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The Social Psychology of Leisure

October 18, 1996

IT IS characteristic of leisure that its use is chosen, not imposed; and it is, therefore, not implausible to suppose that we may learn something of ourselves from the choices we make. To learn, we must have accurate and extensive data. These Michael Argyle supplies with a will.

Some of his data are mildly surprising. Did you know that in Britain some 16.6 per cent of the mean household income goes on leisure activities? That most employed Americans claim to derive more satisfaction from work than from leisure? Most are a good deal less than surprising: chess-players are regarded as cerebral, analytical and able to concentrate, while people are much less likely to make regular visits to a swimming pool if it is two miles away than if it is half a mile away.

Perhaps we should not be too disappointed. It is as true today as when H. G. Wells remarked the fact more than 80 years ago, that social psychology has given the world little cause for amazement; and few of its suggestions take us much further than informed common sense. In the book the blurb is characteristically blurbish in asserting that the conclusions "challenge much received wisdom about human nature and illuminate the sources of our deepest pleasures". They do no such thing. What is presented is a great deal of information on a wide variety of the ways in which we pass our time.

Argyle rightly says that his subject "includes such a wide variety of activities that it does not make I sense to try to deal with them all as a single kind of behaviour". His gaze ranges from TV to archaeology, from tennis to tourism. Rather surprisingly for a practising Christian, he includes religion as a leisure activity: what would Saint Augustine have said? In any case we are assured regular church attendance makes you marginally less liable to heart attacks, at least if you live in Maryland.

The book is full of snippets of information of that sort, much of it handily summarised in figures and tables. Each chapter ends with a summary of its conclusions. In one we are reminded that "involvement in sports usually begins in childhood, when the main influences are parents and peers"; "nearly half of adult leisure interests are acquired after childhood"; probably (anyone could become interested in anything) but personality factors, and especially abilities, make some kinds of leisure both more attractive and easier". Well, yes; quite so.

In the end, I felt grateful to Argyle for having confirmed that careful investigation confirms so many of my intuitions, but uncertain upon whose behalf all his work had been done. Perhaps there is sufficient justification in Bertrand Russell's remark that it is fun just knowing things. And that is always something.

Max Hammerton is emeritus professor of psychology, University of Newcastle.

The Social Psychology of Leisure

Author - Michael Argyle
ISBN - 0 14 023887 5
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £8.99
Pages - 321

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