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Role of psychology in leisure studies

This is an excerpt from Dimensions of Leisure for Life eBook by Human Kinetics.

Psychological Theories and Leisure Application

One of the major fields of study that influence social science is psychology. Psychology is the study of the way the human mind works and how it influences behavior. We all use the principles of psychology daily without realizing it. When we reward ourselves with a night at the movies for doing something good, we are using psychology's learning principle of positive reinforcement. When we get nervous right before we drop in from the top of a skateboard ramp, we are activating our autonomic nervous system. When we talk to ourselves in our heads, telling ourselves to calm down, work harder, or give up, we are using psychological cognitive approaches. These examples illustrate psychology as the study of humans' thoughts, emotions, and behavior.


If you examine the definition of psychology closely, you can see that it is heavily entrenched in leisure and leisure behaviors. For example, why does one person choose to jump out of a plane whereas another person says, “Look at that idiot jumping out of a perfectly good plane.” One of the psychological theories at play in these scenarios is the theory of sensation seeking. Sensation seeking is “the need for varied, novel and complex sensations and the willingness to take physical
and social risks for the sake of such experiences” (Zuckerman, 1983, p. 10). According to the theory of sensation seeking, four subcomponents make up how much a person desires sensation-seeking attributes and opportunities:

  • Thrill and adventure seeking, which relate to the willingness to take physical risks and participate in high-risk sports
  • Experience seeking, which relates to the need for new and exciting experiences
  • Disinhibition, which relates to a willingness to take social risks and engage in health risk behaviors (e.g., binge drinking or having unprotected sex)
  • Boredom susceptibility, which relates to intolerance for monotony and repetitive activities



Have you ever participated in a leisure activity such as snowboarding, playing the guitar, or meditating, where you lost all sense of time; your ability and the challenge were perfectly matched; you became totally unaware of your surroundings; or you just seemed to get into the rhythm of things, on the ball, in the zone, or in the groove? This is called the flow theory. The nine factors of flow are these:

1. The challenge level and skill level are matched.

2. A high degree of concentration is present.

3. Self-consciousness is lost.

4. Sense of time is distorted.

5. Successes and failures are apparent.

6. Clear and obtainable goals are present.

7. The person has a sense of personal control.

8. The experience is intrinsically rewarding.

9. The person becomes absorbed in the activity.


Not all of these factors are needed for flow to be experienced. When an expert skier skis on a bunny hill she is likely to be bored; when a beginner is on a black diamond hill, she is likely to feel anxiety. The optimal situation for flow is when the person is in the middle, matching her skill level with the challenge. The borrowing and merging of psychological theories and leisure are too expansive to discuss in this text; however, you can almost take any major theory of psychology and use the theory to better understand leisure behaviors.


The psychological perspective of leisure shows us that leisure is a time for building purpose in our lives, is individually determined, and should have beneficial results. Some of the psychological benefits of leisure might include, but are not limited to, increases in self-actualization, self-identity, self-esteem, or self-concept; personal enjoyment and growth; reduction of anxiety and depression; enhanced feelings of spirituality; and improvements in overall psychological well-being. Additionally, it is well documented that as a result of leisure engagement, people make significant gains in informational knowledge, visual learning, problem solving, creativity, and recognition memory. Interestingly, much of the research to support these statements comes not only from human trials but also from psychological studies on animals.

Learn more about Dimensions of Leisure for Life.