While outdoor activities like running and paddle-boarding kept Mia, 28, a scientist in Austin, Texas, entertained and active pre-2020, she used her time during lockdown to reconnect with a more complicated childhood interest she’d never gotten the chance to explore. “I always wanted to learn how to do stained glass work since I was a little girl, so I signed up first chance and fell in love,” she tells Bustle. While she says the hobby filled a void more regular socializing had left, it also boosted her mental health. “Glasswork gave me something to work towards and learn, and it took my full concentration,” she says, adding that learning new crafts that require a lot of attention help to keep her mind “calmer and happier.”
Being intentional about the way you spend your time off can be difficult, especially if you have a tendency to just blow free time doomscrolling. Finding a hobby as an adult might involve a lot of trial and error, or a lot of Sundays spent in a yarn shop that subtly aggravates your allergies. But the mental health benefits of having something meaningful to do with your spare time are profound.
Hobbies can contribute to “healthy self-esteem and identity formation,” says therapist Caroline Given, L.C.S.W., which can help diversify and increase the paths in which you bring joy into your life. A 2020 study published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics found that engaging with a hobby had a positive effect on adults with self-reported depression, helping them to feel more relaxed, energized, and inspired. What’s more, a September 2021 study of over 13,000 Americans found that too much free time — more than five hours a day — led to lower well-being, but using time off work in meaningful ways — like by socializing or engaging in hobbies — negated that effect.
For Jackie, 29, a higher education fundraiser living in Indianapolis, a lot of free time and a desire for a cute cloth mask was the motivation she needed to dust off the sewing machine, she hadn’t touched in a decade. “The masks were a good starter project and reminded me how much I enjoyed sewing and making keepsakes for myself and others,” she tells Bustle of the hobby, which has since evolved into making more complicated knitwear projects. “It’s been super relaxing and my projects have kept me busy when there wasn’t much else to do,” she says.
While you might need to try a few hobbies before you find your perfect match, it’s worth the effort. “When you’re engaging in hobbies for mental health purposes, you want to pick activities that are stimulating but not overly challenging,” Given tells Bustle. “The brain loves novelty and engaging in true ‘play’, so anything you’re curious about or takes you away from daily life is a good place to put your energy,” she adds, noting that hobbies give you an opportunity to be mindful.
If you’re not particularly passionate about activities that aren’t specifically productive, you might need a couple of attempts with different hobbies. Here are some tips on finding your weekend bliss, or at least figuring out something interesting to do that doesn’t drain your battery.
1. Take It Back To Your Childhood
If you don't know where to begin, think back to what you loved doing as a kid. “Was it building? Coloring? Cutting and pasting? Whatever we used to do as kids that occupied us for hours at a time is often a sweet spot to return to!” Thea Monyeé, L.M.F.T., a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of MarleyAyo, a creative wellness consulting company, tells Bustle. Those were the times you were wild and free, and you didn't do something unless you really, really loved it. Chances are, you still have a lot of those same core interests.
“When I’m working with clients to find an activity that will benefit them mentally, I ask them what activity last got them into a flow state, a mental state in which you lose track of time. Most people haven’t been in a flow state since they were kids, so it does take revisiting childhood to find hobbies to partake in as adults,” Monyeé says.
Reminiscing about your favorite pastimes of yesteryear doesn’t mean reliving them exactly. Given says that while you might have enjoyed horseback riding as a child, it might just be that spending time with animals as an adult gets you into the same flow state — volunteering at a dog rescue could fill the place of spending time at the barn.
2. Try A Couple Of Ideas On For Size
If you're stumped where to begin, throw yourself into some fresh options and see how you respond to them. Often, doing something as easy as walking around a crafts or sports store can get you thinking. Physically seeing a candle-making kit or a bocce set might make your curious about it.
Given says that hobby crafts like knitting, crochet, or painting can be extremely helpful with “unwinding the mind.” Try a few different projects and pay attention to how you feel while doing them. Does time fly? Do you feel more confident? If the craft feels grueling or frustrating, try a new one.
3. Attempt A Hobby That’s The Opposite Of What You’d Expect
Alternatively, Monyeé suggests testing out something completely random. “Try something that you assume you wouldn't be good at. There's nothing like surprising yourself, and if you are truly terrible at it, you’ll get to laugh about it,” she says. That trapeze workshop, or virtual piano class, could help you discover a talent you never realized you had.
4. Find An Activity That Will Make You Forget About Your Day
If you're not into the idea of picking up a hobby just to occupy your downtime, try to think of something that makes you forget about the stresses and worries of your day. It should be an activity that helps you relax. If crocheting or learning a language feels like it would be work, then that's probably not going to be a good choice for a hobby.
Given says that a physical hobby that requires you to exert yourself, like exercise or gardening, can be a great thought-erasing activity. Endeavoring to organize your junk closet or work on your yard will take a lot of time and energy, giving you the chance to focus on what’s in front of you, and nothing else.
5. Remember Past Hobbies You Forgot About
Maybe you already had a hobby, just you completely forgot about it. Sometimes our hobbies might are like projects and we don't realize they could become a long term, slow evolving activity in our lives.
Lifestyle writer Elsie Larson of A Beautiful Mess advised in a blog post, "Literally, look around your home and see if there are any neglected hobbies that you started but haven't completed. Were you supposed to go to a trip to Italy a few summers back, and stopped picking up your Italian dictionary after the fact? Did you love taking photos during a past road trip, but haven't thought of picking up your camera just for fun? If you think back to a few projects you started in the past but then swiftly forgot about, you might have your hobby,” she wrote.
6. Notice What You Love To Buy As Guilty Pleasures
Is there a certain thing you just can't help but buy every time you're out shopping? The item might be holding the clue towards your next hobby. Are you always thumbing through short story books? Try writing your own. Are you always looking out for a chunky infinity scarf? Why don't you just knit one? Your receipts might hold the answers you're looking for.
7. Find An Activity That Makes You Feel Productive
Some people might have a hard time doing idle tasks that serve no purpose other than being fun. You know that feeling: When you're out at the movies or enjoying a long shopping trip, and you think, "I really should be doing something productive instead." If you're always on the move and trying to hit a goal or better yourself, harness that big Capricorn energy and make your hobby fit that criteria. Have you dabbled with the idea of a bullet journal? What about organizing your house? If this is you, taking a foreign language class might feel both like work and fun.
8. Tap Into Your Flow State & Adjacent Interests
What was the last thing you did in your life that made you lose track of time, AKA, get into a flow state? Was it that 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, or a massive paint-by-numbers project? Once you have it in mind, pick apart the core principals of what made it so special for you and see if you can find them in a different activity.
"I realized my passion wasn’t for games themselves (although I do love them), but that my passion is for improvement, being good at something and then trying to get better,” self-help author Mark Manson tells Bustle. “Maybe for you, it’s organizing things efficiently, or getting lost in a fantasy world, or teaching somebody something, or solving technical problems. Whatever it is, don’t just look at the activities that keep you up all night, but look at the cognitive principles behind those activities that enthrall you, because they can easily be applied elsewhere,” he says. Maybe what you loved about running cross country in high school wasn’t the running part, but spending time in the woods, or maybe what was fun about doing musical theater was being a part of a team. Channel that energy into your next pastime.
9. Look For A Hobby That’s Radically Different
Take a look at the different types of interests and activities you have in your life, and pick a hobby that expands your palate. Do you put a lot of energy into the arts? Try something that’s a little more scientific, like brewing your own beer, or physical, like indoor rock climbing. Do you spend a lot of time doing activities that are neat and orderly? Try something super messy, like splatter painting.
“The more activities you take pride and pleasure in, the more you protect yourself from relying too much on one aspect of your life for self-worth and satisfaction,” Given says. “I think of it kind of like diversifying your self-esteem portfolio and a healthy reminder that there is more to you than your performance in whatever roles you juggle in life — be it work, school, parenting, etc,” she says.
10. Try A Hobby That Makes You Feel Confident
Finding self-worth in a hobby is a tall order, but if your only goal is to find an activity that you feel good doing, you can narrow your focus a bit. When trying out different hobbies, check in with yourself about how they make you feel. Are you kind of a natural at baking, and get a kick out of making people say “yum”? Are you randomly exceptional at calligraphy? Send your friends and family homemade card to show it off.
“When we’re engaged in a hobby we’re good at, we’re focused on something positive and external that can be a healthy distraction from ruminating/fixating on our own internal monologue too much,” Given says. “To be fully engaged in a hobby that increases your self-worth would mean that the play/pleasure/curiosity part of your brain was activated rather than the judgement/over-analysis part of your brain,” she says.
11. Go Hobby-Hunting With A Friend
You know how it’s a lot harder to cancel on a 7 a.m. workout class when you’re supposed to meet a friend there? Monyeé says that including a buddy in your hobby-seeking journey will help “make sure you keep it up.” Apart from working out, there are lots of hobbies that are better with more people. Maybe you start a cooking club with your group chat, where everyone’s responsible for bringing a dish to the dinner party. Another idea might be to go in on a community garden plot with your work wife; that way, you’re both responsible for its success.
Finding something that makes you light up outside of work can seem like a giant task of itself, but it's worth it to find something that makes you feel creatively and independently fulfilled.
Fancourt, Daisy, et al. “Fixed-Effects Analyses of Time-Varying Associations between Hobbies and Depression in a Longitudinal Cohort Study: Support for Social Prescribing?” Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, Karger Publishers, 28 Oct. 2019, https://doi.org/10.1159/000503571
Sharif, M. A., Mogilner, C., & Hershfield, H. E. (2021). Having too little or too much time is linked to lower subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000391
Caroline Given, L.C.S.W., therapist
Mark Manson, self-help author
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