Free time…blessing or curse?

By Helena Louw, Occupational Therapist

Free time and what we do with it has been the focus of much discussion, marketing, debate and progressively more research lately. Some consider it the ultimate luxury and proof of prosperity; others equate it with idleness and think of it as a source of laziness and delinquency. How you view it may change over time with varying environments, circumstances and personal experiences. Instead of arguing for or against any particular leisure activity as beneficial or harmful to mental health, this article reminds of a framework which each person can use to reflect on their own leisure participation.

In the mid-twentieth century Dr Jay B Nash formulated a philosophy on recreation and leisure which holds relevance till today. He provided a broad interpretation of the use of leisure time as falling into 6 hierarchical categories.

He called the lowest level “Acts performed against society” and included crime and delinquency in this level. After that comes “Injury or detriment to self” which he used to refer to excessive engagement in any activity (think binge-watching series). These two levels are considered undesirable altogether, as they represent harm to self and/ or others through participation in particular leisure activities.

The third hierarchical level resembles all activities used to kill boredom; he called it “Entertainment, Amusement, Escape from Monotony and Killing Time”. Activities on this level may not be directly harmful to the person but fail to provide any benefits either.

The fourth (Emotional participation) level includes activities which moves a person in appreciation (think watching sports) while the fifth (Active participation) level denotes active mental or physical effort whilst engaging in the activity, e.g. jogging, playing chess.

Nash placed “Creative Participation” at the top of his hierarchy and defined it as the production of something new and original by engagement in a leisure activity. He included inventing, composing and painting as examples on this level.

When viewed through this framework, free time activities can be evaluated not only for their direct merit, but also by considering their indirect impact, i.e. if all of your time goes into level 3, you’ll have little time left to engage on levels 4-6. Thus, consider both the spread of your leisure activities across the 6 levels and where the bulk of your time collects.

It falls to reason that your well-being and resilience will be affected by how you choose to spend your free time. Choosing well may be one of the simplest yet most profound ways of boosting your overall well-being.


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