Why leisure is important to your quality of life
Engaging in leisure activity is a vital part of recovery. One research study found that the amount of involvement in leisure activities significantly predicted one’s adjustment to and recovery from their mental health condition1. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of leisure activities in a society where individuals often identify themselves by their work roles (“What do you do?”) rather than their interests (“What do you enjoy doing?”). But for many people, it is their leisure activities (sports, hobbies, courses, etc.) that add the most meaning to their lives.
Failing to recognize the value of leisure can result in work-life imbalance, in which your productive (or work) roles are overemphasized. This is especially problematic if you need to go off work or stop volunteering because of mood symptoms. Engaging in leisure activities can help you to continue to live a meaningful life, in line with your own values and interests (whether you value creativity, freedom, connection and belonging, industry and skilfulness, or anything else you find important in life), regardless of whether you are working.
Participating in leisure activities can also support your quality of life across other areas. For example, team sports are important for your quality of life across leisure, exercise, and social domains; while solitary leisure activities like engaging in creative hobbies can support your sense of identity and self-esteem.
Leisure can provide the key components of behavioural activation—pursuing activities that provide pleasure and accomplishment—that are effective strategies for managing depressive symptoms in bipolar disorder.
Leisure and bipolar disorder
Yet people living with bipolar disorder often find it hard to engage in leisure activities. The symptoms of depression itself—such as poor energy, motivation and self-esteem—make it difficult to do the very activities that improve these depressed symptoms. Even after a depressed episode has remitted, people with bipolar disorder may get stuck in behavioural patterns of low leisure2. Additionally, other factors (from other domains), such as a stigma, a lack of a strong social network, or financial or practical barriers (e.g., arranging transportation) may be barriers to leisure.
In a research study of personal stories of people living with bipolar disorder, some said they were concerned that excessive or over-involvement in their leisure activities had triggered a manic episode, and so they were afraid of becoming involved in such activities again3. Although excessive or extreme involvement in activities may indeed lead to mania, going too far in the opposite direction by stopping all activities is an ineffective solution and may lead to a depressive episode. Finding a midpoint, a moderate and sustainable degree of involvement in leisure activity, is the best solution.
How you can take action
Increasing your leisure activity will involve setting goals that you are likely to follow through on. It is the most useful to you if your leisure goals are both realistic and practical. If you’ve been feeling depressed, keep in mind that depression makes it difficult to get moving. As a result, you need to set your goals much lower than you ordinarily would. For example, if you would like to start going to films again, your first goal might be to find a list of film showings coming up over the next few weeks. Useful goals are: Specific (give a very clear and concrete description of what you’re aiming to do), Realistic (set your goal to be easy enough so it’s achievable even if you feel pretty depressed in the coming weeks) and Scheduled (set out exactly when and where you’re going to do the leisure activity).
Act first, motivate later. Remember to set goals even if you don’t want to or you don’t feel “motivated”. Motivation is often the first thing to go when a person’s mood is low. If you can begin setting leisure activity goals, following through and then checking off the goal in your schedule, you can gradually reestablish motivation or the desire to do something. But if you wait for your motivation level to rise to some level that you think is necessary, you might be waiting a long time to start your leisure plan.
One leisure studies expert feels that there are different types of leisure activities:
- Casual Leisure requires little or no preparation and involves short-lived pleasurable activity (this would include sociable conversation, pleasurable aerobic activity, etc.),
- Project Leisure involves more sustained effort and time (e.g. planning an anniversary party or building a scrapbook of a vacation), and
- Serious Leisure requires the learning of skills or knowledge and is generally more fulfilling (like volunteering, fine art, sports, etc.)4. You might want to think about how you would like to balance these three kinds of leisure in your life.
If you’re getting support from a mental health clinic or other agency, you might have access to an Occupational Therapist (OT). An OT can be exceptionally helpful in working with you to identify leisure activities that would be helpful in achieving and maintaining wellbeing.
Balance achievement with pleasure
Remember to balance the pursuit of accomplishment with pleasure. Some people find they spend all their time pursuing pleasure, without gaining the sense of wellness from accomplishment, while others focus only on accomplishment. The healthiest balance is a combination of both. Increasingly, our limited leisure time comes with insidious expectations about how we spend it. We can feel guilty for simply relaxing and enjoying ourselves, particularly when social media is full of people turning leisure activities into an opportunity to achieve personal growth, excellence, or a new ‘side-hustle.’ This can be a particular vulnerability for people with bipolar disorder: research shows they are strongly motivated by achievement, and consider their goals and aspirations to be highly important to their self-esteem and identity5,6. While wanting to do well can be a useful motivator, it can come with the downside of rigid expectations to be the best, unhealthy competition with others, or becoming frustrated or self-critical when we are ‘bad’ at a hobby.
Here are some tips to help you balance the sense of reward that comes from achievement with enjoyment of leisure activities for their own sake:
- Set realistic expectations about how good you might be at a new hobby. Research has shown that people with bipolar disorder are strongly motivated by difficulty to achieve goals, and can be highly confident about their chances of success6. However, this can set you up for frustration and disappointment when an activity is harder than expected. If you’ve never picked up a musical instrument, you’re unlikely to be able to shred ‘Through the Fire and the Flames’ straight away. Having small, achievable goals helps you maintain motivation and celebrate each step of your progress.
- Our appraisal of our own quality of life can be influenced by our comparisons with others7, so it can help to make sure your social media feed contains both aspirational examples of a hobby, as well as more realistic depictions. Look for people who are open about the challenges, setbacks and effort involved, not just the glossy final product.
- Practice self-compassion. When your cooking doesn’t look like the Pinterest inspiration, or you can’t seem to progress to the next Italian duolingo level, it’s normal to feel disappointed. Watch out for thoughts that indicate your sense of self-worth is overly wrapped up in your hobbies (e.g., “If I’m a failure as a musician, I’m a failure as a person”). Cognitive behaviour therapy can help you develop more realistic and compassionate ways of thinking about your leisure pursuits. We also discuss strategies that can support a positive and well rounded sense of self on our Identity domain page.
- Carefully consider the pros and cons of turning a hobby into a ‘side-hustle’. A bonus stream of income might be nice, but monetising a leisure pursuit takes a great deal of time, effort, and energy. It can also impact your enjoyment of your hobby if you are no longer creating for the joy of it, but to make what sells well. If you do decide to sell your music, art, or crafts, make sure you still have opportunities for leisure activities that refresh and relax you.
- Think about how your leisure pursuits help you express your values, not just the goals you want to achieve. Goals have achievable ends, like a destination on a map. Values are like a cardinal direction on a compass – the process of engaging in a hobby can help you move in that direction, whether or not you attain a specific goal. For example, if you value teamwork and collaboration, playing team sports can help you live your value even if you don’t win the championship.
- Iwasaki. Y., Coyle, C., Shank J., et al. (2013). Leisure-generated meanings and active living for persons with mental illness. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 57: 46-56.
- Rosa. A.R., Reinares. M., Michalak. E.E., et al. (2010). Functional impairment and disability across mood states in bipolar disorder. Value In Health, 13: 984-988.
- Mansell, W., Powell, S., Pedley, R., et al. (2010). The process of recovery from bipolar I disorder: A qualitative analysis of personal accounts in relation to an integrative cognitive model. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 49: 193-215.
- Stebbins, R.A. (2008). Right leisure: serious, casual, or project based? NeuroRehabilitation, 23: 335-341.
- Ironside ML, Johnson SL, Carver CS. Identity in bipolar disorder: Self-worth and achievement. Journal of Personality. 2020;88(1):45-58. doi:10.1111/jopy.12461
- Johnson SL, Fulford D, Carver CS. The Double-Edged Sword of Goal Engagement: Consequences of Goal Pursuit in Bipolar Disorder. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy. 2012;19(4):352-362. doi:10.1002/cpp.1801
- Morton E, Michalak E, Hole R, Buzwell S, Murray G. The “new normal”: relativity of quality of life judgments in individuals with bipolar disorder-a qualitative study. Qual Life Res. 2018;27(6):1493-1500. doi:10.1007/s11136-018-1811-x