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It's official. Playing table tennis, collecting pewter spoons,

even watching soap operas on television, are good for

you - and society. Here, a social psychologist summarises

his findings in an area long neglected by researchers

Collecting stamps, reading detective stories, knitting and ping-pong all have their place, but are they worthy of study by a serious academic psychologist? Some might say it is misguided, pretentious even, to treat hobbies and recreations as serious and important matters. Yet they affect vast numbers of people, which is one possible measure of importance. Many of us spend more time at leisure than we do at work, and research shows it can have enormous consequences not only for our happiness but for our health, longevity and mental stability.

The amount of free time people now have at their disposal is greater than at any time since the Stone Age. There is going to be a lot more of it, too, as people live longer after retirement, and computers and automation do more of the work and push unemployment figures even higher. Unemployment is a source of great distress. What should people be doing with all this free time, and what is the real purpose of life once day- to-day material needs have been met?

One of the more awful scenarios for the future of the human race was suggested by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man: we shall end up like dogs sleeping in the sun. The alternative, I suggest, is to engage in the right kind of leisure.

Psychologists have not done nearly as much research on leisure as they have on work. Yet the study of leisure may change psychology, because its dynamics are so very different from those of work. For example, leisure groups behave in quite different ways from work groups, and the motivation behind leisure is very different from that behind work. But why do people choose a particular hobby in the first place, and how do peer groups influence their choice? How far do age and social class play a part? And what do people perceive to be the point of these pursuits anyway?

A lot of leisure is done in groups, whether tennis clubs, churches, evening classes, choirs or voluntary work groups. On average, professional-class people belong to over three such clubs, working-class people to 1.5. Clubs are one of the main ways of finding friends; for some, the friendships made are reported by many to be closer than their other friendships.

In one study of several hundred members of different clubs, I asked people to rate their mood at the end of a meeting. "Joy" was rated highest for groups engaged in Scottish and other dancing, followed by voluntary or charity work. "Anger and frustration" were most commonly expressed by political groups.

Leisure groups behave quite differently from work groups or others familiar to psychologists. What is unusual about them is that members do not feel hostile to people outside the group. Indeed they are very positively disposed towards them. There is a strong shared interest between different sport or hobby groups, and joint meetings are much enjoyed.

Each group has its own social niche of age, sex or class, but they also appeal to a certain range of ages and classes. In a study conducted in a small Australian town it was found that of the six categories of member identified, those classed as "no-hopers" were only able to join rugby league clubs, while only the wealthy were able to play golf. Those two sports were unusually exclusive, since the membership of most of the clubs embraced three of the six classes.

The closeness of leisure groups means, however, that the usual social divisions become less important - and they tend to be very welcoming to newcomers of any class. It has been reported by anthropologists that in ecstatic religious rites there can be a feeling of social unity and love; perhaps the same happens in leisure groups.

Part of the motivation for leisure, I believe, is that individuals can choose those leisure activities that produce the kinds of social behaviour and relationships which they enjoy most. There is also a strong link between choice of leisure pursuit and personality. Extroverts tend to be more active and successful in sports as well as in social activities, while violent sports appeal most to "tough-minded" people who don't care how much damage they do to others. Dangerous sports, hardly surprisingly, appeal most to "sensation-seekers".

But what about solitary leisure? Gardeners, artists and collectors of, say, pewter spoons have informal gatherings where they exhibit their work and compare notes with other like-minded hobbyists. Reading a book, though, is "social" only in a second-hand sense: novels, biographies and history are about the social life of others, though readers may identify with their heroes and villains and learn more about real social life. The same is true of television, one of the 10 leisure activities on which I focus in my book, The Social Psychology of Leisure (the others are music and radio, reading and study, hobbies, social life, sport and exercise, religion, voluntary work, holidays and tourism).

Watching television is the most popular leisure activity in the world, probably the third greatest consumer of time after sleeping and working. People say they watch between two and 2.5 hours a day. There is a real puzzle here for social scientists, since research repeatedly shows there is a low level of satisfaction from watching television - less than for housework, according to one study. Why, then, is it so popular? It produces a low level of positive effect, with a high level of boredom and apathy, and has been described by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, as "a state of consciousness somewhere between being awake and being asleep". Watching television has become a kind of default activity which people engage in when they have nothing better to do, because it costs nothing and takes no effort. There are large class differences: middle-class people evidently do have better things to do, and watch far less than working-class people. Teenagers watch less than other age groups, because they would rather be out with their friends.

The most popular programmes, predictably, are the soaps. Less predictably, those who watched them were found to be a lot happier than those who didn't. Paradoxically, we also found that those who watched television a lot were less happy than those who didn't. The reason why people enjoy soap opera may be that they have found a circle of imaginary friends. They also derive some educational benefit; they learn how to cope with everyday situations.

When people are asked why they watch television, the most common answer is "entertainment" or "diversion". Most programmes are cheerful, mildly pleasant and relaxing, and would be expected to induce mildly positive moods. The cost is that everything is reduced to light entertainment; it could be said that we are "amusing ourselves to death". Another cost, clearly, is other activity is sacrificed in those two to 2.5 hours a day - and the main one is time spent with friends. On the other hand, more time is spent with the family in front of the set, which has become a central part of family life.

There are all kinds of other social consequences of television: aggression probably is encouraged by it, and material desires boosted by commercials. Social stereotypes may be strengthened. For example, soap commercials show expert men in white coats telling feeble and passive women what to do with their dirty washing. This may be offset, however, by soap operas which depict assertive women. Television also gives a common experience which the whole country can share - a kind of national agenda of news and notable events.

There have been several carefully conducted experiments on the therapeutic effects of leisure. "Mood induction" trials have shown it is easy to make people happy, or miserable, by playing suitable music, sending them for a 10-minute walk or arranging social encounters. A brisk walk can cause subjects to feel less tired, more energetic and less stressed for up to two hours afterwards. One form of happiness therapy is to ask clients to keep a diary for a month of the enjoyable things they have done, and to record their mood at the end of the day. Computer modelling is then able to show which activities do most for each individual's mood, and clients are encouraged to do these more often.

Leisure, it seems, is one of the main sources of happiness - and the only one it is easy to influence by taking positive steps. Work, relationships and personality are also important, but far less easy to alter. One route to happiness is regular mood induction, doing the things that enhance mood regularly, once or twice a day, or every day - provided they are not too expensive, or illegal. This is partly to do with the pleasure quotient of the activities themselves, but social support is also a factor. Belonging to a church, for example, brings happiness through the social support of other parishioners, but also through the relationship experienced with God.

Belonging to a strict church can also have a measurable effect on health; it can lengthen life by as much as four years if it is a group that prohibits drinking and smoking, and has rules about diet and other aspects of "health behaviour". Even with ordinary churches the number of deaths from heart attacks, emphysema, cirrhosis of the liver and tuberculosis are fewer than half the rates for non-members.

Social support is another important factor in promoting good health, and leisure activities provide this. In a major study conducted in California, people with strong social networks (family, friends and church) were found to be far more likely to survive the eight years of the study: among the 50-year-old men participating in the trial, 9.6 per cent of those with social support died, compared with 30.8 per cent of those with a weaker network. Social support works in various ways, one of them being that it actually strengthens the immune system.

Mental health, too, is profoundly affected by leisure. It has been found that exercise is very good for depression - as beneficial as psychotherapy, in one study - so that many doctors are now prescribing it. It also works for anxiety, though not quite so well. Some of this is due to physiological effects, but some of it to social factors, since most sport and exercise is done with others. Social support aids mental health by providing companionship, raising self-esteem and providing acceptance and love. Leisure can help people cope with stress; in some US studies merely seeing a video of the wilderness was enough to reduce blood pressure. On holiday, too, people are less irritable and tired, with fewer headaches (except for workaholics, who of course want to get back to work).

One reason for focusing research on leisure is to help those who have too much spare time. The unemployed are found to be bored, apathetic, depressed, and to have higher rates of illness, death and mental illness. They have lots of spare time but spend little of it in satisfying leisure. An experiment was carried out in large British cities in which several thousand unemployed youths were offered sports training. The effect was to create an involvement with these sports, but also with a number of other active non-work activities, study, politics and voluntary work; they found a new sense of purpose.

The retired are happier than the unemployed, but they too can be bored and lonely. The main way they use their new free time is watching more television and doing jobs round the house. But some do a lot more than this, and take up or spend more time on voluntary work, leisure groups of various kinds, such as choirs, reading and study, church and hobbies.

Another application of this kind of research is to the funding of leisure facilities. If we want to encourage people to do more than watch soap opera in their spare time, school and college is the place where more might be done.

The idea of providing leisure as a way of keeping citizens happy and healthy is hardly new. The ancient Greeks believed it was the main purpose of life - though they, of course, had plenty of slaves to do the work for them. The Victorian middle class (also with the benefit of servants) had positive ideas about leisure and "rational recreation"- healthy sport and exercise, access to parks and the open air, education, music, social clubs, Sunday tea parties.

Today's research suggests the Greeks and Victorians were right. Leisure is beneficial in many ways, but which particular pursuit is best? Clearly, this will vary from one person to another, but there are features of leisure which seem to be universally beneficial.

To begin with, there should be a strong social component, providing companionship and social support. Second, some of it should be serious and committed, with considerable effort put into meeting challenges and standards; this comes close to matching the satisfaction found in work. Leisure should also provide some intense satisfaction or vision, perhaps from the arts, religion, or education. It should include physical exercise, with its clear benefits for both the mind and the body. Finally, leisure need not be an ordeal. Holidays, watching television and other low-key activities are just as beneficial as intense sporting endeavour, provided these do not become the whole of leisure.

! Michael Argyle is Emeritus Reader in Social Psychology at Oxford University. His book 'The Social Psychology of Leisure' is published by Penguin Books at pounds 8.99.