You're busy – we get it. But as research indicates that doing activities just for fun can stave off depression, clarify your thinking and even rewire your brain, may we suggest you reconsider those things you've written off as trivial pursuits?
Remember that feeling of peddling furiously through the park? What about the full-body exhilaration of watching that ball you just threw swoosh through a net? Perhaps you spent hours cutting up magazines, learning everything you could about dinosaurs or mimicking moves you learnt from Top of the Pops.
They were the halcyon days of hobby-filled childhood; a time before exams, work and caring responsibilities clutched you in their grip, when pure absorption in a stream of activities was as much a part of your time as email management and supermarket shops are now.
With the exception of that candle-making kit you bought during lockdown one that’s been gathering dust ever since, we’ll hazard a guess that acquiring a hobby has fallen further down your to do list than renewing your rail season ticket of late.
Why are we taking on fewer hobbies?
How can we be so sure? Well, if you didn’t find yourself clocking up more hours – the average desk staffer grafting from their kitchen table logged an extra two a day over the pandemic – then you probably found your creative juices running a little dry; a handful of studies on the subject have now shown that thinking about the threat of Covid had a negative impact on creative thinking and problem-solving.
But while the push and pull of modern life directs you away from committing to anything that’s not for career glory, financial gain, caring for others or optimising your health, know this: for your happiness, your wellbeing, the strength of your relationships and, yes, even your professional success, you should make time to do something you enjoy, just because.
So, why did doing something you love entirely for its own sake become such a foreign concept ?And how, among your cocktail of responsibilities, can you make the time for one?
What actually is a hobby?
The dictionary definition of a hobby – ‘an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure’ – might sound like it could be twisted to fit ‘going to the pub’ or ‘deeply investigating the contents of the latest & Other Stories drop.' But, largely, these pastimes are understood to require some sort of doing, be it making, building, collecting or learning a new skill; the place at which an interest (say, travel) intersects with an action (actually going somewhere and photographing and journalling your adventures). As to their origins?
Hobbies are a by-product of post-industrial revolution life, cooked up at a time when people moved from villages to cities and ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ time – traditionally hazily defined – became distinct entities.
Over time the phrase began to refer to activities like stamp collecting, woodwork and knitting – but their prominence has faded. Per a 2019 survey from the British Heart Foundation, the average British hobby has a shelf life of 16 months, with work and family life reported to be the main blockers which curtail an on-going pursuit. The latter, according to Clinical Psychologist Dr Emma Svanberg (@mumologist), presents a barrier to women in particular.
Why do we find it hard to take time for the things we love?
‘Data shows that caring responsibilities and demands have increased more so for women than men in the pandemic era,’ she explains. ‘So it follows that activities done just for your own pleasure can fall by the wayside.’
Living in a society which prizes professional accomplishment – as well as under a little system called capitalism – plays a role, too; not to mention the influence of internet culture, in which everything from work wins to property-purchasing are used as fodder for a curated, grid-based projection of your life. It all adds up to less time for doing something you find satisfying just because.
This resonates for Amy Merrywest. The 38-year-old from Kent, who teaches PR to small businesses (pitchandshout.co.uk), picked up a wakeboarding habit while working in Greece in her early twenties. 'I fell hard for the adrenaline hit that came from riding the waves at speed,' she recalls, fondly.
When work brought her back to UK shores (or, more specifically, a busy city-centre office) she'd spend a week each year at a wakeboarding camp. But come her early thirties, the habit…slipped. ‘I set up my own business and suddenly the line between work time and my time was blurred,' she explains. 'Once I began working for myself, every minute not spent growing my business felt like a waste.'
While making room for hobbies might not come easy, we heartily recommend you give it your best shot – and not just for the sake of sounding a little less like a one-dimensional workaholic at dinner parties.
Research shows pursuing pastimes can support your health. In 2010, a team of academics from universities in Kansas, Pittsburgh and Texas discovered that hobbies and leisure pursuits were associated with myriad markers of better physical health, including lower blood pressure, body mass index and stress hormones. According to one study, published in March 2020, hobbies are linked with decreased symptoms of depression and 30% lower odds of experiencing depression.
Why are hobbies good for you?
This makes sense when you consider that, whether you’re rendering your cheese plants in charcoal or butchering a Bob Dylan classic while strumming away on your six-string, that’s tantamount to giving your brain a break from the target-driven, borderline-tyrannical boss it’s operating under the majority of the time.
‘In mindfulness, we talk about peoples’ brains being mostly in “doing mode”,’ explains Dr Sula Windgassen, a health psychologist working for the NHS (@the_health_psychologist_). ‘It’s the one that gets you places, alerts you to threats and provides reinforcement because when you complete a task or arrive at a destination, you might get that dopamine hit.’ This makes it easy to get trapped here, most of the time.
‘But there’s another state of existence, “being mode”, where you’re absorbed in the experience rather than thinking about the experience,’ she adds. ‘Being engrossed in a hobby brings you into this state. And, ultimately, you need a balance of both.’
While the short-term benefits of this mindset gear shift might show up as a fresh perspective on a seemingly unsolvable problem, in the long run you can legitimately upgrade your brain’s hardware.
It’s down to a concept called neuroplasticity: that’s the theory developed over the past 100 years that you have the power – with the choices you make and the habits you embed – to change your brain on a structural level.
And the benefits don’t stop when you go back to your laptop, have a difficult conversation at work or need to prepare three different dinners for a table of picky eaters.
'When you start playing a new sport or developing a new skill, you create new neural pathways between different areas of your brain and your memory,’ explains Dr Windgassen. ‘The brain is a big network and when you take on new activities, you’re building new connections, new points of reference to help you integrate older pieces of knowledge and understanding.'
Not only can this help you respond differently to challenges, it can even help your brain become limber enough to kick unhelpful habits – and establish new, more serving, ones.
It's important to pin your self-worth to things other than work
Consider society’s onus on proving yourself, getting ahead and defining your identity around your career or your role as a partner and it’s understandable that many pin the lion’s share of their self-worth to something as shaky as work performance or romantic love.
‘But if there are lots of dimensions to your worth, including hobbies, it means that if you get made redundant, for example, you’re more able to see that your employment status doesn’t negate all the other good things about you,’ says Dr Windgassen.
Branching your self-worth out beyond narrow, culturally dictated parameters has been shown to be helpful in research, too.
One 2017 study showed that women who valued pursuing their own interests and ideals were more inoculated against self-objectification – viewing yourself as an object to be used and evaluated according to your appearance – than those who did not. You don't have it be good at it either; in fact, choosing one you're comically bad at – at least in the beginning – can be a confidence win.
Learning to fail is important
Because – and you’ll have heard this one before, but it bears repeating – learning to fail is good for you, and a hobby is the ideal low-stakes environment in which to test the waters. ‘Failing at something you’re doing for fun can show you that failure isn’t something to be feared,' adds Dr Windgassen.
'It’s a great way to challenge perfectionist instincts, which - when left unchecked - can lead to procrastination, missed deadlines and, ironically, failure to perform to the expected standards or in the necessary timeframe required of you.’
Participation outside of a high-stakes environment also means you’re more likely to do things with a playful attitude – something research indicates is seriously good for you. One study from the University of Illinois discovered that playful adults – defined as those who were ‘spontaneous’, ‘energetic’ and who ‘clowned around’ – reported lower levels of perceived stress than less playful participants.
Play is a crucial human need
In a TED talk on the subject, psychiatrist and play research pioneer (#CVgoals) Dr Stuart Brown, explains that play – which he defines as something that gives pleasure, takes you out of a sense of time and place, and in which the experience of doing it is more important than the outcome – is a human need as fundamental as sleep.
It follows then that, over time, an absence of your preferred play, whether that’s reading a novel or batting a shuttlecock, can lead to ‘diminished optimism,’ a ‘"stuck-in-the-rut” feeling’ and being more likely to use temporary, escapist fixes, such as booze or excessive exercise, as detailed in a 2014 paper from Dr Brown.
To be clear, this isn’t a call to pile yet another chore onto a to-do list in danger of becoming longer than your pre-April hair. Instead, it’s about being intentional with the time you do have. In an age of bleeding work hours, incessant notifications and a digital ecosystem wired around stealing your attention (per 2018 data, adult UK smartphone users averaged two hours, 34 minutes on their devices, daily) taking control of the 1,440 minutes you have in a day is key.
And having something to shut your laptop down for at 6pm could be just what you need to put a boundary between work time and your time.
Can a hobby make you better at your job?
In some cases, dedicating time to hobbies can actually make you better at your job – something WH staffer Mini Smith, 25, discovered over the pandemic. In January, she switched her 9am-5pm working day to one that runs 10am-6pm to give her time to dedicate to her hobbies – creative writing, learning German and baking showstopper cakes – before work. It has – manager verified – only made her more efficient.
‘If I’ve been doing something creative in the morning, my brain is already quite switched on before the day begins, which makes me instantly more productive,’ she shares. Sometimes, of course, deadlines get in the way. ‘But even if I don’t get to practice a hobby in the morning, I try to get more done in the afternoon so I can get to work on a cake that evening.’
Amy, meanwhile, has pledged to stop pushing a hobby to the bottom of her list. 'I always tell myself that when I reach this or that target, I'll have earned the opportunity to take a break to do a sport I love,' she says. 'But the past 18 months have shown it's impossible to predict what's going to happen in the future, and woken me up to the idea that, sometimes, doing what's good for me as a person, might also be what's best for the business.'
So, this back-to-school season, why not lean into something that can shape your identity, improve your health and make you grin like a gap-toothed six-year-old riding a bike with tassels streaming from the handles.
It's more than okay to do something self-indulgent, strangely satisfying or that you simply find really, really fun. Just ask the kids.
How to find a hobby
1. What did you love doing as a kid?
Your childhood interest are a key marker of your true passions, according to a 2012 report published by LinkedIn. Cast your mind back. Were you obsessed with dolphins? Perhaps volunteering at your local nature reserve might work.
Did you spend hours trying to impersonate Celine Dion? Sign up to your nearest choir. Maybe you were the reigning double Dutch skipping champion? Obstacle course fitness classes could be for you.
2. What do you enjoy doing now?
Sounds obvious, but what you gravitate towards now could easily fuel a hobby. Love to cook elaborate Japanese meals? Turn this interest into a hobby by stocking up on relevant cookbooks, signing up to a sushi-making class and discovering online shops selling the best ingredients. Find something soothing in yoga? Commit to taking a class a week, read some yogic texts (like The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali) and find a retreat to book onto.
3. Take a personality assessment
Not to get all business about it, but if you’re struggling to connect with what makes you tick outside of your responsibilities, taking a personality test might be a shout.
It’s a blunt tool, but the The Myers–Briggs Type Indicator can give you some clues. Outgoing and altruistic types, for example, might fit fundraising for a charity, while introverted, logical types might prefer navigating long, solo hikes.
4. Trial and error it
As with anything in life, you might need to try a few different hobbies to find the one that chimes with you. Take a taster life drawing class with zero expectations of carrying on if you don’t enjoy it; ask to borrow a friend’s bike to see if doing weekend cycles is your jam or ask to take a trial session for your work’s netball team.
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