We all know people who pursue their passions single-mindedly, whether they’re mad for mahjong or devoted to dance. And those pastimes are much more than just pleasant diversions. Research shows that finding a hobby — an activity outside of your regular occupation that’s done primarily for pleasure — can also have significant health benefits.
By choosing to learn and develop an unfamiliar skill, hobbyists encourage their brains to form new neural connections. They’re also managing stress, improving mood, and exerting autonomy, which is a key component in psychological health.
“The play mind is different from the work mind,” explains Joe Robinson, a work–life trainer and the author of Don’t Miss Your Life. “It’s not about results but the experience for its own sake. What we get out of play is no less than who we really are.”
Researchers have found that hobbies also offer a rare opportunity to experience flow, that feeling of being so absorbed in an activity that you lose track of time.
“Flow can come from purely physical activities, like when you are skiing down a slope and every move is what you were hoping to do and the results are clear,” says Claremont Graduate University psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. “We have hundreds of different ways of trying to be outstanding. It could be physical, artistic, scientific.” (For more on flow, read Go With the Flow.)
Hobbies are not about pleasing others, nor are they really about self-improvement; they’re simply a source of joy. They give us space to view ourselves differently — to be spontaneous, take a risk, deepen our resilience, and maybe even find a new sense of purpose.
Ready to find a hobby that’s right for you? Consider these tips.
Cast a Wide Net
Start by listing all the activities that pique your interest. If you’re afraid of looking foolish or trying a physically risky activity, don’t shy away from it. Add it to the list anyway.
Mendal Hyde, a 48-year-old mother of two in Thousand Oaks, Calif., received a Valentine’s Day gift of synchronized-swimming lessons. She’d always wanted to try it but feared holding her breath underwater would aggravate her mild asthma. After each class, though, she felt stronger and more confident, and her fear gradually dissipated. Eventually, she joined a troupe and even started teaching a synchronized-swimming class to seniors.
“If you’re being somewhat challenged, the adrenaline prompts your brain to pay attention,” says Minneapolis-based executive coach Kate Larsen. “The sweet spot of flow is where you’re stretched, but not beyond your capabilities.”
Think about what you love most: exploring the outdoors, creating arts and crafts, playing sports, studying science, or serving others. If it relates to your day job, that’s OK but not necessary. Are there skills you’d like to learn, talents you want to develop, or experiences you crave? Write it all down.
Start by Dabbling
Think of your hobby quest as a brainstorming session. Talk to friends, search your community for opportunities, and try out a new activity from your list. Pay attention to how you feel during the experience. Csikszentmihalyi advises trying at least three or four sessions to get over that beginner’s hurdle.
Turning 40 prompted Brad Rourke, a foundation executive in Rockville, Md., to take stock of his life and revive his long-held interest in rock music. “As I reflected, I realized that what had been stopping me was fear of looking bad while I learned, and that the lessons I had taken as a kid were boring,” he recalls. “And then I had this epiphany — I was old enough not to care how I looked, and old enough to approach the learning in a way that suited me.”
He bought a guitar and a lesson book and taught himself three chords, just enough to manage a few simple songs. A musician friend invited him to jam together, and before long, they’d formed a garage band. Rourke even started writing music for the group.
“This experience gave me the pattern for what I have now done for over a decade. I’m a hobby collector,” he explains. “Every couple of years I add a new hobby into my life. Some of them I get tired of and let go. My life shifts and the amount of time and energy I have for things shifts.”
Make the Time
The most common objection to taking up a hobby is the time commitment. Yet many of us cede our unscheduled moments to mindless distractions, like binge-watching TV or scrolling through our social-media feeds. Consider reclaiming those hours for yourself by pursuing an activity that would actually make you feel engaged, creative, and alive.
Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done, encourages hobbyists to consider their free time for an entire week, rather than day to day. “It’s the rare person who cannot find two hours in the course of 168 hours for something enjoyable,” she says.
It’s generally easier to stay committed to something on a consistent schedule, like hockey practice on Thursday evenings or supper club on the first Friday of each month. A group of people counting on your participation can hold you accountable.
Of course, for the truly time-crunched, making space in life for a new activity may require some sacrifice. Just know that any amount of time you can set aside is better than nothing. For some people, it might be more realistic to adopt a solo hobby — running or knitting, for example — that can easily fit around other commitments.
Be Open to Evolving
As you delve deeper into a new hobby, consider whether it’s likely to align with your long-term plans. Take note of your natural ability, how you’re progressing, and whether the learning process is bringing you joy.
“You have to deal with the reality of what works for you,” Vanderkam says. “You won’t stick with something you don’t like.”
Sometimes, we simply aren’t able to achieve the skill level needed to make a hobby enjoyable. Or perhaps your stage of life won’t accommodate the time commitment needed to, say, join a roller-derby league or prepare Spot for the dog-show circuit. Keep that activity on your list for the future, when you may have fewer obligations.
You may need to return to step one with a new activity, even as you deepen your pursuit of an earlier one. The key is to stay curious and open-minded. You’ll know when you’ve found the right fit, as Shilpa Jindia did with jazz-dance lessons.
“There have been moments when I’ve danced when everything comes together — my body, the music, the movements — into one fluid motion, and my mind lets go. It’s a feeling of tranquility and vitality at the same time,” says Jindia, 33, a Washington, D.C., writer and researcher. “The studio has become my sanctuary. I love nothing more than arriving Friday night and shaking off the week. Hands down, I’d rather be there than at happy hour.”
This originally appeared as “Get a Hobby” in the March 2019 print issue of Experience Life.