Every time I open social media, I learn that one of my friends has an incredible talent of which I wasn’t previously aware: a tweet featuring beautiful embroidery, an all-handmade outfit-of-the-day post, loaves of bread steaming so beautifully I can almost smell them through Instagram, or a quick video of incredible vocals and guitar.
While my creative efforts may not be as Pinterest-worthy, data, philosophy, and experience agree: taking time to try something new for yourself, without ambition beyond learning and leisure, is good for you.
Before you close this window because you’re too busy for a hobby, consider the adage known as Parkinson’s Law: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."
Planning reprieves from work
Hobbies help us structure our own time. As a teacher, I know that I can fill every hour of the day with work. There is always another paper to grade or way to improve a lesson or an email to respond to, but scheduling the dance class or knowing I want to finish a cross-stitch project forces me to set aside my work, at least for a minute, and to take time for leisure.
The importance of leisure is not a new idea. More than two thousand years ago, the philosopher Aristotle was already speaking about the roles of work and leisure in our lives. But in the last century, everyone—from researchers and psychologists to philosophers—has become more invested in this question as the lines between work and everything else blur, and the definition of leisure is muddied.
So what do I mean by leisure? I don't mean lounging about the pool or sitting on the couch. Leisure is surprisingly active. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, has become a modern classic for highlighting research that challenges modern ideas of happiness in order to underscore the pleasure we are able to glean from creative endeavors.
Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person's skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”
The process of creative work, he explains, is a reward in and of itself—the product is not central to the pleasure, but focus and progress in the projects reward our brains.
My little sister Margaret is 23, and for the last year, she’s been working in a stressful healthcare job, applying to medical school, and living on a very slim budget in New York. She didn’t have an easy year, but she made the time to pick up a new hobby—fiber art. I won’t lie, her first projects were extremely ugly. The weft and weave were uneven and lumpy, hanging awkwardly from their rod.
She tried to give me one, and I actually rejected it. She wasn’t too bothered. “I just really like how it gets me to do something with my hands,” Margaret told me. “And because I have to use both my hands, I don’t look at my phone. And the fact that I get a finished product (even if it is bad) from it is so satisfying! Producing a result, and then starting over and trying a completely different technique and messing up again is really rewarding!”
Over time, of course, there will be an improvement in whatever hobby you’ve chosen to pursue. Margaret’s experience validates the idea of flow as well: “Honestly, I think it’s just been good to let myself do something that is hard and I’m bad at and not make myself feel like I need to ‘perfect’ it or get better. Just enjoying the process is so good.”
The challenges it takes to reach the point of enjoying the process don’t vanish—the overwatered plant that lost all its leaves, the misshapen bowls restarted over and over again on the pottery wheel, the sketch that looked much more like a dog than a horse, my own inconsistent knitting projects. You’ll remember them, but their meaning will change. These low-stakes opportunities for small failures and growth become new windows into our own abilities to develop and change.
In contrast, the daily challenges of work and life don't always show as many signs of progress. Perhaps it's because they're imbued with higher stakes and can feel like they continue nonstop. For example, even though I've become objectively better at planning and running meetings over the course of my career, my responsibilities at work have increased concomitantly with those skills. I have found that these struggles can affect my perception of my abilities and worth. But since taking on knitting, I grant myself the opportunity to work through emotions on a smaller, discrete scale. I'm much more accepting of a twisted stitch in a hat than mistiming even a tiny piece of an agenda because the knitting—that's just for me. Overall, I’ve found that this small addition to my week makes it easier to work through the larger challenges when I encounter them.