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Leisure During COVID-19: From the Perspective of Well-Being

Once again, it's been a quite while since I posted the last blog. But, finally, I have got some "free time" to write a blog. More importantly, our society is experiencing a major event that is impacting leisure lives of many: COVID-19. I am sure that whatever lifestage you are at or whatever career you have, you are feeling the impacts of COVID-19 and social distancing. For me, we have moved to completely online teaching delivery 2 weeks ago. Our summer plans to visit families in China and Japan are pretty much gone. I cannot do my favorite activity of all time -- badminton. We are staying at home almost all time.

As you can see in my examples, COVID-19 does impact our leisure lives. Although for some people, leisure may be one of the least concerns now (yes, life and health is more important), research has also suggested that people's leisure life is related to their mental health and subjective well-being in many ways. For example, leisure helps cope with stress. Many of us do exercise when we face pressures. Also leisure boosts our happiness. For instance, we use leisure time to socialize with families and friends and share our positive experiences, which further enhances our well-being. Both exercise and socialization (and many other leisure activities) are getting major hit by self-isolation due to COVID-19.

I have studied the relationships between leisure and well-being over the past 8 years, from the lives of disaster survivors, to the daily lives of college students. Although I have not conducted research on COVID-19 itself, let me try to apply what I have found and read to the situations we face now, so that potentially we can continue quality leisure lives and see each other healthy and happy at the end of this social distancing.

"Free Time" and COVID-19

Perhaps, the most visible change in your leisure life due to COVID-19 may be an change in free time. Many of you are not going to your workplace, which may create more free time (e.g., less commuting time) and flexibility of time (e.g., you can do some yoga right after lunch). Also more and more people are losing their jobs, and obviously unemployment creates more discretionary time, although it is contestable if we call that as leisure. For others, COVID-19 may be leading to decreases in their free time due to, for example, taking care of kids who are out of school and childcare and ill family members.

The leisure research literature has suggested that an absolute amount of "free time" one has has no or minimal effect on their subjective well-being. In other words, how much free time one has has almost nothing to do with your happiness. Also noteworthy is that some research has suggested some non-linear, specifically reverse-U shape relationships between free time and well-being. This means that you tend to be happy if you have a moderate amount of free time, but you are not so happy if you have too much or too little free time. This last part is concerning given COVID-19. Perhaps, some of us are having either too much or too little free time.

If you have too much free time, perhaps you might want to think: how can you have times for structured activities? These structured activities do not have to be "work." Are there any opportunities through which you can volunteer or help communities? Does any of your families and friends need assistance (e.g., shopping for older adults and sick people)? Are there anything we can do online? At least, you can do a lot of housework! Perhaps, you can learn a new thing (it's amazing so many courses and resources are available free or on deal now). The leisure research has long suggested that "free time" does not need to be filled with traditional work, and that a sense of structure that these obligatory activities plays important roles in our lives and well-being.

If you have too little free time, perhaps you may want to think: is there any way that you can set aside "you" time? The leisure literature, especially feminist leisure researchers' works, has examined how many women's (as well as others') leisure lives can be buried by family and work responsibilities. This leads to many barriers to quality leisure, including sheer lack of time to strong ethics of care (prioritizing others over self). What seems important is to have a clear boundary of "you" time. Create a time and space -- however small it is -- that cannot be disrupted by others. Perhaps, go running without a phone. Nice reading time after putting your kids into bed. And know that taking care of you -- letting you entertained -- is important for others around you as well, so that you won't feel guilty. This is especially so, as this situation with COVID-19 is increasingly looking like a marathon rather than sprint.

Repertoire of Leisure Activities and COVID-19

Research suggests that the types of leisure activities you do and how you do them (e.g., how long, how often) are more strongly related to well-being, than free time. Now, we have different types of leisure activities -- most broadly perhaps active vs. passive. This dichotomy applies not only to physicality (e.g., running vs. napping), but also to mental, emotional, and social activeness (e.g., writing a song vs. watching TV shows). In addition, we often differentiate physical, social, media-based, artistic/cultural, outdoor, and tourism activities among others. Which activities should we be participating to keep us and our families happy?

Existing studies have found that some of these activities are particularly strongly and positively related to people's subjective well-being -- especially physical and social activities, and often artistic/cultural activities. Yet, as I showed some examples at the beginning, these are the types of leisure activities that are getting major hits by COVID-19 and the following social distancing lives. Your gym is closed (and so are my badminton courts!). You cannot get together with your friends or families living apart. How do we do?

This part is not based on research, but I have seen many creative solutions already on my social media. In terms of social leisure, many people are organizing "online hang-outs" through Zoom and Google Meet. Certainly it feels different, but it can help us maintain and benefit from our relationships. Based on my experiences with working with disaster survivors, one thing you may want to consider is to host different types of social (with perhaps different technology tools) with different groups of people. By different groups of people, I mean those who are differentially impacted by COVID-19. I saw some survivors felt awkward interacting with other survivors who went through more losses due to disasters (e.g., those who lost their loved one, home). In a way, many of us can be conceptualized as COVID-19 survivors, and we are all differently influenced by this pandemic. We have to be mindful of these differences when we are reaching out and socializing. Perhaps, larger group, synchronized hangouts are appropriate for those of us who are not directly impacted by COVID-19 (e.g., not sick, not working in health sectors, not taking care of ill family members). If you want to reach out to those who may be affected more by the situation, you could use asynchronized tools like texting and messengers so that they can respond to you whenever they can and you won't be overwhelmed by their situations either. Also important is socialization among those who are going through similar life situations (e.g., those in health sectors, parents taking care of kids at home) -- nothing feels better than talking to others who "get" your situations over a glass of wine.

In terms of physical activities, many of us can still go out to run or walk a dog (you should consult guidelines from your local government). This is great. But, if you are someone like me who get bored at just running, then we need more. Recently, I started to search for "quiet HIIT (high-intensity interval training)" videos on YouTube, as I live in a condo -- I don't want to annoy my neighbors too much by causing jumps. I have seen many pictures and articles about "Zumba on balcony" type of things on my social media. Here again, creativity seems to be the key.

Probably not so surprisingly, research has also suggested that media-activities (e.g., watching TV, video games, social media) are very "tricky" when it comes to their relationships with well-being. Often, they are negatively related to happiness; in other words, the longer and the more often you participate in media activities, the less happy you are. This is a rather simplistic analysis and does not take into account of diversity of so-called "media-based" activities (e.g., serious gamers vs. casual gaming). More importantly, I do not want to label one whole type of leisure activities as "unhappy/unhealthy leisure." I would assume that there are times and places for media-based leisure in our daily lives and this COVID-19 situations. Sometimes, we can use some good, simple laughs by watching a silly sitcoms (right now I am watching my childhood favorite: Full House), especially in these depressing circumstances.

What I want to emphasize is the importance of repertoire of leisure activities. In other words, how diverse are your leisure activities? To me, and probably many other leisure researchers, what's concerning is when people start to have a very skewed leisure life (e.g., only media activities for hours and hours). The situation with COVID-19, I think, makes this to happen easily. Maybe many of us are watching a lot of Netflix shows and Hulu right now. Perhaps, we can use some physical activities and socialization. What about some expressive, artistic leisure (e.g., I am learning singing on YouTube)? There is a theory called substitutability in leisure studies. This means that if you have a variety of leisure activities, you are more resilient when life tries to take one or two away from you. I hope you have a good repertoire already, but if not, this may be a good chance for you to try something different and expand your repertoire! And this does not only apply to those of us doing much media activities. For example, if you are self-diagnosed extroverts and cannot go a day without talking to friends, then perhaps this is a great opportunity for you to develop some introspective leisure activities (e.g., poetry, drawing, meditation).

Balance of Leisure Experiences and COVID-19

Last but not least, leisure researchers look at subjective experiences during leisure. We believe that "leisure" is more than time and activity. Leisure is how we feel during these times and activities. I have seen this firsthand, when I worked with disaster survivors who lost everything -- job, house, family. For them, more "free" time was not "leisure." If anything, it was torturing.

I have conducted a series of studies to look at how types of leisure experiences make us feel that our daily lives are worth living, or what Japanese call "ikigai." One of my findings is that we need four types of experiences in our lives: enjoyment, effort, stimulation, and comfort. Enjoyment comes from something attractive to you, whether it's eating a delicious cake or winning in sport. Effort is about facing a challenge, pursuing a goal, and bettering self. Stimulation is doing something new, meeting new people, and learning new values, while comfort is doing the "usual" and feeling safe to be who you are and relaxed. My ikigai theory suggests that you need a good balance among these 4 types of experiences. And leisure is the key.

The reason why leisure is the key to achieving a good balance among these 4 experiences is that leisure can flexibly offer any of these experiences. Leisure can be enjoyable, effortful, stimulating, and comforting. On the contrary, many other life domains, like work and family, may be skewed towards one experience (e.g., work and effort). In this sense, leisure is like a "joker" in the cards. Leisure can give you the type(s) of experience that's missing in your daily life.

Now, the problem with this perspective and the current COVID-19 situation is that, I suspect, many of us are experiencing major imbalance of experiences across our life domains. If you lost your job, you may have lost a major source of effort in your life. If your family members got sick and you are taking care of them, your family that used to be a main source of comfort may have become something different. You are stuck at home and doing the same thing over and over -- no stimulation? Our life is out of balance.

Leisure can help. Once again, leisure can be enjoyable, effortful, stimulating, and comforting. If you need extra effort, find activities through which you can face challenges, pursue goals, and better yourself. I don't care if you call it leisure or not -- to me, it is and that's enough. If you are stuck at home and need stimulation, what can you do to spice your life up? Can we watch a movie/documentary that can take you to a whole new world? You and your family may be able to try a new project. The idea is simple. Of course, understanding what gives you the experience you need is the challenge. Two pieces of advice before going ahead with this situation. 1. Think of what experience(s) that's missing your daily lives now (enjoyment, effort, stimulation, and comfort), and think of the times when you felt those missing things in the past. What were you doing? What in those experiences made you feel that way? Can we do the same or a version of it now? 2. Just do it. I am not copying Nike's TV commercials. My research actually suggests that people find many experiences within whatever they choose to do. So, if you are wondering whether you should re-ignite your passion about cooking, do it. You may find enjoyment, effort, stimulation, and/or comfort -- if not all of them -- in it. It may make your lives during COVID-19 a whole lot better. You may start living this situation, not just surviving. I hope you do.

Good luck,

Shin