When you hear the word “hobby”, what do you think of? You may conjure images of a post-retirement activity or your childhood art projects. Maybe you associate it with an idle waste of time. In reality, a hobby is any leisure activity that you voluntarily do when you are free from responsibilities. A wide range of activities fall into this category – creative pursuits, athletics, practicing a skill. It can truly be anything you enjoy that brings you a sense of meaning.
Of course, most of us do something we love at least once in a while. But amidst the constant busyness of our modern lives, it’s common to feel a twinge of guilt when setting work aside to engage in leisure. Or, responsibilities have slowly taken over the time we used to spend on hobbies, and now we’re not even sure what we’re interested in. Even so, we’re doing our mental health a favor when we devote more time and attention to hobbies, no matter how difficult it can be.
Relieve stress, improve mood
Spending just two hours per week engaging in creative leisure activities is shown to significantly boost overall mental well-being, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of mental illness. One major benefit of hobbies is the ability to cope with stress and negative emotions. Hobbies act as restorers, filling up mental reserves after an exhausting day. Practicing these activities allows your mind to rest from daily pressures, and this relaxation can induce positive emotions and a sense of calm.
Research has also shown that people with hobbies experience lower levels of depression and more positive mental states. Even during the enjoyable activity itself, people demonstrate reduced stress, reduced heart rate, and improved mood.
Why do hobbies boost our mood and release stress? For one, they provide us with a sense of autonomy and self-efficacy. When we accomplish a goal or progress toward mastery, we create meaning and purpose for our life. Hobbies also add depth to our identity. Work or relationship stress may be less damaging to our self-esteem if other pieces of our identity are found in creative or athletic undertakings.
Additionally, practicing hobbies facilitates a flow state – the feeling we get when we’re “in the zone.” When we remove distractions and immerse ourselves mindfully in an activity, we enhance our psychological well-being.
These mental health benefits aren’t limited to solo endeavors. Leisure activities in community aid in mental illness recovery and foster greater social connectivity. One study found that Australian adults who participated in team sports experienced lower levels of depression and anxiety than those who did not regularly participate.
Spending more time doing things you love seems straightforward…who wouldn’t want to do that? However, it’s perfectly normal to struggle with starting and maintaining a hobby practice. Sometimes our mindset can get in the way – here are two thoughts you might have experienced regarding your hobbies and how to deal with them:
1. I have to be perfect, or else it’s pointless.
You might relate to the feeling: attending diligently to every detail, striving to perform at the best of your ability, ensuring you’re making the “right” decision. When performance on tasks becomes equated with self-worth, pressure to succeed leaves you feeling inadequate after every action you take. For this reason, studies have shown that perfectionism is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety.
Perfectionistic habits can limit you in your leisure activities, too. You don’t put pen to paper because if your writing isn’t published-author quality, why put in the effort? You don’t try that painting technique you saw online because if you can’t do it perfectly at first, what’s the point? When every action feels damaging to your self-worth, enjoyment is stripped away. Creative potential goes unrealized.
Thankfully, hobbies are a great first step to stop this negative spiral. Challenge yourself to dive headfirst into an activity you know you enjoy, even if you feel resistance at first. Focus on improvement, rather than achieving a certain standard. Shifting your goal from proving self-worth to learning has been shown to alleviate depression. When you repeatedly practice the activity and expose yourself to imperfection, you will see that the consequences of messing up aren’t so bad. You may begin to discover the meaning that is found in growing, improving, and yes, imperfection. Releasing the pressure and expectations for yourself can help you achieve the previously unimaginable.
For more tips on tackling perfectionism, check out this article.
2. I’m too busy!
“I used to love reading, but I don’t have time anymore…” You’ve probably heard – or said – something like this before. UCLA students, staff, and faculty are busy. But this notion that we’re too busy to pour energy into hobbies may be more of a mindset than a reality. Americans don’t work more hours than they have in the past several decades. The busy feeling probably has more to do with our increasingly connected society – an infinite to-do list items are readily available. Productivity has also become a status symbol; if we’re not maximizing our time to be the most productive we possibly can, we’re not doing enough. As a result, when we consider slowing down to read an entertaining book or create a watercolor painting, we label this as “unproductive,” and it’s relegated to a lower position on our priority list.
It’s hard to shake the goal of productivity. So, it might help to know that leisure time helps you perform better at work. In one study, employees who engaged in hobbies experienced more job creativity and recovery from demanding work, two markers of a healthy mind.
Work, emails, and social media seem to creep in and consume every available hour. Physically scheduling hobbies into your calendar can help – you end up working smarter and trimming screen time to fit that meaningful activity in, so you probably will accomplish the same amount of work as you would otherwise. Trust that active leisure is worth making time for – the mental revitalization it brings will help you excel in other areas of life that you care about.
Consider investigating UCLA Recreation’s offerings, including martial arts, yoga, outdoor adventures and intramural sports. Find a new piece of music and practice it on one of the public pianos on campus. Attend a Mindful Music concert or learn more about mindfulness by attending a free drop-in meditation. Head over to our previous blogs to learn more about knitting and journaling.
You can also check out this list of 101 hobbies to get you thinking. The ideas are endless! The most important thing is to find a good fit for your interests and abilities, and be true to what makes you happy.
Of course, simply choosing an activity to spend more time on is not the ultimate cure to serious mental illness. Hobbies are certainly not equivalent to therapy or medication. But when we consider the true meaning of mental health, we don’t just mean diminished symptoms – we’re talking about human flourishing. A life of flourishing includes creativity, life satisfaction, and eudaimonia. Practicing meaningful hobbies is essential, in concert with other self-care practices, to experiencing holistic mental well-being.
Emily Short is a 4th year UCLA undergraduate majoring in Psychology and Economics. In addition to blogging for the MindWell Pod, she is a project coordinator for a research study in the Dieting, Stress, and Health Lab. You can also find her drinking tea, reading, and practicing yoga.