Leisure and alcohol consumption – research into the relationship between the two
Cynthia P. Carruthers
EDITOR’S NOTE: Cynthia Carruthers is an assistant professor in the Department of Sport and Leisure Studies at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Leisure service professionals need to understand the complex relationship between alcohol consumption and leisure behavior. Abusive drinking can contribute to health, work, school, family and legal problems, and, among adolescents, is often associated with the use of other drugs. “Healthy” leisure participation is often espoused by the leisure service profession as a constructive alternative to alcohol/drug use. Both public leisure service professionals and therapeutic recreation specialists have advocated the use of leisure activities in preventing and treating alcohol abuse.
Paradoxically, drinking is usually done within leisure contexts (Simpura, 1985), and consequently affects leisure experiences. Given the prevalence of alcohol consumption in and during leisure, it would appear that drinking is perceived by some people as contributing positively to their leisure experiences. The study of the perceived contribution of alcohol to leisure experiences is important for two reasons. First, leisure service practitioners and researchers will more fully understand drinking as both a leisure activity (Simpura, 1985), and as a common influence on leisure experiences. Second,. if individuals do use alcohol to enhance their leisure experiences, there is a danger that some may rely, on alcohol to create enjoyable experiences. Leisure service professionals may be able to use information on the reinforcing properties of alcohol in leisure to assist individuals to attain satisfying leisure experiences without the use of alcohol.
Alcohol Consumption and Leisure Activity Patterns
Researchers have been sporadically investigating the relationship between drinking practices and leisure activity involvement of both alcoholics and nonalcoholics for the past 20 years. Sessoms and Oakley (1969) compared the frequency of participation in various leisure activities among alcoholics and individuals in the general population. They reported that the alcoholics’ leisure involvement was characterized by passivity, with little interest in cultural activities, hobbies, or community organizations, and less than half the sport and outdoor involvement of the general population. Similarly, Selzer (1977) compared the frequency of participation in nine leisure activities between alcoholics and nonalcoholics. He found that alcoholics were less involved in eight of the activities, with the exception of “going out drinking with friends.”
Some researchers and practitioners have interpreted these and similar findings to indicate that recovering alcoholics should be encouraged to get more involved in leisure activities post-discharge. However, other research has been conducted which would not support this approach. Tuchfield, Lipton, and Lile (1983) investigated the relationship between leisure participation and abstention from drinking among alcoholics following treatment. They reported that high levels of leisure involvement both prior to and following treatment were positively related to relapse (a return to drinking). They suggested that leisure involvement, especially social leisure involvement, exposed individuals to more situations that were conducive to drinking.
Other related studies using nonalcoholic or younger subjects have found a similar positive relationship between alcohol consumption and involvement in leisure activities. In 1977, Young and Kronus studied the frequency of alcohol consumption in relation to participation in seven outdoor recreation activities among nonalcoholic adults. They reported a strong, positive relationship between frequency of alcohol consumption and involvement in these outdoor activities. Similarly, Carruthers (1992) reported that frequency of drinking among adults in the general population was associated positively with involvement in community social leisure activities and outdoor leisure activities, while quantity of alcohol consumed per occasion was unrelated to patterns of leisure activity involvement. In other words, individuals who drink fairly often (but not necessarily large amounts) are also more likely to be involved in social activities outside of the home, or in outdoor leisure activities. The leisure patterns of individuals who drink more heavily per occasion (binge-type drinkers), however, are not significantly different from the leisure patterns of individuals who report drinking less alcohol per occasion.
Various studies have explored drinking and leisure patterns among adolescents. In a study of high school students, Perdue and Rainwater (1984) found that frequency of drinking when involved in specific leisure activities was positively related to the students’ level of participation in those leisure activities. This relationship existed even when the activities in question were judged to have high levels of social control imposed by parents, friends, and school figures. In a study of college students, Iso-Ahola and Hayllar (1992) reported that frequency of involvement in home-based leisure activities, organized leisure activities and informal leisure activities were all positively related to the number of alcoholic drinks consumed per occasion in the previous week. While the Carruthers (1992) study reported a relationship between frequency of drinking and leisure patterns among adults in the general population, this study of college students found a relationship between amount of alcohol consumed per drinking occasion and leisure patterns.
Similar findings were found with at-risk youth. in a study of eighth grade students in a school-based program for high-risk youth, Caldwell and Smith (1992) found that involvement in sport activity outside of the home and the number of nights per week that the youth went “out for fun” were both related to having had “five or more drinks in a row in the last two weeks. ” In a comparison of youth in treatment for substance abuse with youth that were not, Iso-Ahola and Crowley (1991) found that the substance abusers were more frequently involved in leisure in general, and especially physical leisure activities.
Alcohol’s Contribution to Leisure Experiences
Numerous research studies have investigated individuals’ general reasons for drinking, as well as how they expect alcohol consumption to affect them overall. Very little research, however, has directly explored the possible functions that alcohol consumption serves for individuals in their leisure specifically. The majority of the studies that do exist used alcoholics or substance abusers as subjects.
In a study that focused on users of multiple drugs rather than just alcohol, Iso-Ahola and Crowley (1991) found that although substance-abusing adolescents were more frequently involved in active leisure than non-substance-abusing adolescents, they experienced more leisure boredom than the non-substance-abusing adolescents. They proposed that substance-abusing adolescents might use drugs to create optimally arousing experiences when the leisure activity itself is insufficient for producing the desired state.
Hood (1991) studied the treatment needs of adult alcoholics in an inpatient treatment program. When the clients were asked to identify the problems that they experience in their leisure that could affect recovery, the item that was identified most frequently as being “often” or sometimes” a problem was “experiencing feelings of boredom.” While Hood was not investigating the relationship between boredom and drinking, these results do provide some support for the position that drinking might serve to offset feelings of boredom. In a recent study of women in treatment for substance abuse, Rancourt (1991) reported that subjects said that they used drugs for a number of reasons, including “to party, and/or to have fun.” Francis (1991) suggested the existence of a strong relationship between individuals’ desire for a state of euphoria and substance abuse. Further, he advocated the use of “flow technology” to help individuals attain this sense of euphoria in their leisure without the use of chemicals.
McCormick (1991) conducted a study of recovering alcoholics to determine how their experiences of self constrained their leisure. He reported that alcoholics experienced a sense of self as deviant or different, and that drinking initially served to alleviate these feelings for the alcoholic. Further, he stated that this sense of self as different caused alcoholics to avoid being in social situations with people in which they felt they could not manage their image positively.
In a study of the leisure-related alcohol expectancies of individuals in the general population, Carruthers (in press) found that drinkers at all consumption levels expected alcohol to contribute to a sense of disengagement from routine and worries, increased spontaneity and social comfort, and a heightened sense of engagement when involved in leisure. Further, she found that there was a relationship between what individuals expected from their drinking in leisure situations and how much they drank in those situations. In this study, more positive leisure-related alcohol expectancies were associated with greater alcohol consumption. When frequency of drinking and quantity of drinking per occasion were examined separately, it was found that frequency of drinking in social situations is best predicted by the expectation of increased affective engagement. On the other hand, quantity of drinking per occasion was predicted best by the expectation of increased spontaneity and social comfort in all of the leisure situations investigated.
Implications for the Profession
Probably the most obvious implication for the leisure service profession is that leisure involvement does not seem to serve as an alternative or deterrent to alcohol use. in fact, it appears that the frequency of leisure involvement is directly related to both the quantity of alcohol used per occasion, as well as the frequency of drinking for adolescents. Similarly, adults who drink frequently also are involved more frequently in community social and outdoor leisure activities. If leisure service professionals, whether in public recreation or therapeutic recreation, are going to make an impact on drinking behaviors, we must become more sophisticated in our interventions. Encouraging at-risk individuals to become involved in leisure situations that are associated with drinking without the skills necessary to avoid alcohol use may be counterproductive.
Leisure service professionals can use a number of approaches to deter alcohol consumption. First, it is necessary to teach people the skills necessary to achieve satisfaction in their leisure so that they will not have to rely on alcohol to enhance their leisure experiences (Carruthers, 1992). People will need assistance in learning how to psychologically and temporarily step away from the routine of their daily lives, become more spontaneous and socially comfortable, and become more fully engaged in leisure experiences. Second, leisure service professionals can provide experiences for individuals, especially sensation-seekers, through which they can learn to achieve optimal arousal without the use of alcohol and drugs (Iso-Ahola and Crowley, 1991).
Third, leisure service professionals can assist individuals in attaining a comfortable level of self-acceptance so that the sense of self as different or “deviant” does not contribute to the development of addictive behaviors (McCormick, 1991). Fourth, it is important to continue to educate individuals regarding the “costs” of using chemicals to enhance their leisure experiences. When substance abusers, including alcoholics, are in treatment, the positive aspects of their drinking are not denied; however, the negative consequences of their drinking are emphasized.
Fifth, it would be informative to explore how drinking as a leisure enhancer is promoted in our society, and by the leisure service profession specifically. Television is replete with commercials in which young men pop the top off a beer can, and a fantasy leisure experience unfolds. Leisure service professionals need to examine the extent to which they promote and provide alcohol consumption at leisure functions’
Finally, leisure service professionals should be somewhat cautious when advocating the replacement of alcohol/drug use with exciting or optimally arousing leisure activities without addressing the multiple issues of the participants. For example, Faulkner (1991) suggested that some sensation-seeking behavior may be an attempt to escape feelings and present reality, and that high-risk leisure behaviors can have an addictive quality. While engrossing leisure activities might serve as a positive alternative for alcohol/drug use, it is important again to understand the function that the activity serves for the individual.
Not all drinking is, of course, bad. Most people that are light drinkers experience few advance consequences (Baum-Baicker, 1985). The frequency of drinking that is associated with frequent involvement in social leisure and outdoor leisure among adults in the general population may be a case in point. Abusive drinking, however, remains a significant problem in our society. In the event that we as leisure service professionals want to provide a leisure intervention to deter drinking, we must make sure that we are truly part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
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