Leisure Reflections 40: Tourism, Flow and the Serious Leisure Perspective

By Bob Stebbins. University of Calgary

Website (personal): http://soci.ucalgary.ca/profiles/robert-stebbins
Website (Perspective): www.seriousleisure.net

The object of this edition of Leisure Reflections is to determine the role of anticipated flow in selecting a tourist destination using the serious leisure perspective (SLP) to identify the kinds of activities capable of generating that feeling.[1] I will start with a definition of flow the eight components of which are crucial in discerning which activities qualify as flow. The SLP will then be set out and flow applied to its three main forms as they pull or fail to pull leisure participants toward tourist destinations.


Although the idea of flow originated in the work of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (1990) and has, therefore, an intellectual history quite separate from that of the SLP, it does nevertheless happen on occasion that the first is a key motivational force in the second. Indeed, flow has now been conceptually integrated in the Perspective, where it sometimes plays a prominent role (Stebbins, 2007/2015: 15-17; Stebbins 2010). Flow is highly prized in a number of art, sport and hobbyist activities, all conceivable as serious leisure, but when pursued hedonically, activities in these three areas are best qualified as casual (non-flow) leisure. What is flow?

It is a form of optimal experience, possibly being the most widely discussed and studied generic intrinsic reward in the psychology of work and leisure. Although many types of work and leisure generate little or no flow for their participants, those that do are found primarily in the ‘devotee occupations’ (paid work that is essentially serious leisure, Stebbins, 2004/2014) and in serious leisure. Still, it will be evident that each work and leisure activity capable of producing flow does so in terms unique to it. And it follows that each of these activities must be carefully studied to discover the properties contributing to its distinctive flow experience.

In his theory of optimal experience, Csikszentmihalyi (1990: 3-5, 54) describes and explains the psychological foundation of the many flow activities in work and leisure, as exemplified in chess, dancing, surgery and rock climbing. Flow is ‘autotelic’ experience, or the sensation that comes with actually enacting such intrinsically rewarding activity. Csikszentmihalyi (1990: 49-67) has identified and explored over the years eight central components of this experience. It is easy to see how this quality of work, when present, is sufficiently rewarding and it follows highly valued to endow it with many of the qualities of serious leisure, thereby rendering the two inseparable in several ways. And this holds, even though most people tend to think of work and leisure as vastly different experiences. The eight components are

  1. sense of competence in executing the activity;
  2. requirement of concentration;
  3. clarity of goals of the activity;
  4. immediate feedback from the activity;
  5. sense of deep, focused involvement in the activity;
  6. sense of control in completing the activity;
  7. loss of self-consciousness during the activity;
  8. sense of time is truncated during the activity.

These components are self-evident, except possibly for the first and the sixth. With reference to the first, flow fails to develop when the activity is either too easy or too difficult; to experience flow the participant must feel capable of performing a moderately challenging activity. The sixth component refers to the perceived degree of control the participant has over execution of the activity. This is not a matter of personal competence; rather it is one of level of effect of uncontrollable external forces. This condition is well illustrated in situations faced by certain outdoor hobbyists, as when the water level suddenly rises on a kayaking river or an unpredicted snowstorm results in a whiteout on a mountain snowboard slope.

It follows that, if these eight components are necessary conditions of flow, they must all be present for the participant to experience this state. If one or more of them are absent, the leisure experience at the time cannot be qualified as flow-based. This is an important criterion. For example a person can be deeply involved (component 5) in a film or a roller coaster ride (as casual leisure) without having to be competent at something or feel a sense of control or both. If we adhere strictly to the eight components, these two activities cannot be described as flow-based. On the other hand, if we reject strict adherence, the two could then be regarded as flow-based. Indeed a loose adherence to the eight components would expand immensely the list of flow-based activities. But this approach would also force an unwanted imprecision on the concept, making it scientifically less useful. Therefore it is best to stay with the strict version, labelling as flow the activities to which it applies and creating other terms for the activities that are, or cannot yet be, characterised by some but not all eight of the components.

At the same time it is not sufficient simply to assume that a given leisure activity meets the eight components or fails to. Instead, this claim should be validated by way of research. Furthermore, empirical examination of an activity not only shows that flow is possible there but also describes its distinctive manifestations. Thus, the sense of competence is different for surf-boarding, as seen in balance on the waves and charting a course through them, compared with that sense in theatre, as seen in artistically presenting lines in interaction with the other actors and the props on stage at the moment. Both examples require concentration and focused involvement, but the goals sought are sharply different – remaining gracefully afloat in surfing, performing the role well in theatre.

The Serious Leisure Perspective

Serious leisure is the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist or volunteer activity sufficiently substantial, interesting, and fulfilling for the participant to find a (leisure) career there acquiring and expressing a combination of its special skills, knowledge and experience (Stebbins, 2007/2015). Since there is but a handful of studies linking flow and serious leisure in the detailed manner just described, we are forced to speculate beyond them about which activities in this form might be found to generate this experience. To this end, note that flow has been demonstrated in quilting (Stalp, 2007); barbershop singing (Stebbins, 1996); table tennis, amateur acting, coaching amateur sport (Elkington, 2006; 2008) and white-water kayaking, mountain climbing and snowboarding (Stebbins, 2005). Heo, Lee and Pedersen (2010) and Mannell (1993) have also studied flow in serious leisure pursued by older adults, although the activities themselves were not identified in the publications (both studies gathered data on serious leisure in general). These studies vary as to how rigourously their authors apply the eight components, with Elkington’s being, among this set, the most thorough in this regard.

In pursuits qualified as flow-based we would expect to find flow in their core activities, either all of the time (as in basketball, alpine skiing, hang gliding and ice hockey) or a significant part of it (as in acting, bird watching, fishing [‘when they’re biting’] and mountain biking).[2] Activities like these require physical skill commonly enacted with mental acuity and relevant knowledge. The twin components of competence and control are obvious here. More generally all the amateur activities and physically-active hobbies would seem to generate continual or intermittent flow.

Casual and Project-Based Leisure

Casual leisure has been defined as the immediately, intrinsically rewarding, relatively short-lived pleasurable activity, requiring little or no special training to enjoy it. Project-based leisure, the third form comprising the serious leisure perspective, is short-term, reasonably complicated, one-shot or occasional, though infrequent, creative undertaking carried out in free time, or time free of disagreeable obligation (Stebbins, 2007/2015: chap. 3). We look first at casual leisure.

According to its definition, which revolves around activity requiring little or no special training to enjoy it, casual leisure lacks the first component of flow. Consider its eight types, each of which shows that competence is not a prerequisite for carrying them out. The activities are play (including dabbling), relaxation (e.g., sitting, napping, strolling), passive entertainment (e.g., TV, books, recorded music), active entertainment (e.g., games of chance, party games), sociable conversation, sensory stimulation (e.g., sex, eating, drinking), casual volunteering (e.g., handing out leaflets, addressing envelops, taking tickets at concert) and pleasurable aerobic activity. The last and newest addition to this typology – pleasurable aerobic activity – refers to physical activities that require effort sufficient to cause marked increase in respiration and heart rate (Stebbins, 2004). Here reference is to ‘aerobic activity’ in the broad sense, to all activity that calls for such effort. Thus the concept includes the routines pursued collectively in (narrowly conceived of) aerobics classes and those pursued individually by way of televised or video-taped programs of aerobics. Yet, as with its passive and active cousins in entertainment, pleasurable aerobic activity is, at bottom, casual leisure. That is, to carry out such activity requires little more than minimal skill, knowledge, or experience.

Csikszentmihalyi (1990: 52) briefly discusses ‘micro-flow activities’, or private behaviours intended to relieve everyday boredom (e.g., doodling, chewing on things). They may be conceived of as instances of the play and sensory stimulation types of casual leisure. His accompanying comments on the micro-flow activities suggest, however, that he does not regard them as true flow. Why? At bottom they lack complexity and demanding challenge.

Project-based leisure requires considerable planning, effort, and sometimes skill or knowledge, but is for all that neither serious leisure nor intended to develop into such (Stebbins, 2007/2015: chap. 3). Examples include surprise birthday parties, elaborate preparations for a major holiday and volunteering for sports events. Flow is certainly possible where skill, knowledge or both are needed to complete a project, as in using knowledge of Powerpoint gained at work to mount a slide show of one’s two-week tour of the Antarctic to be shown at an evening gathering of friends. An experienced and competent user of Powerpoint would be able to control, or solve, the problems that could possibly spring up during preparation and presentation of the show (e.g., how to present the slides on a full screen, implement the fly-in effect, insert photos).


Some people seek flow in tourism doing so, however, as recreational rather than as mass or cultural tourists (Ryan, 2003; Ryan and Glendon, 1998: 171). The SLP can shed further light on how flow is experienced here. Since flow can only be experienced in activities during which the participant meets a manageable physical or mental challenge (component 1). Examples of the physical variety are legion: traveling somewhere to downhill ski, white-water kayak, ascend a mountain face or summit (technical climbing), SCUBA dive and wave surf. All are hobbies. In particular, all meet the six distinguishing qualities of serious leisure (Stebbins, 2007/2015: 11-13), the most critical in this discussion being those of skill/knowledge, effort, and perseverance on which the first component of flow is predicated. And it follows that none of these activities pursued at this level can be considered casual or project-based leisure.

Some project-based tourist activities might seem to generate flow, though they actually fail to do so because of being insufficiently skilled or knowledge-based. Thus, Grade 1 and 2 white-water rafting with a guide in the stern is not a hobby, nor is snorkeling (as opposed to SCUBA diving), casual mountain climbing (e.g., Fuji, Kilimanjaro), horseback riding (e.g., with horse and guide supplied by a ranch) or hiking on easy terrain. Physical leisure projects may require a certain level of conditioning, but little out of the ordinary in the way of skills. This is not the kind of soil in which flow can take root.


My conclusion from all this is that most tourism, being of the mass variety, when joined by its cultural cousin which also has significant appeal relegates flow-based tourism to the category of recreational tourist activity and an approximate third-place position in this lively sphere of leisure. This is not to argue that recreational tourism including its flow-generating branch is therefore insignificant. To the contrary, it is often dramatic to behold (and, of course, participate in). It generates significant commercial revenue. It sometimes shows the outer limits of human physical achievement. And it may give its enthusiasts a distinctive positive identity (Cohen-Gewerc and Stebbins, 2013: 55-57). Still, neither flow nor serious leisure illustrate well the larger field of tourism, though only in the sense that together they account for only a minority of all activities there.


[1] This article grew out of a need to integrate the three terms comprising the title of this article. Juergen Gnoth and Jim Macbeth got into a discussion in 2012 on TRINET-L (a tourism research forum) about the interrelationship of the three. After reading this exchange Grant Cushman sent a copy of it to me (I’m not a subscriber to this forum), saying no more than that it might interest me. I promised to take up the matter in the Leisure Reflections series.

[2] A core activity is the distinctive set of interrelated actions or steps that must be followed to achieve the outcome or product the participant finds attractive (e.g., enjoyable, satisfying, fulfilling) (Stebbins, 2007/2015).


Cohen-Gewerc, E. and Stebbins, R.A. (2013) Serious Leisure and Individuality, Montreal, QC: McGill-Queens University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: Harper & Row.

Elkington, S. (2006) ‘Exploring the nature of pre and post flow in serious leisure’, in S. Elkington, I. Jones and L. Lawrence (eds) Serious Leisure: Extensions and Applications, LSA publication No. 95 (pp. 145-159), Eastbourne, UK: Leisure Studies Association.

Elkington, S. (2008) ‘The need for theoretical originality when taking the flow of leisure seriously’, in P. Gilchrist & B. Wheaton (eds) Whatever Happened to the Leisure Society? Theory, Debate and Policy, LSA publication No. 102 (pp. 135-164), Eastbourne, UK: Leisure Studies Association.

Heo,J., Lee, Y, McCormick, B.P. and Pedersen, P.M. (2010) ‘Daily experiences of serious leisure, flow and subjective well-being of older adults’, Leisure Studies, 29: 207-25.

Mannell, R. C. (1993) ‘High investment activity and life satisfaction among older adults: Committed, serious leisure, and flow activities’, in J. R. Kelly (ed) Activity and Aging: Staying Involved in Later Life (pp.125-145), Newbury Park, CA Sage.

Ryan, C. (2003) Recreational Tourism: Demand and Impacts. Clevedon, UK: Channel View.

Ryan, C. and Glendon, I. (1998) Application of Leisure Motivation to Tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 25(1): 169-84.

Stalp, M. C. (2007) Quilting: The Fabric of Everyday Life, New York: Berg.

Stebbins, R.A. (1996) The Barbershop Singer: Inside the Social World of a Musical Hobby, Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Stebbins, R.A. (2004/2014) Between Work and Leisure: The Common Ground of Two Separate Worlds, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. (published in paperback in 2014 with new Preface)

Stebbins, R.A. (2005) Challenging Mountain Nature: Risk, Motive, and Lifestyle in Three Hobbyist Sports, Calgary, AB: Detselig.

Stebbins, R.A. (2007/2015) Serious Leisure: A Perspective for Our Time, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. (published in paperback in 2015 with new Preface)

Stebbins, R.A. (2010) ‘Flow in serious leisure: nature and prevalence’, Leisure Studies Association Newsletter, 87 (November), pp. 21-23 (also freely available at www.seriousleisure.net/Digital Library, Reflections no. 25).

Forthcoming in LSA Newsletter No. 103

Leisure Reflections No. 41

On ‘Leisure in the Community: Its Negative Side’

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