The Role of Recreation in American Society - What Americans Seek Through Recreation
time arts activities leisure
The nature of modern work has a significant impact on the types of activities people pursue in their free time. For instance, workers whose jobs keep them in front of a computer monitor for many hours a day often seek physical activities to offset the many hours they are required to sit. Conversely, people whose jobs require many hours on their feet welcome an opportunity to relax at the end of the day. The types of activities Americans pursue in their leisure time are as various as the people themselves, and for some who derive little satisfaction from their work, recreational activities can provide an important opportunity for personal fulfillment. Stress-relief, physical well-being, artistic satisfaction, deepening spirituality, and intellectual development can all be motivating factors in Americans'recreational choices.
Many of Americans' favorite forms of recreation are popular for three reasons: They are convenient, possible to do alone or with others, and able to be performed for pleasure rather than for competition. For example, walking for exercise is popular because it can be performed almost anywhere, at any time, and alone or with others.
Americans Want More Time
The perception of Americans as hardworking, stressed, and lacking leisure time is often supported by the observation that they routinely work more hours per day and more days per year than residents of other countries. According to Key Indicators of the Labor Market (Geneva: U.N. International Labor Organization, 2003), U.S. workers put in an average of 1,815 hours at their jobs in 2002. While this was less than the 2,447 hours workers in South Korea averaged, or the 1,848 hours of the Japanese, it was more than in many other countries, including Canada (1,778 hours), Sweden (1,625 hours), and Germany (1,444 hours).
While Americans rely on the generosity of their employers, or their union's bargaining skills, to receive paid vacation time, in many other countries vacation time is
Public opinion on amount of time available for recreational activities, December 2003
mandated by law. In such European countries as Sweden, Austria, Denmark, France, and Spain, workers in 2002 were guaranteed twenty-five days of paid vacation per year, while those in Germany and Finland received twenty-four, and those in Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, Greece, and the United Kingdom got twenty. Communist China gave all workers fifteen vacation days per year, and Japan ten, but the United States had no national law requiring that workers be given a paid vacation from work.
While the time off that workers were guaranteed in these countries might seem generous to Americans, the actual amount they took was even more, averaging five or more additional days, according to information compiled by Catherine Valenti in the ABCNEWS.com report "Vacation Deprivation—Americans Get Short-Changed When It Comes to Holiday Time" (June 25, 2003). By contrast, Americans took an average of 10.2 days per year of vacation.
This lack of time off from work may be one reason why a December 2003 Gallup poll found that 44% of Americans felt they had too little time to relax or do nothing, while 51% said they had too little time to pursue hobbies, 54% had too little time to read, and 59% had too little time for personal exercise and recreation. (See Table 8.1.) Forty years earlier, a similar Gallup poll had found that 74% of Americans reported they had enough leisure time.
The 2003 Gallup poll also found that the amount of time Americans had for leisure varied according to age. For those eighteen to twenty-nine, 40% said they had enough time to do whatever they wanted, while 60% said they did not. The data for those between thirty and forty-nine was almost identical, but older Americans had more free time—from age fifty to sixty-four, 59% said they had enough time to do what they wanted, and 84% of those over sixty-five reported having enough time to do what they wanted. (See Figure 8.1.)
How Leisure Time Is Spent
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (2004) looked at
how American adults spent their leisure time. The most popular leisure activity in 2002 was going to movies, which 60% of respondents said they had done at least once. Exercise came in second, at 55.1%, followed by gardening (47.3%), doing home improvements (42.4%), and visiting amusement parks (41.7%). Thirty-nine percent of Americans also partook of at least one "Benchmark Arts Activity," which consisted of attending jazz, classical music, or opera performances; musical plays; plays; ballet; or art museums. (See Table 8.2.)
The NEA survey uncovered several trends in leisure activities when the 2002 results were compared with those of earlier years. From 1982 to 2002, while participation in movie and television viewing held relatively steady, the number of Americans who enjoyed outdoor activities declined dramatically. Participation in gardening by American adults dropped from 60% in 1982 to 47.3% in 2002, while the number playing active sports fell from 39% to 30.4%, although the amount doing exercise increased from 51% to 55.1%. Attendance at sporting events once or more during the year fell from 48% to 35%, while the number making improvements to their homes in their leisure time dropped from 60% to 42.4%. (See Table 8.2.)
Participation in each activity varied by gender, age, ethnicity, income, and educational status. For example, participation in gardening was much more common among women (62.4% of all gardeners) than men (37.6%), while more men played sports (61%) than women (39%). Whites tended to participate in more outdoor activities than African-Americans or Hispanics, while visiting
Participation in leisure activities other than the arts, 1982, 1992, 2002
Percent of adults participating
Type of activity
*Benchmark arts events include going to at least one jazz, classical music, or opera performance; musical play; play; ballet; or art museum
SOURCE: "Table 26. Participation in Other Leisure Activities, 1982, 1992, 2002," in 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, 2004, http://www.arts.gov/pub/NEASurvey2004.pdf (accessed September 9, 2004)
Benchmark arts events*
TV hours per day
amusement parks was almost equally popular among all ethnic groups. Younger adults had more interest in playing and watching sports; attending arts events, performing charity work, and gardening had more older participants. Those with a college education or a higher income level tended to participate in all types of leisure activities more than people with less education or income. (See Table 8.3.)
The Value of the Performing Arts
Public support for the arts and appreciation of their importance was confirmed by the results of a three-year public opinion survey conducted by the Performing Arts Research Coalition, The Value of the Performing Arts in Ten Communities (2004). The survey was designed to assess participation rates, characteristics of attendees, the perceived value of the performing arts to individuals and their communities, and barriers to attendance. It was conducted in Alaska; Austin, Texas; Boston; Cincinnati; Denver; Minneapolis–St. Paul; Pittsburgh; Sarasota, Florida; Seattle; and Washington, D.C. The survey found that three-quarters of the respondents in each community agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "Attending live performing arts is enjoyable to me." More than 90% agreed or strongly agreed that the performing arts contributed to the education and development of children, while over 80% agreed or strongly agreed that the performing arts improved the quality of life in their community. More than two-thirds of respondents in each community surveyed also agreed or strongly agreed that performing arts helped them understand other cultures better.
Recreation as Socialization
Many forms of recreation are popular because they offer opportunities to socialize and interact with others. Many young people enjoy sports as an inexpensive dating practice, believing they can get to know another person better while spending time skating or bicycling together. Billiards in modern, upscale parlors has become a "hip" couples' activity, and bowling has regained popularity. Gyms, health clubs, and sporting activities have been touted as great ways to simultaneously improve health and fitness, engage in recreation, and meet people.
There is mounting evidence that socialization and recreation hold important health benefits. Family, friends, active interests, and community involvement may do more than simply help people enjoy their lives. Social activities and relationships may actually enable people to live longer by preventing or delaying development of many diseases, including dementia (impaired mental function). Furthermore, social activities seem to protect against disease and increase longevity even when the activities do not involve physical exercise. In "Social Engagement and Disability in a Community Population of Older Adults" (American Journal of Epidemiology, April 1, 2003), C. F. Mendes de Leon and colleagues tracked the health and longevity of 2,812 older adults living in New Haven, Connecticut. After nine years, the researchers reported that "higher levels of social engagement are associated with reduced disability and that this effect was consistent across three different measures of disability as well as across gender and racial subgroups."
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