The relationships between leisure and happiness-A graphic
and Shuyang Da
Department of Philosophy, Asia Paciﬁc Centre for the Education and Study of Leisure, Zhejiang University,
School of International Studies, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China
This study aims to explore the intrinsic relationship between leisure and
happiness through a graphic elicitation method. Drawings of three hap-
piest moments and descriptions of them were collected among 132
college students in a course from 2015 to 2017 in a key university in
eastern China. When, where, why and with whom do they feel the
happiest, and what activities make them feel the happiest were analyzed.
Then, leisure elements and implied psychological factors bringing happi-
ness were interpreted. The study reveals that the happiest moments are
closely related to leisure time, leisure space and leisure activities.
Relaxation, tranquility, achievement, autonomy, relatedness and interest
are identiﬁed as signiﬁcant mechanisms bringing happiness. Practical
suggestions are made to improve people’s leisure participation and
Received 9 June 2018
Accepted 21 January 2019
Leisure; happiness; graphic
Happiness, which reﬂects people’s cognition and evaluation of their life in a relatively stable way,
has been examined in terms of economics, sociology and psychology (Diener, 1984; Diener &
Lucas, 2000; Diener & Ryan, 2009). It is also increasingly considered as the proper measure of
social progress and the goal of public policy (World Happiness Report, 2017). Being so important,
it has been measured by various institutions across regions and countries. The general happiness
status has been commonly measured by life evaluation questions on a rating scale, such as
Personal Wellbeing Index, Cantril ladder, satisfaction with life, and happiness with life (Lau,
Cummins, & McPherson, 2005).
Similarly, Chinese people’s happiness was measured by surveys such as Report on Well-being
Index in China and China General Social Survey (CGSS), measuring the national well-being with
regard to economic, social, cultural and environmental conditions. It is generally conceived that
the social and political transition in China brought greater happiness to the people, as personal
income was raised by a more eﬃcient allocation of resources and increased incentives for private
investment (Easterlin, Morgan, Switek, & Wang, 2012; Wei, Huang, Stodolska, & Yu, 2015).
However, what particularly brings happiness to Chinese people can be hardly measured or
reported. Thus, the question that we focus on in this paper is what their happiest moments are,
instead of how happy they are.
With the substantial relationship between leisure and better life being acknowledged
(Jackson, 2009), Chinese people are taking an increasing interest in pursuing better life and
awidervarietyofleisureactivities(Lu&Hu,2005). In contemporary China, however, despite
CONTACT Huimei Liu firstname.lastname@example.org
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of the continuously growing leisure consumption, the average leisure time of Chinese people
falls to 2.27 hours per day, and leisure space is still inadequate (The China’s Economic Life
Survey, 2018). Although the positive roles of leisure time, leisure space and leisure activities in
happiness have been proved (e.g. Wei et al., 2015), they are not in suﬃcient supply, and in
what way do these leisure elements inﬂuence well-being has been ignored and is worth of
exploration. Thus, this study aims to contribute to the leisure scholarship by providing an
insight into the speciﬁc relationship between leisure and happiness for Chinese people (e.g.
Chinese college students).
Happiness is relatively a long-standing notion that can be traced back to the ancient China. Lao
tzu, the founder of Taoism, believed that happiness lies in ‘Tao’, namely being desireless and
satisfactory with simple life. Taoism emphasizes that happiness can be pursued by tranquility,
peace of mind, and the beauty of nature (Liu, Li, Iwasaki, Onda, & Lee, 2016). Two hundred years
later, in the ancient Greece, Aristotle also enshrines happiness as a major purpose of life and
a goal in itself, drawing an analogy between leading a happy life and a virtuous life. Later on,
rather than leading a morally good life, happiness is regarded as leading a satisfying life (Nawijn &
Veenhoven, 2013). According to the livability theory developed by Veenhoven (2014), happiness
is assumed to be the outcome of the gratiﬁcation of needs, as facilitated by the actual living
conditions. It is the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of his own life as
a whole favorably (Veenhoven, Ehrhardt, Ho, & de Vries, 1993).
Research on well-being falls into two traditions –namely, hedonism and eudaimonism. The
hedonistic tradition focuses on the presence of positive aﬀect and the absence of negative aﬀect,
while the eudaimonic tradition focuses on living in a full and deeply satisfying way. Although the
concept of happiness, being frequently used interchangeably with subjective well-being, has
typically been aligned with the hedonic view, it has sometimes been broadened to encompass
both views (Deci & Ryan, 2008; Waterman, Schwartz, & Conti, 2008). Therefore, happiness is
often considered synonymous with subjective well-being and life satisfaction (Carr, 2011; Sheldon
& Lyubomirsky, 2004). There is no unanimity over the content, deﬁnition and measures of
happiness (Agbo & Ome, 2017) with some researchers considering indicators of subjective well-
being, aﬀect, quality of life denoting happiness (Easterlin, 2004). The account of wellbeing can be
measured empirically with its three components, including evaluative, experience and ‘eudemo-
nia’(Dolan & Metcalfe, 2012). Nevertheless, the measures can merely reﬂect the level of happi-
ness, neglecting the contents of it. Although there may be some agreement about the important
components of ‘good life’, such as health and successful relationships, individuals are likely to
assign diﬀerent weights to these components (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griﬃn, 1985), such as
income (e.g. Wang, 2011), work (e.g. Warr, 2007), leisure (e.g. Lloyd & Auld, 2002), etc.
The recent studies on Chinese people’s happiness are mainly around ﬁve domains: health,
family, work, social relations and natural environment (Liu, 2006). Lu (2001) conceptualizes
Chinese happiness from three diﬀerent philosophical perspectives: Confucianism, Taoism, and
Buddhism. While Confucianism regards happiness as achieving moral greatness in constant self-
cultivation, Taoism considers happiness to be derived from following ‘Tao; the Great Natural
Force’.In Buddhism, happiness is deemed to be found in the other world after ‘nirvana’(Lu, 2001;
Wei et al., 2015). The factors inﬂuencing Chinese people’s happiness were also explored, with nine
sources identiﬁed (Lu & Shih, 1997), which were corroborated in a follow-up study (Lu, 2001) as:
(a) being loved and cared for by signiﬁcant others, (b) material abundance, (c) health, (d) self-
actualization, and (e) being at peace. For diﬀerent groups of Chinese people, Lu (2001) concluded
that: ‘the conditions that people perceive as conducive to happiness are rather similar across age/
2H. LIU AND S. DA
cohort and cultural groups’. Davey, Chen, and Lau (2009) also revealed that the satisfaction levels
of rural residents were within the normative range for the Chinese population.
Leisure was ﬁrst systematically discussed by Aristotle (Newman, Tay, & Diener, 2014), who stated
that leisure is more important than work for the pleasure and happiness it provides in life (Aristotle,
1998, Politics, VIII, III), which is ‘something ﬁnal and self-suﬃcient, and is the end of the action’
(Aristotle, 1980, Nichomachean Ethics, I, VII). In western academia, leisure has been primarily
viewed as ‘a measure of time, as a container of activity, and in terms of meaning’(Jackson, 2005,p.3),
either independently or in combination. Liu and Wu (2012) summarized the basic meanings of
leisure embedded in various cultures in three categories: free time (e.g. Brightbill, 1960), an activity
taking place in leisure time (e.g. Dumazedier, 1974), and an experience or state of mind (e.g. Pieper,
In Chinese, leisure most closely corresponds to two Chinese characters, Xiu Xian, which means
a person leaning against a tree, connoting being free and unoccupied (Liu, Yeh, Chick, & Zinn,
2008). The wisdom of leisure has also long been rooted in Chinese culture and philosophy.
‘Leisure is, in fact a very important component of traditional Chinese culture, closely related to
philosophy, aesthetics, literature and the arts, and practices of health and wellness ’(Gong, 2013,
p. 1). Chinese leisure has also been tremendously impacted by the traditional philosophies,
including Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism emphasizes that the rights of the individual
are subordinate to those of the group for social harmony (Liu et al., 2016), which can be
interpreted in terms of ‘interdependent self-construal’(Markus & Kitayama, 1991). The type of
self-construal impacts one’s emotions, cognitions, and behaviors –including, and perhaps espe-
cially, during leisure (Walker, 2010; Walker, Deng, & Dieser, 2005), and is thereby instrumental in
understanding Chinese people’s leisure choices. Chinese people are more likely to view leisure as
an important means of maintaining relatedness and harmony among family, friends and relatives,
rather than self-growth or being one-self (Liu & Walker, 2014). The preference of low-arousal
emotions of Chinese people (Tsai, Knutson, & Fung, 2006) determines their choices of passive
leisure activities (Yu & Berryman, 1996), such as Taichi (a martial art), mahjong (Deng & Liu,
2012) and visiting parks (Chang & Card, 1992).
Leisure and happiness
The notion that leisure leads to happiness gains increasing support from scholars worldwide (e.g.
Hills & Argyle, 1998; Liu & Yu, 2015; Stebbins & Liu, 2012). Kelly (1996) even suggested that an
individual’s leisure may have more impact on the quality of life than any other area of behavior
and experience. Studies have conﬁrmed that leisure is an indispensible part of human life and
contributes to the acquisition of happiness (Argyle, 1999; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2004; Tkach &
Lyubomirsky, 2006). Extant studies have documented the positive relationship between partici-
pating in leisure activities and improved quality of life (Baldwin & Tinsley, 1988; Cracolici,
Cuﬀaro, & Nijkamp, 2010; Lloyd & Auld, 2002). More recently, Modi (2017) claimed that leisure
is widely considered as the fountainhead of all happiness.
Among the existing studies that have explored the relationship between leisure and happiness,
most of them employed quantitative methods. Both the quantity and the quality of leisure were
empirically veriﬁed as important determinants of leisure satisfaction and leisure time was proved
to be one of the main sources of utility for well-being (Bonke et al., 2009). Moreover, it has been
further stated that diﬀerent leisure activities have diﬀerent impacts on happiness, as some are
associated with a higher level of happiness (e.g. listening to music, meeting with friends and
travelling) and others with a decreased level of happiness (e.g. spending time on the Internet)
(Schmiedeberg & Schröder, 2017; Schulz, Schulte, Raube, Disouky, & Kandler, 2017; Wang &
LEISURE STUDIES 3
Wong, 2014). However, speciﬁcally how do leisure time and leisure activities inﬂuence happiness
remain inadequately explored.
In the context of China, happiness is also suggested to be signiﬁcantly positively correlated with
leisure (e.g. Liu & Stebbins, 2014; Liu & Yu, 2015; Wang & Wong, 2014). Spiers & Walker (2009)
found that overall leisure satisfaction signiﬁcantly aﬀected happiness and happiness was positively
correlated with personal relationships for Chinese Canadians. In a study of university students in
Taiwan, Lu and Hu (2002) found that leisure had short-term beneﬁts, including positive mood,
physical ﬁtness and better structuring of time, as well as long-term eﬀect on happiness. Based on
the above research, our paper adopted a graphic elicitation method aiming to explore more
speciﬁc features between leisure and happiness in China.
Diverse research methods have been adopted to explore the relationship between leisure and
happiness, such as surveying, interviewing and experience sampling (Kleiber, Walker, & Mannell,
2011), most of which rely on language as the privileged medium for data collection (Bagnoli, 2009).
However, our daily experience is made of a multiplicity of dimensions, which include images and
senses (Eisner, 2008). ‘Recent attention has been given to less common methods based on visual
methods that include photo-elicitation and analysis of the photographs and drawings people create to
express their leisure experiences’(Kleiber et al., 2011, p. 54), which provide a ﬂexible and interactive
way to present experiences and situations, as well as ‘adiﬀerent kind of data that repositions research
questions in ways that verbal information is not able to do’(Stewart & Floyd, 2004,p.445).
Graphic elicitation is a visual method based on drawings that are either produced by research-
ers or participants (Bagnoli, 2009; Prosser & Loxley, 2008) as visual representations of concepts,
experiences, beliefs, or behaviors (Copeland & Agosto, 2012). Text descriptions are elicited by
drawings, which facilitate participants to organize and share their experiences. Graphic elicitation
techniques can be especially useful in helping participants to express complex or abstract ideas or
opinions that are diﬃcult to capture via interviews alone (Crilly, Blackwell, & Clarkson, 2006).
‘Drawings, as a type of visual image, are more removed from reality and have the potential to allow
people to express their perceptions, feelings, and the meanings they associate with leisure.’(Kleiber
et al., 2011, p. 96) Photos record merely what really happened, while those in the drawings may
happen in the past, at present or in the future, being real or imagined. The moments hardly recorded
by photos, like swimming or taking a shower, can be easily displayed in drawings. ‘Drawings surface
unspoken thoughts and feelings’(Kearney & Hyle, 2004, p. 362), and better empower the participants.
Despite the commonly identiﬁed drawbacks, including time requirements for data analysis, partici-
pant’s resistance to more involved drawing requirements, diﬃculty in categorization, subjective
interpretation (Stiles, 2004), and the risk of decontextualization (Copeland & Agosto, 2012), there
is widespread agreement that ‘drawing techniques are helpful in triangulating data, are useful for
eliciting data related to emotions and emotional experiences, and when combined with non-graphic
techniques, yield deeper, more complex data’(Copeland & Agosto, 2012, p. 517). Although photo
elicitation has been successfully applied to analyze the way people make sense of leisure or leisure
preferences (e.g. Brown, Richards, Daniel, & King, 1989; Genoe & Dupuis, 2013;Hallman&Benbow,
2007), graphic elicitation has seldom been adopted in leisure research. Thus, this paper innovatively
explored the relation between leisure and happiness with graphic elicitation techniques.
Drawings were collected from undergraduate students in an English course from 2015 to 2017 in
akey university in eastern China. Purpose sampling was used and 132 students were invited to
participate. Instructions are given as follows:
4H. LIU AND S. DA
‘Please draw three pictures showing your three happiest scenarios. You can either have already
experienced them before, or you are experiencing them now or would like to experience in the
future. Please do not worry about your drawing skills. ’
Three drawings were then elicited from each participant to show their happiest moments.
Afterwards, they are invited to describe their drawings orally. ‘Please describe your three scenarios
to your deskmate as detailed as possible. Meanwhile, please record your deskmate’s description.’
The drawings were permitted by the participants to be printed and all the materials collected were
consented to be utilized for research.
After collection, the oral descriptions were transcribed and analyzed in conjunction with the
drawings, following Berge’s(2007) six steps for analyzing qualitative data. First, the drawings were
stored in the form of photo and the oral descriptions were made into text; secondly, codes were
analytically developed, inductively identiﬁed, and aﬃxed to the content; later, codes were trans-
formed into categorical themes, including when, where, what, with whom and why; after that,
materials were sorted by those categories. Then, by identifying similar phrases, patterns, relation-
ships, commonalities or diﬀerences, the sorted materials were examined to isolate meaningful
patterns and processes. Finally, the patterns were considered in light of previous research themes
and a summary was made. Each drawing, together with its corresponding description, involving
single or multi aspects, is thoroughly examined to explore the participants’conceptualization of
happiness and how it is connected with leisure.
Despite the interpersonal diﬀerences of the contents, 129 out of 132 participants consider leisure
activities as at least one of their happiest moments and 225 out of 396 paintings have leisure
elements, accounting for 64% of the sample size. By coding, the mechanisms linking leisure with
happiness, including relaxation, tranquility, autonomy, achievement, relatedness and enjoyment,
are interlinked with each other and cannot be sundered.
What are their happiest moments?
Experiences of happiness, in most cases, are the product of several interacting factors, which
merge together to make an eﬀect. The scenarios are decomposed into when, where, what and with
whom to get a better understanding of the happiest moments for Chinese people and the
embedded leisure elements.
When do people feel the happiest?
The drawings related with time bear leisure elements. ‘Ireally enjoy reading outside and bathing in
the sun during a sunny winter afternoon.’As what is quoted, the happiest moments of participants
are closely related to leisure time, such as a sunny afternoon, summer vacation of university years,
a sunny, warm and stress-free day, or quiet evenings. In leisure time, they participate in leisure
activities and obtain experiences that lead to happiness. Other happiest moments may also be
a signiﬁcant moment in life.
Most of those moments are away from work and free from obligation (e.g. Figures 1 and 2),
and provide meaningful and satisfying experience, which correspond to the deﬁnition of leisure.
Where do happiest moments happen?
The places in the drawings can be mainly classiﬁed into three types. The ﬁrst is where social bonds
take place with others, including home, classroom and dormitory. These places provide peaceful
and relaxing leisure experiences for families, friends, and relatives.
LEISURE STUDIES 5
My whole family stay together watching TV, chatting, roaming around, etc. After I enter into college, I stay
away from home for most time, so the time with family is very precious.
In the quote above, the participant particularly enjoys staying at home with his families.
The second type refers to public areas including beaches, parks and lawns, which provide
opportunities to get rid of pressure and be exposed to the nature.
Figure 1. Watching ‘doctor who’as a happiest moment.
Figure 2. Lying on the beach as a happiest moment.
Figure 3. Having a personal studio as a happiest moment.
6H. LIU AND S. DA
As depicted in Figure 2, the drawing exhibits the scene that a participant is lying on the beach
in a charming and relaxing spot, enjoying the scenery and relaxing without disturbance.
Another type is places of one’s own, varying from a café, a ﬂower shop, to a studio and a house
(e.g. Figure 3). In those places, leisure activities help to perceive control, freedom and indepen-
dence, which devotes to greater satisfaction with life.
‘The last one is a personal space. ‘I have been fond of those artistic things since I was young
and I want to produce my own works.’A personal studio is drawn with a palette, a drawing board
and some other art tools in it. The drawer expresses his willingness to do design of his own, make
crafts or painting without any other disturbance. In his drawing, a personal space is delineated for
leisure activity, which ensures freedom and self-autonomy.
What are they doing at the happiest moments?
Leisure activities account for most of the happiest moments according to the drawings. Traveling,
eating delicious foods, chatting, listening to music, doing sports, reading and shopping are the
most common leisure activities that trigger happiness. Those activities help people relax and
recover from the hectic life.
The majority of participants regard leisure activities other than work as their happiest
moments. Happiness is obtained through rest, which enables recuperation from anxiety and
exhaustion from work, and can be represented by lying on the beach and bathing in the sunshine,
as shown in Figures 2 and 4.
Strolling, as a typical leisure activity, frequently occurs in the drawings, which can be
shown particularly in Figure 5, in which the three happiest scenarios in life are all strolling.
The respondent says ‘When I was young, the happiest moment was to go out for a stroll with
my parents hand in hand. Now, the happiest moment is to stroll with my girlfriend hand in
hand. In the future, my happiest moment will be to stroll with my wife and our child hand in
Eating also frequently appears in the drawings.
As shown in Figures 6 and 7, respondents enjoy delicacies instead of ﬁlling their hungry
stomachs. Moreover, many of them share the delicacies with their families and friends.
By participating in some leisure activities, people obtain pure enjoyment derived from their
interests. As shown in Figure 8, the participant draws headsets and reports that she is interested in
all kinds of music, soft music, rock and roll, pop music, blues, etc. People may obtain pleasure
when pursuing their hobbies. Passions come along with interests facilitate the generation of
Learning is considered leisure activity for some participants. These leisure activities encompass
intellectually stimulating tasks, such as playing chess and learning a foreign language, or physical
challenges, such as playing a ball game and training for a marathon. In Figure 9, the participant
spares his free time to learn Japanese through which he enjoys his own time and masters a new
Whom do they stay with when they feel the happiest?
In the drawings collected, the characters can also be categorized into two kinds. The ﬁrst kind of
participants is in need of companion and aﬀection. The people who accompany them are the
loved ones, ranging from family members to friends as shown in Figure 10.
Figure 11 explicitly reveals the importance of social bonds that the picture does not concern
about what the participant is doing, but emphasizes the companions whom he is staying with. The
way aﬃliation is related to leisure can be revealed by Figure 12.
As shown in Figure 12, traveling with a friend or her boy friend is considered as one of the
LEISURE STUDIES 7
Other participants are being accustomed to be separated from others and pay attention to their
own abilities, traits, preferences and wishes. Their drawings show the mechanism of autonomy, as
they portray their happiest moments as staying alone, enjoying freedom and solitude.
For instance, Figure 13 portrays a person walking on a little path under the streetlight. The
imaginary self feels at ease when staying alone and ﬁnds serenity in the inner heart. In spite of
being alone and wandering, he does not feel lonely, instead, he owes satisfaction and happiness
from solitude and freedom.
Why do they feel the happiest at these moments?
Both the drawings and the follow-up oral descriptions reveal the psychological mechanisms
that connect leisure with happiness. Rarely does a mechanism function as a single direct
cause. The major reasons provided by participants are decomposed and listed as follows.
In most of the drawings, pressure is eliminated and troubles are thrown away. Relaxation is
the most common reason provided by the participants when explaining their feeling of
happiness, which can be shown in the following quotes.
Figure 4. Reading, bathing and eating as happiest moments.
8H. LIU AND S. DA
Figure 5. Strolling as happiest moments.
Figure 6. Enjoying delicacies as a happiest moment.
LEISURE STUDIES 9
It’s a good way to escape from the life burden, without the constant bothering of distracting thoughts.
Everyone is so relaxed. Everyone also refuses to think about our troubles and setbacks, and this brings me
happiness. Because I am very tired these days, I really want to have a vocation to release my pressure without
worries and sorrows.
Figure 7. Sharing foods with others as happiest moments.
Figure 8. Enjoying listening music as a happiest moment.
10 H. LIU AND S. DA
Figure 9. Learning Japanese as a happiest moment.
Figure 10. Staying with family or friends as happiest moments.
Figure 11. Staying with family or friends as happiest moments.
LEISURE STUDIES 11
Having a short break and being detached from work and study leads to relaxation and recovery,
and therefore happiness.
Though overcoming challenges, personal skills are bettered, bringing sense of fulﬁllment.
Accomplishment for achieving one’s dream or goal will bring happiness. Speciﬁcally, oﬀer from
an ideal university or company makes people happy, as shown in Figure 14.
Figure 12. Staying with the loved ones as happiest moments.
Figure 13. Walking alone at night as a happiest moment.
12 H. LIU AND S. DA
The respondent depicts his drawings as follows:
The ﬁrst situation I feel the happiest is that when I receive the acceptance notiﬁcation from the University
I have applied for. I, for the ﬁrst time, have understood the feeling of ‘having passed the national
examination’in ancient China.
In traditional Chinese culture, young scholars took part in the imperial examinations after years of
studying, and the success in examinations could bring fame, positions and wealth. This idea
continues to inﬂuence the people in modern China.
Most of the participants regard the time spent with signiﬁcant others as their happiest
moments. The companions may be family members, relatives and friends. Like what is
shown in the following quotes, social activities meet our need for relatedness, which produce
Friends will always have something to discuss and laugh at, just like reaching the consensus of our spirits. The ﬁrst
image shows that my parents, my grandparents, my puppy and I have a large house, large garden to live together,
because I think the time I stay with my family is the best time in my life, I really love my family members.
Interpersonal relatedness is an indispensible psychological mechanism when pursuing happiness.
All the three happiest scenarios in Figure 5 indicate the function of relatedness in happiness.
Instead of walking alone, the participant prefer going for a stroll with his beloved ones, which
shows his desire for interpersonal attachments.
Autonomy refers to the ability or opportunity to make decisions without being controlled or
disturbed by anyone else. In leisure studies, autonomy is usually viewed as a necessary requisite of
leisure, which is also proved in the following quotes.
The second one shows a free state. No control and no force. I like the mental condition while I focus on my
study. I am very concentrated and I can get away from the things outside.
Figure 14. Being admitted to the ideal university as a happiest moment.
LEISURE STUDIES 13
A free state of mind helps to acquire happiness. People fulﬁll their autonomy through doing their
own things and enjoying freedom.
Inner peace can bring happiness. People cherish the love and passion for nature, for music, for
literature, or for arts. Leisure activities which can bring tranquility, like listening to music,
strolling in the park and reading, help to pursue inner peace, and thereby, happiness.
I want to practice my ability of speaking none and living by self. If we do not speak at all, we may have
a moment of tranquility. That is my deﬁnition of happiness, tranquility inside.
Tranquility also acts as a mediating factor associating religious activities like prayer or meditation,
with happiness. Our study, however, does not experiment on students with religious beliefs.
By participating in some leisure activities, people obtain pure enjoyment out of their interests.
I want to go to my favorite singer’s concert to enjoy his song and recall my childhood memory. I love music
so music can give me the sense of happiness. I love to travel around to meet diﬀerent people in diﬀerent
culture. I want to communicate with them and exchange our ideas and values.
This mechanism cannot be ignored since it plays an important role in most leisure activities. Some
may listen to music when they are busy, so relaxation and recovery are not the only reasons why
listening music helps perceive happiness. As a matter of fact, they are exposed to the aesthetic
world, being in a state of enjoyment which provides happiness.
Other mechanisms like compensation also contribute to the perception of happiness. As few
participants reported, when people obtain what they don’t have or lack, they feel the happiest.
Some participants stated that faith and beliefs could bring them happiness. The source of
happiness varies with each individual and changes over time.
This study aims at testifying the internal relation between leisure and happiness through
a qualitative way, taking into consideration the results of various quantitative studies and theories
depicting the mechanisms leading leisure to happiness.
In line with the previous studies, the results from the pictures portrayed by the participants and
their oral descriptions indicate that leisure is signiﬁcantly and positively correlated to happiness.
The role of place in the context of leisure experience (Kyle & Chick, 2007) is essential in obtaining
leisure satisfaction, while leisure constraints (e.g. time constraints and psychological constraints)
aﬀect leisure satisfaction negatively (Chick et al., 2016), which consequently inﬂuences happiness.
This paper unravels the leisure elements contained in the pictures, including leisure time, leisure
spaces and leisure activities, and reveals the psychological mechanisms linking leisure to happiness
hidden in the drawings.
Leisure time and space contribute to the perception of happiness
Leisure has been identiﬁed in various ways such as time not occupied by paid or unpaid work or
personal chores and obligations (e.g. Roberts, 1999; Sonnentag, 2001), preferred activities pursued
during free time for their own sake, fun, entertainment, or self-improvement (Argyle, 1996), and
free time which allows the mind to contemplate physical and spiritual realities (Pieper, 1998). Ma
(2000) suggested that the generation of leisure time is not only the internal requirement of leisure,
but also a kind of social wealth and the symbol of social progress. In our ﬁndings, happiness is
mostly related to time, being discretionary and unoccupied by work, namely leisure time.
14 H. LIU AND S. DA
In addition, leisure spaces protect people’s leisure rights and satisfy their leisure needs (Ma,
2004). Grounded in memory, experience and social relations (Kyle & Chick, 2007), the meanings
tied to leisure place do facilitate gaining happiness. In this paper, most of the places in the pictures
are leisure places.
Leisure time and leisure spaces, which help meet the growing cultural and spiritual needs,
become increasingly important, and enriching people’s leisure life has been of universal
The culture-shaped leisure choices in the perception of happiness
Most previous studies hold that Chinese people mainly obtain happiness through passive leisure
activities (e.g. watching TV, reading a newspaper), as reﬂected by Taoism, while active leisure
activities (e.g. exercising, socializing, shopping) do not contribute to happiness in China (Wei
et al., 2015). Our study veriﬁes that passive leisure activities which emphasize on relaxation and
tranquility, like going for a stroll, enjoying the scenery, traveling and lying on the bed or beach,
are the major sources of happiness for Chinese people. However, both passive activities and active
activities function as the facilitator of happiness, which accords with the ﬁndings of Sonnentag &
Zijlstra (2006) that leisure activities producing happiness are not restricted to low arousal recovery
activities, but may include physically intense forms of leisure.
In the previous studies, various leisure activities have been proved to be positively correlated
with happiness, such as visiting family and friends, playing sports or games, watching television,
listening to the radio (e.g. Menec & Chipperﬁeld, 1997; Yarnal, Chick, & Kerstetter, 2008), taking
tourist trips (Mitas, 2010), making art (Reynolds & Lim, 2007), and using the Internet (Koopman-
Boyden & Reid, 2009). In the drawings, leisure activities, as a whole, play a positive role in the
acquisition of happiness. Some cultural-speciﬁc leisure activities, like playing mahjong, promote
the perception of happiness. ‘Families, friends, and relatives strengthen interpersonal bonds while
eating, which has been called “a national pastime for Chinese people”, and food having played “an
important role in the history of Chinese leisure”’ (Chang & Card, 1992, p. 16). The signiﬁcance of
interpersonal bonds and foods has also been conﬁrmed in our study. Cultural consonance greatly
matters in the perception of happiness (Chick et al., 2016), which is distinctly shown in the results.
Our study found that the happiest moments are largely related to the time spent with family,
friends and life partners, which is in line with Chinese people’s‘interdependent self-construal’
(Liu & Walker, 2016). However, quite a few participants also gain happiness from individual
leisure activities, like listening to the music, reading and strolling alone, which unexpectedly
shows the independent self-construal. A tendency of cultural integration is shown in the leisure
choices for happiness.
The psychological mechanisms leading leisure to happiness
Deci and Ryan (1985)suggested autonomy, competence, and relatedness are innate human needs.
Newman, Tay, and Diener (2014) identiﬁed ﬁve core mechanisms that promote happiness,
including detachment-recovery, autonomy, mastery, meaning and aﬃliation (DRAMMA). In
our research, what the photos show corresponds to their ﬁndings, whereas diﬀerences do exist.
Our research distinguishes relaxation, tranquility, achievement, autonomy, relatedness and enjoy-
ment as six major psychological mechanisms that enhance happiness. Those mechanisms coordi-
nate and cooperate with each other.
Individuals can build up resources during leisure time activities to overcome stress at work,
thereby improving well-being (Newman et al., 2014). Since work is eﬀortful and strains one’s
physiological and psychological resources, working continuously can produce negative subjective
well-being (e.g. burnout; Bakker, Demerouti, & Schaufeli, 2005; Schaufeli, Taris, & Bakker, 2006).
Thus, being away from work and relaxed can promote one’s well-being. Like ﬂow, relaxation may
LEISURE STUDIES 15
be considered a common, prototypical leisure experience, more common than ﬂow and excite-
ment in fact, especially in association with leisure (Kleiber, Caldwell, & Shaw, 1993; Mobily, 1989;
Shaw, 1985). Our result is consistent with the preceding research that relaxation and tranquility
are perceived as signiﬁcant psychological mechanisms creating happiness.
Autonomy is also regarded as a necessary mediating mechanism linking leisure and happiness,
which has been veriﬁed in this study. Interest is what has been called a ‘knowledge emotion’
(Silvia, 2008)–along with confusion, surprise, and awe –and it is one of the key orienting and
activating aspects of leisure involvement. Pure enjoyment, coming along with catering one’s
interests, is also identiﬁed as an essential mechanism, which is often excluded in the previous
literature. Relatedness refers to the need for people to feel that: (1) they are loved by and
connected to others, (2) those others understand them, and (3) they are meaningfully involved
with the broader social world in which they live (Deci & Ryan, 1991). In accordance with the
leisure choices, the mechanisms also reﬂect the trend of integrating both types of self-construal in
contemporary China, as some participants particularly enjoy freedom, dependence and autonomy,
which are the core characteristics of the western ‘independent self-construal’.
The positive correlation between leisure and happiness is veriﬁed through a graphic elicitation
method. The study reveals that the happiest moments are closely related to leisure time, such as
festivals and vacations, silent nights or afternoons. Moreover, a majority of those happiest
moments happen in leisure spaces, like parks, malls, beaches, resorts, etc. In addition, most of
the participants feel the happiest when they are participating in leisure activities, including
traveling, playing sports, listening to music, etc. Hence, leisure advances people’s acquisition of
How leisure activities inﬂuence the perception of happiness varies from person to person,
which can be attributed to the culture background and diﬀerent forms of self-construal.
Nevertheless, relaxation, tranquility, achievement, relatedness and interest are proved to be
signiﬁcant and universal mechanisms bringing happiness. Participating in leisure activities,
people detach themselves from work and relax, getting recovery from the heavy pressure of
life. Through participating in some leisure activities, people are able to acquire inner peace,
namely tranquility. Autonomy is also an essential mediating link to happiness in leisure, since
some people engage in leisure activities in order to acquire independence, freedom and self-
direction. Through some leisure activities, like learning a language in the spare time, people
overcome diﬃculties and improve their abilities which bring a sense of achievement and thus
create happiness. Relatedness also stands as an important mechanism, since love, aﬀection and
friendship are three indispensible parts of life. Some leisure activities bring enjoyment which
comes from interests. The mediating factors vary and they may form a compound mechanism to
generate happiness from leisure.
Theoretical and practical implications
To the best of our knowledge, our paper is among the ﬁrst qualitative studies to systematically
explore the Chinese conceptualization of happiness and the intrinsic mechanisms leading leisure to
happiness. Our study visualizes and concretizes happiness, innovatively exhibiting diﬀerent percep-
tions of happiness and the psychological process of gaining happiness, with six major mechanisms
identiﬁed. Instead of assessing the level of happiness, the graphic elicitation method emphasizes how
people achieve happiness as a process, which provides practical reference for enhancing the happi-
ness level. The cultural characteristics and cultural integration can be reﬂected in the leisure choices
for happiness. Thus, our study also has very important practical implications. For example, leisure
space and leisure time, as basic requirements for leisure activities, should be adequately provided, so
16 H. LIU AND S. DA
as to ensure the enhancement of happiness. As Godbey (2013) pointed out, on a more daily basis,
‘core leisure activities will receive more attention in the coming era of Chinese reform’. For instance,
sport activities among common people, rather than those among sport elites, will become the focus of
Chinese leisure in the future. Major leisure activities that help gain happiness are supposed to earn
more attention and be widely promoted. The leisure needs of human being will continue to grow
and, therefore, greater eﬀorts in leisure education, leisure policy, and leisure management will be
required in the future (Liu et al., 2008).
Limitations and future research
This research has two limitations, which should be acknowledged. First, the respondents are all
university students. Therefore, it needs to be cautious to generalize the ﬁndings. Second, though the
respondents are among the most excellent university students in China and their English are very
proﬁcient, English is not their native language and might aﬀect their descriptions to a certain extent.
People of all ages with diﬀerent occupations should be involved in the future studies. Cross-
national and intercultural views may also bring inspiration for more in-depth research. Moreover,
leisure preferences of diﬀerent groups of people and the diverse functions of leisure when
achieving happiness are worth further exploration.
This research is funded by Zhejiang Provincial Philosophy and Social Sciences Planning Project (No. 18NDJC16YB) and
Zhejiang Provincial Natural Science Foundation of China (No. LY19D010013). The authors would also like to extend
sincere gratitude to the students participated in this research.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
This work was supported by Zhejiang Provincial Natural Science Foundation of China [LY19D010013]; Zhejiang
Provincial Philosophy and Social Sciences Planning Project [18NDJC167YB].
Notes on contributors
Huimei Liu PhD, Professor, Department of Philosophy, Asia Paciﬁc Centre for the Education and Study of Leisure,
Zhejiang University; School of International Studies, Zhejiang University. She is interested in Leisure and
Happiness, Leisure behaviors in Cross-Cultural Contexts. Corresponding author, please email to Huimeiliu@zju.
Shuyang DA is a PhD candidate, School of International Studies, Zhejiang University.
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