Amanda K Bailey
I don’t know about you, but at some point in my life, “hobby” became synonymous with “coping mechanism.” Whether it was my slew of pandemic hobbies, or getting really, really into anime after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, I’ve been escaping and distracting myself with hobbies for years now. Along the way, I held Animal Crossing parties, played Dungeons & Dragons, and painted along with Bob Ross. There were scrapbooks and board games, TikTok tutorials and trends. (I baked exactly one loaf of bread, as was customary at the time.)
I’m hardly unique in this regard—lots of people lean on leisure activities for their many benefits. But you're not alone if holding down a hobby isn't high on your to-do list, whether you lack the time, energy, or interest. Maybe a favorite pastime has fallen to the wayside in recent years, or perhaps you never really found your thing. Either way, hear us out: We have a few reasons it’s worth making a priority, especially if you’re looking for ways to boost your mental health.
As for those of you already on the hobby train, reminding yourself of the importance of hobbies can still help you make space for them. Because in this world—wherein we always have so much to do and so little time—sometimes, you need an excuse.
Generally speaking, hobbies are awesome.
Because humanity is a rich tapestry, we all have different ideas of what constitutes a hobby. For example, I would rather sit on a hill of ants than go for a jog, but you might find it the most rewarding way to spend your time ever. So many things can fall under the hobby umbrella, from birdwatching to crocheting to rebuilding old cars.
The good news is, a lot of the reasons hobbies are so great for us have less to do with a specific activity, and more to do with the act of having one at all. For starters, doing something for pleasure engages your brain’s trusty reward system. You do something you enjoy, feel-good chemicals are released, and boom, there’s your prize in and of itself.
Instant gratification aside, hobbies can also help you deal with the stresses of your daily responsibilities—even when it feels like you have zero time or energy for recreation after an exhausting day of work. One study, for example, looked at the relationship between long working hours, depression, and well-being. On top of discovering the obvious (more than 40 hours on the job a week had a significant negative impact on mental health), researchers also found that hobbies helped mitigate those adverse effects.
Finding hobbies you love is also a long-term investment in yourself. A 2023 meta-analysis crunched the data of more than 93,000 older adults and found that respondents with hobbies—loosely defined as activities done for pleasure during leisure time—self-reported higher health, happiness, and life satisfaction. On the other hand, people who experienced signs of depression were less likely to be engaged in hobbies.
But you probably don’t need studies to tell you something that you know intuitively: Humans need recreational time. So regardless of what your hobbies actually are, congrats: They’re probably positive forces in your life as long as you actually enjoy doing them.
Not to mention, hobbies also come with a lot of great side effects.
Okay, it’s not possible to give a hyper-detailed list of every possible mental health benefit for every possible hobby that exists. We could talk about the mind–body connection and the virtues of physical hobbies. Or we could dig into the whopping body of research on the mental health benefits of art and creativity. And don’t even get me started on the fresh air and inherent hope for the future that comes with gardening! There are just so many hobbies! And so many positive outcomes! Where do we start!
Luckily, in 2021, one review endeavored to identify how hobbies positively impact our health and well-being—and the authors came up with more than 600 ways. Analyzing past research on various leisure activities, from gaming to volunteering, they broke down all the ways hobbies can be good for you into four helpful categories. Basically, they found that, depending on the specific leisure activity, you might reap psychological effects, biological effects, social effects, and/or behavioral effects.
Psychological benefits could be immediate effects on your mood, or long-term boons to your resilience skills and sense of self. Biological effects can take the form of better physical performance (via, say, sports and exercise) as well as improved immune function and less pain.
Meanwhile, some hobbies unlock a wealth of social benefits, including combating loneliness and supporting sharper social skills (and who doesn’t need those?). Other hobbies have behavioral benefits, meaning they can lead to building good-for-you habits and routines (think of the hobbies that get you outside, encourage mindfulness skills, or make you stick to a schedule).
No hobby? Don’t stress.
There’s a chance you’ve gotten to this point and you’re feeling guilty or stressed because you don’t actually have a hobby. Or at least not one you really enjoy all that much. Not to worry! That’s also good for you. Or, at least, it provides a good-for-you opportunity, which is getting out there and trying something new—yet another habit tied to increased happiness.
One final word on the benefits of hobbies: Don’t force them! A review of four related studies tied our attitudes to our experiences of hobbies—and found that if you think leisure is a waste of time, you summon a self-fulfilling prophecy and ultimately enjoy the whole shebang a lot less.
So while the activities themselves might be “good for you,” half the magic of having a hobby is, well, liking it.
And despite all the positive aspects of hobbies, remember that they don’t have to be “beneficial” to be worth your time. You do the thing because you enjoy it! Too often, we convince ourselves that we have to Be Productive and prioritize Important Things, like making money, improving our skills, advancing in our careers, etc. And then we wind up monetizing our hobbies, putting pressure on ourselves, and sucking the fun right out of them, and what do you know? We have no hobbies. And we all deserve a little hobby we love just because.
Originally Appeared on SELF