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Hobbies & Mental Health

How Hobbies Really Do Help Your Mental Health

“Have you thought about getting a hobby?” is how therapists suggest that you might be working yourself sick. At least that was the case for me. As it turns out, “watching stuff online” isn’t a hobby. I continued with my excuses: I didn’t sacrifice my relationships and career to spend time on anything other than building Barbari. Now was not a time for hobbies, now was the time to grind. Why would I spend time on anything that doesn’t invest in my future? What I discovered (thank you therapy) was that I was holding onto the narrative that I didn’t deserve happiness because of the guilt I felt for hurting the ones I loved to make my own dreams come true. But after nearly two years hiding behind my work, I pushed myself so deep into a depressed state that it was getting a little scary there, folx. I felt intense pressure from the fear of letting others, and myself, down. Of not making the most of my time. 

Depression tends to be a hungry monster that finds creative ways to feed itself. For example, stress is a huge trigger for me. The greater the stress, the deeper I sink. The deeper I sink, the less motivated I am to do the things that will keep me mentally healthy. Mainly exercise, preparing my own food, socializing (not networking), and something fun just for me – a hobby some may say. 

MORE DOPAMINE, PLEASE

According to leisure researchers (talk about a missed calling in life), hobbies are highly effective in helping work-obsessed, stressed-out, multi-taskers achieve more, not less. Hobbies help your mental health primarily because it pushes your mind into a creative state. Scientifically, that means: 


RELAXED & ENERGIZED: A study reports that those that spend 20 minutes a week doing a leisure activity are less susceptible to fatigue. These activities were associated with lower blood pressure, total cortisol, waist circumference, and body mass index, and perceptions of better physical function. 

SOCIAL: Sometimes your hobbies involve others! Shared experiences can boost our joy levels while helping you feel less isolated. “People who play music together experience increased levels of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social relationships and bonding,” reports Dr. Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist, musician.

MENTAL CLARITY: Time away from work replenishes neurochemicals in the brain which have been depleted by a few hours of a high-stress job. Hobbies invite you into a mental state known as “flow.” Flow occurs when you’re engaged in an activity to the point of almost meditative and mindful focus which has been shown to reduce stress. Exercising this creative side of yourself invites connections that may not have been made in a stressed-out brain. “These acts of experimentation expand the neural networks in our brains, making connections between circuits in the brain that might not have otherwise been connected,” says Dr. Levitin. The best part? This type of neural linking-up gives you a bonus dopamine boost as it actually modulates levels of the feel-good hormones in the brain.

HOW TO FIND A HOBBY 

Tempting me with increased dopamine was a no brainer. I was in on hobbies. But finding one was a whole different thing. Where to even start? I surveyed my friends to pool ideas. Maybe I could borrow one of their hobbies? But of course, it’s something you must discover.

STEP 1: Fill in the blanks. “If I weren’t doing [however you spend your day], I would rather be [things you like to do]”. 

Here were my answers: I’d rather be…

  • Next to or in some kind of water 
  • Reading a good book
  • Listing to music and dancing 
  • Hiking
  • On a plane somewhere awesome for a non-work-related reason 

STEP 2: Know your disqualifiers 

I love music. I chase that feeling when you hear a song and think to yourself, “what is this song? I must know immediately.” Maybe I could learn to be a DJ? Except like many workaholics, I spend between 12-18 hours a day on my laptop either working or doing the previously mentioned non-hobby of watching stuff online. The idea of spending more time on a computer was a hard pass for me. Not to mention that growing my vinyl collection is an expensive pastime I’m not quite ready to venture into. I needed an unplugged hobby. 

Computers were a barrier of entry for me. Finding the most accessible way to incorporate this new hobby into your life is the best path forward for all of us hobby-newbies. After I played out a few scenarios, my choice became much more obvious. 

  • Next to and/or in some kind of water (find community center pool, search for nearby lakes, plan a beach trip with friends)
  • Reading a good book – trouble focusing makes reading books difficult and frustrating right now
  • Listing to music and dancing – I do this while I work, so doesn’t make for a good hobby
  • Hiking – seasonal, and I wanted something I could make a routine. 
  • On a plane somewhere for a non-work-related reason – at the time, COVID hadn’t wrecked the travel industry. This is really a vacation which is like a hobby on steroids, and not in the cards quite yet. 

STEP 3: Make It Yours

Let yourself discover and develop your hobby. Give yourself the freedom to just live in the moment, set no expectations, and let what happens, happen. Zero pressure. Lucky for me, there is a community center with a great pool close to my home and office. It had been over 10 years since I swam laps. Being very much a Pisces, I have always had a close and deep connection to the water. It could always soothe or energize me, challenge and support me, and clear and calm my mind without fail. When I first started, I made the choice to not count laps, not watch the clock, not go in with an agenda. I wanted to allow myself total freedom to be in the moment, explore myself in these new, yet familiar surroundings. After a few weeks, I found my flow. I developed a routine and made it my own. I always smoke a little before getting into the pool. The mild high drops me right into that flow state with ease. It feels like the joy of childlike wonder exploring a world underwater, married with the calming sounds of my own rhythm: splash, silence, silence, breath. Splash, silence, silence, breath. On a good week, I might get 4-6 hours of pool time. Time to be unplugged, to double-up on the dopamine, and let my neural networks expand. The cherry on top was the 15 minutes (or more) in the hot tub at the end of each swim. It was a perfect hobby. 

Sadly, we know where this story is going, and how it turns out for community centers and public pools… 

HOBBIES FOR HEALTH

Like many today, the big bully of 2020 has pushed me back down into that depression hole and crapped in my emotional stability pool. And so, we adapt. I’ve begun a new hobby journey – this time teaching myself to play the guitar. It’s very challenging and hurts my fingertips, but I feel cool holding it and is something I’ve always wanted to do. So, I’m sticking to it for the time being, and slowly starting to feel like myself again, one new chord at a time.


Meryl Montgomery is a bi-coastal Portland/New York-based Pisces and cofounder of Barbari. 

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