Mental health experts break down the pressure around hobbies today and offer advice for finding enjoyment outside restrictive definitions.
“What are your hobbies?” Many people can easily rattle off answers to this question ― crocheting, pottery, fishing, gardening, birdwatching or whatever entices them. But for others, no acceptable responses seem to come to mind.
“A lot of times, labels like the word ‘hobby’ can have the propensity to evoke anxiety in us,” Bari Schwarz, a psychotherapist based in New York City and Charleston, South Carolina, told HuffPost. “We can panic or freeze when we’re put on the spot to answer with confidence what we enjoy. ‘Why can’t I think of anything?’ ‘Are my hobbies considered hobbies?’ ‘Am I lacking in some way in their mind?’”
It’s not abnormal to feel like you don’t have any hobbies ― or that your personal interests don’t count as actual hobbies. In this age of stress and burnout, the idea of having any free time to pursue passions can seem like a distant fantasy.
So is it time to take the pressure off the idea of hobbies? Or perhaps redefine what the word means to us today? Below, Schwarz and other psychology experts share their thoughts and advice.
What even is a hobby?
“A hobby at its core is an activity that one enjoys in their spare time,” Schwarz said. “So instead of feeling the pressure to list hobbies, if we were more simply to ask ourselves, ‘What do I derive pleasure from or enjoy doing?’ I think people would be surprised at how much easier it feels to answer.”
Hobbies don’t have to be “productive” or involve specific benchmarks of improvement or progress (though it’s perfectly fine if yours do).
“Somebody once asked me in an interview what is my hobby, and I told them traveling,” said Sue Varma, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. “They said, ‘Well that’s not really a hobby.’ But for me, it is. I like to learn, explore, enjoy ― and I feel rewarded. I’m immersed in it, growing from it. For me, traveling is a hobby, and I’m intentional about it. I practice it, and I put thought and effort into it. Am I getting better at it? Maybe not, but there’s nothing really to get better at.”
She believes in expanding our definition of hobby to “what brings us meaning and joy.” Learning something new or getting better at a skill would just be an added bonus.
In our work-oriented “hustle culture,” remember that your hobby doesn’t have to be something you can turn into a “side hustle” ― like selling the sweaters you knit on Etsy.
“There’s value in identifying things and activities that bring you pleasure or restoration during downtime, but it doesn’t have to be things traditionally considered hobbies to bring about the same positive psychological impact,” said Meg Gitlin, a New York City-based psychotherapist. “Perhaps this is enjoying a TV show when they finish for the day or going for a walk.”
She offered the definition of a hobby as “an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure” and encouraged people to look at how a certain activity or interest might improve their everyday life by helping them unwind, for instance.
“I think the traditional concept of a hobby (i.e. painting, gardening) is great, but it is also a luxury for most people,” Gitlin noted. “With ever-expanding work days and the demands of day-to-day living, many people do not have the bandwidth to devote time to what is traditionally considered ‘a hobby.’”
Indeed, it’s harder to find the opportunity to take dance classes or practice the saxophone if you’re working multiple jobs, struggling to find reliable child care and still trying to keep your family fed on food stamps. To have hobbies is, in many ways, a privilege.
Why do we feel so much pressure around hobbies?
“I think we live in a society that is very comparative, and people feel that their lives are ‘not enough,’” Gitlin noted. “We are quick to weigh ourselves down with ‘shoulds,’ when in fact we should recognize all that we are already doing and take a thoughtful and pragmatic approach when thinking about how we can use our free time as restorative.”
Just as we hold up our clothes, bodies, homes and parenting experiences to what we see on Instagram, the things we do for pleasure have also become fodder for comparison. From impressive crafts to epic baked goods to wild rock climbing feats, there are countless images of people showing off their hobbies and taking them to the max.
“I think the traditional concept of a hobby (i.e. painting, gardening) is great, but it is also a luxury for most people.”
“I think we live in a world where everyone has their own hobbies on display on social media, so not being able to name one quickly can feel like something is different about you,” said Rachel Thomasian, a licensed therapist and owner of Playa Vista Counseling in Los Angeles.
“It’s OK if you enjoy cooking and your hobby is in practice while you cook dinner each night and nothing more. Where I challenge and push clients of mine is when I notice anxiety or depression keeping them from enjoying activities and connection with others.”
What others consider to be a hobby or not needn’t dictate what we decide to do with our precious spare time. Yet we still feel a societal expectation around this highly personal aspect of life.
“I think people feel pressure for the same reasons we generally do overall; because we want to fit in and feel appreciated by our peers,” said Alfiee Breland-Noble, an Arlington, Virginia-based therapist and founder of The AAKOMA Project. “Sometimes this means we aspire to accept the same things as others, even when we are not entirely sure whether or not the ‘thing’ we are aspiring to really fits for us.”
She emphasized that identifying something as a hobby is completely relative.
“We should never feel obligated to fit anyone else’s standard for who we are or what we enjoy,” Alfiee added. “As well, there is no one standard to which all people must adhere requiring them to have a hobby, so in my opinion, it is perfectly fine to not have a hobby.”
How can we overcome that sense of pressure?
“I recommend just taking a step back and appreciating that what we do for self-care are things we derive enjoyment from on a personal level and therefore fit under the category of hobbies,” Schwarz said. “Whether it’s painting and ceramics or just going on a walk by yourself or an exercise class.”
Think about the things you do to foster a sense of work-life balance, whether it’s going to wine tastings, watching movies and TV shows or trying new restaurants with friends.
“Treat yourself with a little bit of grace, stop comparing yourself to others and realize you do enjoy things,” Schwarz said. “No one’s ‘hobby’ is better than the next person’s. It’s all about what makes you unwind and what makes you carve out this work-life balance.”
Rather than assess the value of a given hobby or if something counts as a hobby at all, just ask yourself what activities or qualities make you feel good and lean into those. And remember, it’s perfectly fine to be “bad” at your hobby of choice.
“I like to ask people to list everything they do in a week that is not part of work, and then put those things in order of most to least enjoyable and think about what else they’d like to squeeze in there or do more of,” Thomasian said. “I also believe personal growth happens from engaging in new activities, so I am a firm believer [in] stretching oneself, but not through shame or force.
“I’m less interested in whether or not people have hobbies, but rather do they have healthy distractions to help them unplug from day-to-day stress.”
Hobbies that involve more presence and participation can be particularly helpful in reducing stress, but finding what’s right for you is about trial and error. Don’t worry if you feel like you can’t commit to a specific hobby, either. There’s value in picking things up for a time and putting them down.
“I’m less interested in whether or not people have hobbies, but rather do they have healthy distractions to help them unplug from day-to-day stress and do they have good coping skills so that they aren’t turning to substances or unhealthy means of coping?” Varma noted.
So don’t dive into a hobby just for the sake of it. Take advantage of the opportunity to do things that feel good for you.
“I would tell people the same thing I tell my patients, that your guiding light should always be your internal compass and reflective insight,” Alfiee said. “If we can take the time to carefully think about what is meaningful to us, then we will always assure ourselves that the choices we make reflect our individual values and desires, making those choices a much better fit for us.”
“And who knows us better than we know ourselves?” she added. “Ideally no one, so what others think about our choices should always be secondary to what we believe and know about ourselves.”
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