Innovator Spotlight: Shintaro Kono

Shintaro’s research highlights the value of positive leisure experiences.

Shintaro Kono

Shintaro Kono, an assistant professor with the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, explains how his online leisure education program is encouraging students to foster quality leisure activities and how they can consider its impacts to their well-being and mental health.

In this week’s spotlight, Shintaro shares how unstructured time and leading with purpose can create innovative solutions and why engaging in leisure, barring guilt, can help us live a more balanced life.

How do you describe your work to people who don’t work in your field?

My work involves teaching and research about leisure and well-being. Specifically, how leisure helps us achieve greater well-being. I use this knowledge to enhance people’s leisure experiences so that their well-being is elevated.

Leisure is about what people do (and don’t do) during their free time and how they feel during their experiences. I study what drives people to certain leisure experiences, what stops them from pursuing certain leisure experiences (especially the ones they prefer), and what benefits they receive from their leisure experiences. One of the major benefits of many leisure activities is well-being, which is about how satisfied we are with our lives and how positive we feel. Recently, we have expanded our idea of well-being by looking at things like how meaningful and purposeful we feel our lives are.

What’s one big problem you want to solve through your work?

I want to make our society more “leisure-friendly.” How many times this week have you felt “guilty” about participating in a leisure activity you enjoy? I have been a leisure scholar for over 15 years, and at times, I still feel that way, too!

The pressure to be productive is constant. And, we often teach this work ethic – knowingly or not – to our children and students. We do not really educate ourselves about the general value of leisure in life. Through my work, I envision a world where people can learn about and value leisure, and are fully prepared to live a balanced life without feeling guilty.

What does the word “innovation” mean to you?

To me, innovation means that little stretch based on all the inputs. It may not necessarily change everything in a field, but this distinctive contribution makes us think and practice differently. Additionally, I don’t think innovation is an outcome of solo acts. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, so to speak. I certainly learned a great deal from my mentors and colleagues, who all helped with my research and teaching in some way.

I don’t perceive myself to be an innovative person per se. But, the positive reactions from people who have learned about my research and teaching make me think, at times, that I might be doing something that can help change the way people think, practice and live.

What’s been your biggest a-ha moment — in life or work — so far?

When I return to the U of A after working a few years in the United States. I was figuring out what research direction I wanted to focus on and had much more funding opportunities in Canada. I had studied leisure and well-being for a while at that point, and was hoping I could mobilize this knowledge to do impactful work.

I also started to teach (and still do!) my favorite course, RLS 100 Life, Leisure, and the Pursuit of Happiness. I absolutely love teaching this course, but I wondered if there were any other ways to engage with students in learning about leisure and well-being, beyond the course setting. Then, one day, I came up with the idea to develop an online leisure education program for U of A students focused on helping them to foster quality leisure experiences, greater well-being and better mental health. It is my intention that the program will eventually be available to everyone around the world. The program will be completely free and on a rolling-basis. My research will examine its effects through experimental trials. Coming up with this idea helped align my interests with my research and teaching.

The initial results based on our trials of online leisure education with U of A students just came in. They show that students are having more positive leisure experiences, greater well-being and improved mental health.

How do you or your team come up with your best ideas?

I think that unoccupied time and mindspace is very important to my thinking (and innovation). As a leisure scholar, I love to have some spaces and gaps in my calendar, in which I don’t have to be anywhere (virtually or in-person) and when I don’t have to be doing anything specific. I can let thoughts come to me. I find that I do some of my best work during those unstructured times!

What’s your favourite thing about working at the U of A?

Its extensive research support systems and diverse groups of scholars. My research about online leisure education has been supported by grant writing support (which resulted in a SSHRC Insight Development Grant!), professional video production on campus, among other things. The Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation houses researchers who work on neuroscience and physiology to those who are critical scholars of movement and dance. I thoroughly enjoy the academic diversity in the Faculty and at the U of A.

How does your work, your contributions to innovation help you lead with purpose?

I suppose I try to work with a purpose, which helps my innovations. It’s great to be a leisure scholar because what I learn and think in my work directly helps with my own leisure life – or at least I would like to think so. That said, to me, innovative work and purpose go together. My former Dean told me in my first year at the U of A, “Shin, don’t change research money. Focus on finding good research ideas. Then, money will follow you.” I don’t know if I have found such good ideas, but I have research ideas and projects that genuinely excite me and allow me to feel that I contribute to gradual social changes.

Do you have a role model at the U of A? How have they influenced you?

There have been many role models for me at the U of A, especially since completing my Ph.D. in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation in 2017. I already mentioned my former Dean Nick Holt, who definitely impacted my early career years here. But, I must mention my Ph.D. supervisor, Professor Emeritus Gordon Walker. I feel that I have always been this student with a lot of ideas. I read one paper and I have 10 different research ideas. But, Gordon really taught me the importance of focus and discipline as a scholar. Even with an innovative idea, if you cannot follow through with it, it would amount to nothing. He taught me about careful data collection, analyses, writing, etc. He would always say, “Shin, let’s get this done right.” I try to apply that to my everyday research, teaching and service.

What’s next for you? Do you have any new projects on the horizon?

I just submitted a SSHRC Insight Grant to further expand our online leisure education program by proposing to work with other stakeholders who impact leisure, mental health and well-being of students. Through past studies, it became clear that it is not only students who are responsible for their leisure, mental health and well-being. Many socio-environmental factors – university courses, academic schedule, interaction with instructors and staff members, peer support, family support, and campus recreation and mental health resources – affect their lives. Thus, in this new grant, I am proposing to conduct focus groups with other stakeholders (e.g., instructors and staff, administrators and students’ parents) to identify online resources they need to better support students’ leisure, mental health and well-being. That way, the environment that students are part of will become more conducive to these experiences.

In the long-term, I would like to expand this project further to create similar programs for different universities across the nation and the world. Mental health issues among students are, unfortunately, prevalent across the globe, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. Leisure education can be part of the solution. I would also like to apply the idea to different demographic groups in our society who can benefit from such online leisure education resources. Perhaps, people with disabilities who experience mobility issues might benefit or people living in rural areas where leisure educators may not be nearby. The possibilities seem infinite!

Shintaro Kono

About Shintaro

Shintaro Kono is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation. He is Japanese. He loves playing badminton, playing some online games, golfing, cooking and having nature walks with his wife, Jingjing. He teaches courses about leisure and well-being including RLS 100 Life, Leisure, and the Pursuit of Happiness, which is open to all U of A students.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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