Studying, cooking or learning another language? How “Serious Leisure” contributes to your wellbeing

Studying, cooking or learning another language? How “Serious Leisure” contributes to your wellbeing

by | Mar 31, 2022 | Uncategorized

In a move eagerly anticipated and encouraged by GLWS fans and aficionados, we’re thrilled to confirm the GLWS Framework will finally become perfectly symmetrical, when we officially release GLWS. V3 later this year.

Yes, it’s true and it’s happening – Intellectual Engagement & Flow will be added as a new domain under ‘Living Well’. Here’s the thinking behind this move.

Can you remember the last time you were so immersed in what you were doing at work that you truly lost yourself? What about outside of work?

Strong scientific evidence confirms that ‘all work and no play’ does indeed make Jack/Jill dull Jack a dull boy or Jill a dull girl. We also now know that it makes them less able to relax, manage stress, replenish energy, be creative or expand their mind.

We’ve written before about the fine line that distinguishes work-related ‘passion’ from ‘obsession’. Over-investment in our professional lives can surreptitiously turn work into an all-consuming force for many, with associated harm to our health and personal lives.

The presence of an active ‘second intellectual life’ unrelated to our paid work is a powerful risk mitigation and harm reduction strategy for wellbeing. How? Because it promotes the creation of more coping resources (e.g., self-efficacy, positive mood) and protects against the further depletion of personal resources that would otherwise occur without this circuit breaker.

5 benefits of pursuing intellectual engagement and flow outside of work

The mental rest, recovery and replenishment experiences arising from a second intellectual life have been established across five benefit categories:

  1. Psychological detachment from work: acts as a catalyst and incentive to enlarge your preconceived notion of self-identity based on your work; and helps you explore and allow a broader sense of self to develop. This broader identity and range of interests can also deliver work-related benefits for many leaders – their people enjoy connecting with them as ‘real people’ beyond work tasks.
  2. Relaxation: enables cognitive recovery from intense work periods and helps manage stress. Once you’ve homed in on something you want to try, then give yourself permission to revel in being gloriously imperfect, unknowing and flawed.
  3. Mastery: a true nonwork passion offers interesting, fulfilling and compelling reasons to put work aside as you allow your “whole self” and “best self” to grow; and over time, no doubt discover that you are, in fact, talented at other things besides work.
  4. Control: the experience of starting afresh with ‘beginner’s eyes’ on a new non-work challenge can be initially humbling and then confidence building, as you find and utilise new or long forgotten sides of yourself and different, fresh perspectives; it offers a healthy reminder to fragile egos that you can adapt and improve, and that self-worth doesn’t purely depend on conquering professional challenges.
  5. Experience of pleasure and enjoyment: functions as an antidote to destructive levels of work-related engagement, excessive job spillover and distorted work-life balance.

But couch potatoes, sports lovers and party animals take note – it’s not any old hobby that will deliver.

What constitutes a ‘Serious Leisure’ activity vs a fun hobby?

While other pastimes have merit (who doesn’t love a good Netflix binge, a great gym session, hike in nature or dinner with friends?) if it’s improving your cognitive health and sharpness that you’re after, it’s vital to choose ‘serious leisure’ – a goal-oriented pursuit of a passion or non-essential activity that will stretch your brain and enable you to feel you are still learning and cultivating mastery for purely personal interests and rewards.

Now, I bet you’re thinking about your own leisure pursuits and whether these might qualify as contributing to your brain health in the way we are talking about.

So let’s explore a couple of ‘real life’ examples… Carly loves keeping her body active and seeks out any opportunity to walk, hike, run and move her body outdoors, often in the garden and with her family and dog. This brings her immense pleasure, relaxation and detachment from all of life’s other worries. But this activity doesn’t require thought, creativity or mental skills and won’t help Carly build mastery or experience new feelings of expertise – key elements required for IEF outside of work. This activity certainly delivers in spades in other areas, by contributing positively to her physical energy and health (Vitality & Energy), spending quality time with her loved ones (Authentic Relationships) and achieving balance and switching off from work demands (Balance & Boundaries). So keep it up Carly! ?

On the other hand, Finola actively sought out a new hobby and interest during the pandemic and started learning Italian. Every week she attends a class with her partner, developing new knowledge and skills that she would otherwise not have. Brava Finola! Or, there’s Marisa who doesn’t just cook for necessity or pleasure but is always on the hunt for challenging new recipes, different ingredients and mastering complex culinary skills in the kitchen. When she’s in her element she’s completely absorbed in what she’s doing and doesn’t have a care in the world!

So, when thinking about Intellectual Engagement and Flow in the context of life outside of work, it’s important to remember that an interest and hobby shouldn’t just be pleasurable and serve to detach us from work, but it must also provide the opportunity for challenge, growth and intellectual engagement.

The new and complete IEF domain definition

In a move that’s all about honouring the significance of ‘serious leisure’ as a key factor in achieving great brain health, our augmented definition of Intellectual Engagement & Flow is based on an abundance of new research.

…. you feel intellectually stimulated, mentally absorbed and engaged by both your work and choice of leisure interests; you enjoy a deep level of concentration and focus irrespective of whether the content you are applying your mind to is for work or non-work pursuits; you have opportunities to develop your creativity and innovation in your professional life and personally; and you protect your mind from becoming stale by actively seeking to understand and master challenging new knowledge and skills, both for work purposes and in your free time.

Your first look at the new IEF Living Well items

Here’s a sneak preview of our new Intellectual Engagement & Flow Living Well items – part of our GLWS.V3 premium survey and reports scheduled for release in mid-2022. The items are designed to ensure we help leaders and professionals explicitly consider ways of guarding against the restricted mono-thinking patterns which we see arise from being unhealthily vested in only work-related cognitive challenges.

Select a rating from Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Usually or Always…

  1. In my spare time, I exercise my brain in ways that require me to think and concentrate differently from my paid work
  2. Besides my paid work, I struggle to find activities which engage my curiosity or sustain my interest
  3. I feel I am missing a creative outlet or interest in my personal life
  4. I enjoy engaging in intellectual discussions on topics unrelated to my work role or professional identity
  5. When choosing what to do with my spare time, learning something new a is a priority for me
  6. I feel satisfied with how I am using my brain power outside of work
  7. If I’m not working, I feel mentally bored and that my mental capabilities are under-utilised
  8. Outside of work, I intentionally pursue intellectually stretching challenges which develop skills beyond those I require professionally
  9. I have at least one serious hobby or interest that absorbs my mind and helps me detach from work
  10. My non-work identity and interests provide me with a sense of mastery and personal growth
  11. Outside of work, I actively engage in interests and activities that utilise none of my work related talents

 ©EEK & SENSE Partners 2020. All rights reserved

You’ll notice that we haven’t asked explicitly about specific hobbies and interests that might constitute achieving this intellectual stimulation. Aside from the fact that there are simply too many possibilities to even attempt to cover, more importantly this is because the scientific evidence indicates it’s not the activity itself that is relevant but rather the key elements and experiences intrinsic to the activity.

And finally, for any fellow psychometric nerds who are reading, here are the test-development criteria our new items had to meet before they made the cut:

  1. Must have content validity by addressing one of the key underpinning theoretical constructs within the domain:
    • Detachment from work and other stressors from applying brain to other challenges
    • Focus on interesting, creative and/or absorbing content that isn’t same as paid work
    • Creating a sense of mastery by finding, developing and using new strengths
    • Engaging brain in learning and development, and pursuing personal growth of best and whole self
    • Focus on eudemonic rather than hedonic pleasures
  2. Must fit with the existing ‘Always’ to ‘Never’ rating scale
  3. Must not be subject to high levels of acquiescence or social desirability
  4. Must belong to the Intellectual Engagement & Flow domain more than to any other GLWS domains
  5. Must belong more to Intellectual Engagement and Flow Living Well than to Working Well
  6. Must relate strongly to other items in the Intellectual Engagement and Flow Living Well domain while also being sufficiently different and bringing incremental unique conceptual value.
  7. Must be expressed in language that resonates with the target population of leaders, executives and professionals

Thoughts? Reactions? Feedback?

What is your experience of the benefits you and your clients derive from IEF pursuits outside of work? What do you think about the items we have landed on? We’d love to hear your feedback so please drop us a quick email to share your views, suggestions or questions.




“Can your hobbies make you a better business leader?” Batchelor, M, The CEO Magazine November 2021

“Grace Under Pressure”: How CEOs Use Serious Leisure to Cope With the Demands of Their Job” Bunea E, Frontiers in Psychology, July 2020

“The recovery paradox: Portraying the complex interplay between job stressors, lack of recovery, and poor well-being” Sonnentag S, Research in Organizational Behavior, January 2018

“Why CEOs devote so much time to their hobbies” Bunea E, Khapova S.N and Lysova E. University of Amsterdam in Harvard Business Review, October 2018

“Recovery from job stress: The stressor-detachment model as an integrative framework” Sonnentag S and Fritz C, Journal of Organizational Behavior, April 2014

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