Having Hobbies Really Can Boost Your Well-Being—Here’s How to Find One You Love

Knitting, cooking, and gardening can do a lot more for your brain than you think.

After knitting a scarf, you can’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment. When your garden starts to flourish, you pat yourself on the back and admire the fruits of your labor. Paintings, pottery, quilts, poetry—you can’t help but feel pride when you finish something you started.

And as it turns out, the mental-health benefits of having a hobby go far beyond the boost of self confidence you get from doing them. Actually, as Tomeka McGee-Holloway, Psy.D., ATR, points out, hobbies can reduce stress, improve optimism, and even ease symptoms of depression.

<p>Ruslan Shramko/Getty Images</p>

Ruslan Shramko/Getty Images

Research has shown that engaging in leisure activities reduces our cortisol,” she says. “Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, negatively impacts our energy, mood, and sleep. When we engage in hobbies, we’re choosing to intentionally pour into ourselves,” she says. “This is a powerfully nourishing act of self-care and self-love.”

A hobby is a pleasurable activity a person engages in when they have free time, defines Bethany Cook, PsyD, MT-BC, a licensed clinical psychologist, health service psychologist, adjunct professor, and a board certified music therapist. “Having a go-to activity that brings you joy, energizes you, and offers a mental boost is key when maintaining balanced mental health,” she says.

A 2016 Hobbies Survey by Ask Your Target Market (AYTM) found that 56 percent of respondents said that they have multiple hobbies, a number that has only gone up as a result of the pandemic.

Related:I Spent a Year Indulging My Hobbies–and This is What I Learned

The Best Hobbies for Mental Health Combine Physical and Mental Stimulation

If you’re wondering which hobbies promote the highest levels of improved mental health, Dr. Cook says that they often involve a combination of physical and mental stimulation, which can release “feel-good” hormones. Think about joining a fun dance class or rock-climbing lesson. Or try something low-impact and stress-busting at the same time: learn tai chi, pick up yoga, qi gong, walk with a friend. Physical activity aside, you can still enjoy better mental health by engaging in hobbies that will challenge you intellectually.  Because variety and learning something new every day is one of the best things you can do for your brain.

“For me, the best hobbies are ones that are hands-on, tactile, and immersive,” says Samantha Hoff, founder of Pottery with a Purpose, a home-delivery pottery kit company. “When something requires focus, and my hands are busy or dirty, it helps anchor me to the present moment and quiet my mind.” Some of her favorite hobbies include making pottery, gardening, and hunting for sea glass.

Related:5 Types of Exercise That Boost Brain Health

What if you don’t have a hobby?

On the other end of the spectrum, the same Hobbies Survey revealed that 20 percent of participants reported engaging in no hobbies at all, which is fairly high and something that cook has personally witnessed. “One of the biggest struggles I’ve found when working with clients is that they don’t know how to carve out free time in their schedules and/or don’t spend their free time doing things that fill their ‘mental health and wellbeing’ bucket,” she says.

If this sounds like you, you still have the opportunity to get motivated to pick up a hobby, find something you genuinely enjoy doing, and harness some wonderful mental health benefits while you do it. If you don’t have a current hobby, or have never had a hobby, Cook assures that it's normal if it's potentially more difficult at first to figure out your “thing,” simply because you haven’t had the chance to identify what motivates and delights you. This can be due to several causes: being overscheduled, living a life without lots of personal choices, or trauma.

“Life is busy for most of us, and trying to find extra time to engage in hobbies may feel like a challenge and we may be unmotivated to do so,” McGee-Holloway says. “One thing that we can say to ourselves is that the long-term benefits will outweigh the challenge of getting started.”

Find out how to start a hobby that brings you joy and lifts your mood.

How to Start a New Hobby

Have a brainstorming session.

When setting out to choose a new hobby, Cook suggests having a brainstorming session, either on your own or with friends and family. Talk about activities you enjoy doing. “Be wild” and “allow your mind to wander,” she says. Imagine yourself doing something you’ve always wanted to do, whether it’s cooking, scuba diving, or working with animals.

Tap into your childhood.

When you were 8 years old and engaged in an activity for hours on end, you were onto something, and you can capture that same feeling in your adulthood. “To identify a hobby, create a list of things you loved to do in your younger years,” McGee-Holloway recommends. Who knows? Playing Scrabble, drawing, or picking up a childhood instrument again could be the thing you enjoy doing most as an adult.

Turn to an assessment.

If you need a bit more direction, McGee-Holloway suggests taking an assessment that will tune you in more deeply to various aspects of your personality, such as the Strong Interest Inventory, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or an Interest Assessment.

Narrow down your list.

If you’ve made a long list of potential hobbies, Cook says it's time to narrow the list down to five things that are actually doable. (For example, scuba diving when you live in the desert might be tough to do regularly.) When you’ve chosen the hobbies that are the most realistic for your lifestyle, identify the one that you’re most excited about.

Related:Need a New Hobby? Learning Another Language Is Like Fitness Training for Your Brain

Reach out to others.

“If you know someone who already does the hobby you’re interested in, reach out to them and ask them if they could give you an ‘intro’ to it to see if it’s [for you],” Cook says. “It’s also a cheaper approach, especially if you’re interested in something that requires an investment in equipment or membership.”

Test things out.

Hoff encourages those who want to explore hobbies to “try a bunch of things to see what you enjoy—or don’t enjoy.” She adds that if you aren’t sure where to begin, you can try a few classes to test out these new activities. “There are endless virtual and in-person options like cooking classes, mixology, craft classes of all sorts, music, hiking groups, and so much more,” she says.

Be mindful of your schedule.

Maybe you have dreams of practicing an instrument for hours every day or taking daily language classes. Since it might not always be possible to easily fit a more extensive hobby into a busy schedule, Hoff recommends buying kits that ship right to your doorstep and have all the materials you’ll need for a particular activity. “One-off classes and kits are great ways to try something new without too much money or commitment,” she says.

Let go of perfectionism.

“As you explore new hobbies, remind yourself that it doesn’t matter if you are good at it as long as you like it,” Hoff points out. “New things take time to learn.” No one is grading or timing you, so enjoy the challenge, the leisure time, or the learning process—it's so good for you.

Related:Doing Household Chores Can Help Your Brain Stay Younger and Healthier for Longer, Study Suggests

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