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Trying to stave off quarantine-induced panic? Pick up a hobby

It might sound simple, but it’s true: Hobbies have been shown to improve productivity and mental health.

Trying to stave off quarantine-induced panic? Pick up a hobby
[Photo: Vovchyn Taras/iStock; courtesy of Sh*t That I Knit]

Many of us are midway through our first week of social distancing. Yes, I know it feels like we’ve been holed up in our homes for an eternity. The days are beginning to blend together. You miss going on your morning coffee run. You haven’t figured out how to work out now that your gym is closed. Unfortunately, it seems we’re just at the start of a long period of isolation. Experts estimate that we’re going to be in lockdown for at least two months; perhaps longer, if we’re unable to curb the spread of the virus.

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That might feel terrifying, but we now have an opportunity to develop strategies for living in this new reality. We can find ways to break up the day, stay upbeat, and keep our minds active, even though the world outside our doors has ground to a halt. Mental health experts recommend that we spend part of the day on relaxing activities, like meditation or connecting with relatives on a video chat. But let me suggest another tool for you to add to your tool kit: Spend some time on your favorite hobbies. Or, pick up a new one.

On the surface, hobbies can some times feel frivolous and easy to neglect—especially in times of crisis. But over the last two years, while working on a chapter about hobbies for my forthcoming book, The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch the Rest of Your Life, I’ve developed a new appreciation for these activities. I’ve discovered that our pastimes are an important way for us to connect with our passions and identity. Since hobbies inherently require learning new skills, they’re an important way for us to keep our minds sharp as we get older. And importantly, research has found that pursuing these sorts of activities is good for both your physical and mental health. Right now, when anxiety is high, throwing yourself into your favorite activities could be one good way to manage your stress.

Make a bucket list

In this strange period when we’re homebound and have more time on our hands than usual, we can create a hobbies bucket list. These might be activities you’d been meaning to pick up, but never got around to learning. Or it could be pastimes that you already love but never have time for. In my case, this includes: learning how to knit, getting back into poetry writing, and finally figuring out how to cook my grandmother’s chicken curry. (It’s been in my family for years, and I don’t want to be the missing link!)

[Photo: courtesy of Sh*t That I Knit]
Given the current situation we’re in, it makes sense to focus on things that you can do at home. But that doesn’t necessarily mean doing them alone. I’ve found that some of my current hobbies bring me into contact with new people, albeit online. I recently ordered a quarantine kit from a company called Sh*t That I Knit. It comes with supplies to knit a scarf, links to virtual knitting classes, and an invitation to join a Facebook group where you can talk to other new knitters. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought this was a good idea. Hundreds of others bought the kit too and are excited to learn how to knit as a group.

There are loads of other groups like this popping up on the internet. My mother has just signed up for a virtual writers’ group, where she meets weekly to discuss each other’s recent work. A dance studio near me is conducting classes virtually, so you can keep practicing your ballet or hip-hop moves at home.

Remember your passions

Hobbies scholars—yes, that’s a thing—have found that pursuing these sorts of pastimes is very good for our physical and mental health. One study found that people who spend time doing hobbies tended to be less depressed and have better cardiovascular health than those who did not. In fact, a 2015 study recommended that hobbies could be a medical intervention for people experiencing high levels of stress, since hobby practitioners report a personal sense of well-being.

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One reason these activities are so good for us is that they allow us to pursue the passions we don’t usually get to explore at work or in our families. There are dozens of possible activities for us to take part in, and what we end up choosing is an extension of our identity. People often tend to feel more like themselves when they’re busy doing their hobbies. And since many of us pursue the same small set of hobbies throughout our entire lives, these activities have a way of reconnecting us to earlier versions of ourselves.

I first learned to knit one summer in college from a 80-year-old woman named Hattie in my church. I stopped knitting when school started up again and never returned to it. But picking up knitting needles this week brought me right back to that period in my life, causing a flood of fond memories of Hattie to come back to me.

Rediscover Your Productivity

Researchers have found that people who spend time on hobbies tend to show more interest in the world around them. This makes sense. Hobbies force us to focus on an activity: This means we have to temporarily stop thinking about the issues stressing us out at a given moment. Knitting for instance, has a meditative quality. It involves repetitive motions, counting, and concentrated silence, which has been proven to reduce anxiety.

In my book, I interviewed one person who thought of his hobbies as kind of forced meditation. In the hour he spent practicing a mixed martial arts technique, his mind could not wander to his to-do list at work. When he eventually came back to thinking about work, he found he often had a better perspective on it. We often think of hobbies as distractions from work and productivity, but quite the opposite is true: Allowing yourself to escape from work temporarily allows you to dive back into it with renewed interest and energy later on.

Hobbies often involve interacting with other people. Even if you tend to prefer pastimes that are solitary, like say, baking or reading, many people enjoy checking in with others on online forums, like Food52 or Goodreads. This link to a larger community is also good for you. Medical researchers have found that having relationships of all kinds—including more distant relationships known as “weak ties”—are good for your physical and mental well-being.

Protect your brain

Most of us don’t tend to pick up new interests after our twenties. That’s because many of us have less free time once family and work responsibilities kick in. But another reason we push off hobbies when we get older is that they become increasingly challenging for us to pick up. A pastime often involves learning new skills and habits. In fact, one person’s hobby—like photography or flower arranging or fixing up cars—may be another person’s job.

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Before the age of 25, it’s much easier to learn things because our brains have more plasticity. In the decades that follow, it becomes noticeably harder to learn and perfect new skills. I first learned the basics of knitting in college, but got distracted after a few weeks. Now that I’m in my mid-thirties, I can tell you that learning a new stitch takes me much longer than it did a decade and a half ago. But researchers say that it is worth pushing through this frustration, because learning new skills is good for our brains. This is true throughout our lives, but particularly as we head into our 60s. Learning new skills helps improve our memories and can stave off dementia.

We’re living through a very difficult moment in history. Right now, it’s vital for us to distance ourselves from one another, to try to stop the disease from spreading. As the days of isolation turn into weeks, it will become increasingly important for us to think about what we can do to stay positive. Spending time on your favorite activities could be a simple way to keep your spirits high.

As for me, I haven’t gotten very far with my knitting project. But I’m hoping that by the time we eventually emerge from this quarantine, I’ll have this scarf done.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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