This is an excerpt from Dimensions of Leisure for Life 2nd Edition With HKPropel Access by Tyler Tapps,Mary Sara Wells,Mary S. Wells & Mary Parr.
By Camilla J. Hodge and Karen K. Melton
With an inclusive definition of family, we can start to identify and describe the ways family leisure can support individuals’, families’, and communities’ health. Social isolation is a serious public health concern. Social isolation, also known as loneliness, is also a growing social concern, and some 40 percent of people in the United States report feeling isolated and say that their relationships are not meaningful (Cigna, 2018). These feelings of loneliness have almost the same negative impact on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015). Loneliness is also twice as harmful as obesity on your mental and physical health (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). This means loneliness is a big issue in the United States.
Scientists have suggested that building social connections may be the answer to this big issue (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2017). We further suggest that shared leisure experiences, especially those that occur in families, could be used as a prevention tool that protects against social isolation and loneliness across the life span. These protective family experiences are called family connection experiences. Family connection experiences can occur as a result of activities that sustain or maintain the bond between two or more family members or activities that establish, augment, alter, or grow the bond between two or more family members.
To better understand the concept of connection experiences, let’s consider that families are a system (Broderick, 1993). The word system may seem a little weird, but consider a car as an analogy. A car is a system that can run for a long time on a full tank of gas, but eventually the gas will run out and the car will also need other, more intensive upkeep. This principle is similar for families, except instead of needing a tank of gas, let’s think of the activities a family does together as their main energy source. It is not so much the activity itself that provides energy, but rather the activity provides the opportunity for connection, and the connection is the true source of energy in relationships. At times, families may need only gas in their tank to keep them going. In relationships, we call these maintenance connection experiences. At other times, families need other, more specialized, or more intensive experiences (analogous to an oil change or tune-up)—these are growth connection experiences. We suggest maintenance connection experiences and growth connection experiences are likely to (1) occur in leisure for families, (2) reduce loneliness and social isolation, and (3) increase social connection and ultimately improve the health and well-being of individuals, families, and societies.
In the next sections, we will first define health in the context of social connection. Second, we will describe some research that has documented how types of connection experiences in family leisure are connected to positive family relationships that support the health of individuals, families, and societies.
Defining Health in the Context of Social Connection
The World Health Organization (WHO, n.d.) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being [emphasis added] and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” WHO has identified social support networks as a factor directly associated with health (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2017). This means that being socially healthy is more than simply not feeling lonely. Instead, health as it relates to social connection speaks to the social relationships we have and the quality of those social relationships.
In a TED Talk that now has more than 38 million views, Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the 75-year-long Harvard Study of Adult Development, said “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier” (Waldinger, 2015). Good relationships predicted better physical health, improved cognitive functioning, longer life, and greater happiness among 724 men and their partners who were enrolled in the study. And it wasn’t just the number of relationships that predicted these outcomes—the quality of those relationships was vital to increased health and happiness. Therefore, high-quality social connections are essential to health and happiness across the life span.
Family Leisure Experiences That Build Social Connection
If social connection is essential to health and happiness across the life span, then what is it about shared leisure that can help people grow or maintain high-quality relationships? Arthur and Elaine Aron, two of the leading experts on interpersonal relationships, have said social connection is built on shared experience and shared enjoyment (Aron & Aron, 1986). Likewise, some notable social psychologists (i.e., scientists who study people’s behaviors in social groups) have said “leisure is a major social space for the development and maintenance of relationships” (Kleiber et al., 2011, p. 393). In other words, leisure might be, in modern society, the best place to create connection experiences for families. This means leisure is perhaps the primary context for connection experiences that shape the way relationships are formed, maintained, and expanded across the life span.
The potential for family leisure to create connection experiences that reduce feelings of social isolation or loneliness is high. In fact, one of the leading causes of loneliness is dissatisfaction with one’s family, social, and community life (Bialik, 2018). Family leisure has been linked to increased life and relationship satisfaction (Agate, Zabriskie, Agate, & Poff, 2009; Orthner & Mancini, 1991). Greater amounts of family leisure—and especially greater satisfaction with family leisure—is associated with increased quality of life in families (Hodge et al., 2017). Thus, family leisure can be used not only to treat existing problems like social isolation but also to amplify good things like quality of life, subjective well-being, or essentially, happiness. Leisure has also been shown to create opportunities for different types of interaction in families, and family interaction (including conflict) has been linked to increased relationship satisfaction for married partners (Orthner, 1975). Likewise, leisure has been linked to family stability. In one study, married partners who participated in recreation activities together were more likely to still be married five years later (Hill, 1988). Overall, family leisure can be an important tool for improving relationships and life satisfaction, which affects the physical, social, and mental health of individuals, families, and communities.