Bishop 1970). Their effects on subjective properties might also be explored.


Since there are many reasons for assessing leisure, there are many measures for it, each with its rationale and proponents. There seems little merit to arguing for subjective over objective assessment, particularly since the benefits of each can be combined. It should be recognized, however, that such a combination, although useful, is merely an initial step toward the systematic explication of the leisure domain and our ultimate understanding of its contribution to QOL evaluation.


Because of space limitations, this paper's references (which number 137) must be obtained from the lead author: Lynette S. Unger, Department of Marketing Management, Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056.