Want to Be Happier, Healthier, and Age Well? Try Picking Up A Hobby
When you’re asked what you do for fun, do you tend to draw a blank? If so, then you're not alone. Most adults can readily answer what they do for work, but struggle to respond to questions about hobbies and what they do for enjoyment.
Having a hobby is linked with greater happiness and lower rates of depression.1,2 Plus, participating in activities you enjoy can boost your overall wellbeing and contribute to healthy aging.1,3,4 Yet as people age, it's common for their hobbies to fall by the wayside. If your life lacks a hobby, then try these tips to fill your time with more enjoyable activities.
What Is A Hobby?
The definition of a hobby is "an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure or relaxation." This creates an endless array of options: biking, singing, dancing, drawing, collecting coins, playing an instrument, gardening, knitting, birding, reading, baking, scrap booking, and the list could go on. Regardless of the type of hobby, there is one thing they all have in common: enjoyment. A hobby is something you do for pleasure.
Your Brain on Hobbies
Hobbies affect the reward system in the brain. When you take part in an enjoyable activity, dopamine and other chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) that enable you to feel pleasure are released in the brain. This process is what makes you want to engage in the activity again.5
Don't be discouraged if you struggle with motivation when starting a new hobby – or dusting off an old one. Doing the activity for just a few minutes each day can help build momentum. Repeatedly engaging in an enjoyable activity creates an association of pleasure. This engages your brain's reward system and gives you the motivation to do it again.5
Hobbies: For Kids and Adults of All Ages
Parents and caregivers enroll children in learning programs and other activities for a host of reasons: to gain new skills, be physically active or mentally challenged, make friends, or find something they love to do. As adults, we focus on how these activities help a young person grow and develop, but we often fall short in applying this same reasoning to our own lives.
Even as an adult, your brain is constantly changing. Referred to as neuroplasticity, the brain creates new neural pathways and alters existing ones to adapt to new experiences, learn information, and create memories.6,7
When neural pathways form between different areas of the brain, older pieces of knowledge are integrated in new ways.6,7 This can tap into creativity, break you out of a rut, and lead to new ideas about old problems – supporting the notion that having a hobby can improve your performance at work. Plus, the brain likes novelty. Learning a new hobby is a great way to give your brain the exercise it needs to stay healthy.
Hobbies Ward off Depression and Manage Stress
Having a physically active hobby that gets your heartrate up benefits your body and mental health. But a hobby doesn't have to be physical to be beneficial.8 Research shows that merely participating in an enjoyable leisure activity can help with depression.9-12 A 2020 report determined that hobbies are linked with decreased symptoms of depression and a 30-percent lower risk for developing depression.9
Having a hobby can also help you deal with stress. Cumulative daily stressors (losing your car keys, stuck in traffic, a broken appliance) can have a stronger impact on wellbeing than major life events or chronic stressors.10
In psychology, the term "affective complexity" (AC) is a marker of psychological wellbeing. Stressful experiences reduce AC, while positive events increase it. Study results show that participating in a hobby (a positive event) can restore AC by helping a person cope with and recover from daily stressors.10,11
Each day is a balancing act. A workday that is marred by a faulty printer or a missed deadline will lower your AC and increase your need for a positive event to restore your wellbeing for the day.
Hobbies Contribute to Healthy Aging
A growing body of evidence indicates having a hobby is a key component of healthy aging. The National Institute on Aging confirms that older individuals who participate in hobbies and other leisure activities are less likely to develop certain diseases, have a longer lifespan, are happier, and are less depressed.12
A study from Japan determined that having a hobby is integral to wellbeing in the elderly. The study consisted of 658 individuals age 65 or older living in a community setting. The results show that participants without hobbies had significantly higher scores for depression, and significantly lower scores for frequency of laughter and quality of life.3
In addition, participants rated their independence, versus needing help, in seven activities of daily living (ADL): walking, navigating stairs, eating, dressing, using the toilet, bathing, and grooming. Even after adjusting for the effects of age, elderly individuals without a hobby had markedly lower scores on each ADL item than those with a hobby.3
Depression is common in older adults and associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. The results of another study indicate that leisure activity helps reduce depressive symptoms in inactive older adults with mild cognitive complaints. In addition, the study found that the amount of time spent on leisure activities might be more important than the specific type of activity in reducing depression.13
How to Find A Hobby
Assimilating a hobby into a busy schedule is complicated. It's more about being intentional with the time you have, instead of adding to your to-do list. Even if you do something you enjoy for moments at a time, you'll reap some benefits. Plus, if you consider that a hobby is good for you personally and professionally, then it can help you make time for it.
1. What Did You Like When You Were a Kid?
Think back. What did you like doing when you were young? This can help identify your passions. Was your room plastered with posters of animals? Seek out a local rescue shelter and volunteer to walk dogs. Maybe you loved doodling or playing in gym, try an art class or join a kickball team.
2. What Do You Like Now?
This might seem obvious, but it's relevant. Do you like baking? There's a cooking club just waiting for you. Love candles? Learn to make your own. If you watch every seafaring movie out there, then perhaps a sailing course is in your future.
3. Enlist Social Support
Doing fun things with others is often the key to success. Perhaps you'd love to join a soccer league. Or maybe a bird-watching club is more to your liking. An activity that provides social support can supply a double dose of positive effects.
4. It's About the Process, Not the End Product
Remember to take it easy on yourself. Your goal is to try something new, increase enjoyment, or relax – not master an activity or win a contest. So, don't beat yourself up if the plate you molded from a piece of clay wobbles or your softball team doesn't take home the trophy. Not being good at something or failing is actually a way of learning. Plus, when you're enjoying yourself, "failure" isn't so bad.
Simply doing an activity you enjoy can increase wellness, equip you to better cope with the stressors of living, and set you up for healthy aging. So, what will it be? Regardless of the activity, go enjoy yourself!
- Pressman S, Matthews K, Cohen S, et al. Association of enjoyable leisure activities with psychological and physical well-being. Psychosom Med 2009 Sep;71(7):725-732.
- Takeda F, Noguchi H, Monma T, Tamiya N. How possibly do leisure and social activities impact mental health of middle-aged adults in Japan?: an evidence from a national longitudinal survey. PLoS One 2015;10(10):e0139777.
- Hirosaki M, Ishimoto Y, Kasahara Y, et al. Community-dwelling elderly Japanese people with hobbies are healthier than those lacking hobbies. J Am Geriatr Soc 2009;57(6):1132-1133.
- Zawadzki M, Smyth J, Costigan H. Real-time associations between engaging in leisure and daily health and well-being. Ann Behav Med. 2015;49(4):605-615.
- Cooper S, Robison A, Mazei-Robison M. Reward circuitry in addiction. Neurotherapeutics 2017;14(3):687-697.
- Gulyaeva N. Molecular mechanisms of neuroplasticity: an expanding universe. Biochemistry (Mosc) 2017;82(3):237-242.
- Mora F, Segovia G, del Arco A. Aging, plasticity and environmental enrichment: structural changes and neurotransmitter dynamics in several areas of the brain. Brain Res Rev 2007;55(1):78-88.
- Fancourt D, Aughterson H, Finn S, et al. How leisure activities affect health: a narrative review and multi-level theoretical framework of mechanisms of action. Lancet Psychiatry. 2021;8(4):329-339.
- Fancourt D, Opher S, de Oliveira C. Fixed-effects analyses of time-varying associations between hobbies and depression in a longitudinal cohort study: support for social prescribing? Psychother Psychosom 2020;89(2):111-113.
- Qian X, Yarnal C, Almeida D. Does leisure time moderate or mediate the effect of daily stress on positive affect? An examination using eight-day diary data. J Leis Res 2014;46(1):106-124.
- Qian X, Yarnal C, Almeida D. Using the dynamic model of affect (DMA) to examine leisure time as a stress coping resource: Taking into account stress severity and gender difference. J Leis Res 2014;46(4):483-505.
- National Institute of Aging. Participating in activity you enjoy. www.nia.nih.gov/health/participating-activities-you-enjoy. [Accessed Sept. 9, 2021]
- Poelke G, Ventura M, Byers A, et al. Leisure activities and depressive symptoms in older adults with cognitive complaints. Int Psychogeriatr 2016 Jan;28(1):63-69.