5 ways to bring meaning to your free time

How to boost your quality of life by pursuing leisure with purpose.

It's easy to spend your spare time lounging on the sofa, watching TV or wandering through the mall. But are you really enjoying yourself or just killing time?

"We often make poor choices about how we spend our leisure time, even though we value it," said Yoshitaka Iwasaki, a professor in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Extension who studies the importance of fully engaging with life through concepts like leisure.

He said people can have a richer life by making a conscious effort to ensure that precious free time is also quality time.

"It's easy for people to do something that provides meaningless pleasure, but your choice is going to influence whether or not you have a purposeful life. Leisure time lets us do anything we want, and if we acknowledge its role in helping find meaning in life, we're going to make wiser decisions about how we spend free time," said Iwasaki.

In a recently published study, Iwasaki explores the idea of what he calls "meaning-making"-the process of someone discovering how leisure activities help them add purpose and make sense of their lives. His findings identify five interconnected themes for how life is brightened by well-spent, meaningful leisure time:

1. The joyful life

"A joyful life is about reducing negative emotions and increasing positive emotions. Meaningful leisure does that for us as long as it is freely chosen, intrinsically motivated and non-obligatory. Those three things allow us to increase positive emotions like fun, and reduce negative emotions like anxiety and depression," Iwasaki said.

Regardless of whether your free time is based in physical, cultural, spiritual or social fulfilment, it's always important to stop and savour it. "Be mindful of the small pleasures happening in our world, like a beautiful sunset or a precious moment having coffee with friends."

2. The connected life

Quality leisure time should help people feel connected spiritually, culturally and through nature. "It's important for any individual to see that they are part of the whole world."

It can be as simple as spending time with family or friends to connect socially, or heading outdoors.

In working with people with disabilities at a camp, Iwasaki found that nature served as a strong connector for them. "People forgot about their stigmas. If you are in an outdoor environment, you feel part of nature and this helps mitigate a sense of isolation, because you are able to connect with a greater environment."

3. The discovered life

"This is about discovering who you are," said Iwasaki. Creative leisure-doing things like arts and crafts-boosts self-esteem and a sense of identity.

In working with youth at risk, for instance, Iwasaki noticed that as they make their own videos or artwork, or take on leadership activities through peer mentorship, they are able to discover their talents, express their emotions or contribute to the community. "Those opportunities strengthen their sense of uniqueness and competencies.

"If you feel good about yourself, you can discover the meaning of life."

4. The composed life

Free time allows people to feel less restricted and obliged, which means they are able to control their leisure activities.

"Naturally, people want to control their destiny. You gain a sense of autonomy, and that relates to better mental health. People feel composed because they get to choose their leisure activity; they feel a sense of control."

5. The empowered life

This idea revolves around transformation, Iwasaki said. "Leading an empowered life is about wanting personal change, about better understanding who you are and who you would like to become. Leisure provides the opportunity for people to grow."

That means trying something new and pushing your boundaries, so you feel "emancipated and strengthened," Iwasaki said. "When you test your skill levels by challenging yourself, you get an optimal level of experience-and that leads to transformation."