Whether or not society is becoming more or less connected in the digital age is a huge question. In some ways, clearly, social media helps us to stay connected: with loved ones, friends, colleagues living across the country or the world: with members of a group or club that may span large geographic areas: social media definitely facilitates communication. The down sides might also be obvious: we value face to face interactions less, or at least, prefer texting and emails to talking for the sake of expediency: screens replace human interaction. What has become glaringly conspicuous in the “After Times” is that people certainly feel less connected. And if it wasn’t clear before, that screen time is no replacement for human interaction, it should be clear now. In another essay on this blog I’ve discussed the difference between being alone and feeling alone. Now, more than ever, people feel alone. That’s a huge problem. How huge? In 2020, coroners, for the first time, started listing isolation as one cause of death (among others) on death certificates. That serious. Not to mention the spike in addiction relapse and overdose. Overdose rates spiked nearly 20% last year, and fatal overdoses rose by 5%, killing 72,000 Americans. These are the invisible and indirect effects of the pandemic. Social beings by nature, we must find a way to stay connected.
There is some scientific data suggesting communities are breaking down,, and have been. In his landmark book-length essay Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam explores the complex idea of “social capital”. Putnam defines this as, the “connections among individuals—social networks and the norms or reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” (19). In other words, a type of reward we get for participating in communal or community activities—as the title of the book suggests. “Somehow”, Putnam ponders, “in the last several decades of the twentieth century all these community groups and tens of thousands like them across America began to fade” (16). The pandemic has compounded what was, according to Putnam, an expanding problem in the first place. Now, this is not an essay railing against screen time, social media, or anything like that. No. In fact, screen time may be a saving grace during these times. What I hope to do in this essay is provide a small solution to the problem outlined in Putnam’s more-relevant-than-ever twenty-one year old argument: find yourself a hobby. This is not a panacea; but it might be one small weapon in our arsenal against pandemic related mental health decline.
When you hear the word hobby, or perhaps the phrase, “you should get yourself a hobby”, what type of activities come to mind? Collecting? Building ships in bottles? Crafts, such as knitting or scrapbooking? Games like Chess or Backgammon? How about rock climbing, running, cycling, working out, cooking and baking? Of course, anything can be a hobby; in the broadest sense of the word any activity a person devotes time to for the simple pleasure of doing so is a hobby; we are limited only by our imaginations. But how do hobbies help us reconnect and improve our lives? That, is the question.
The word hobby likely comes down to us from Middle English (1400 CE), where it was used to describe a small horse, literally, a hobby horse: “An Iyrysch man, Uppone his hoby [horse]” (OED). By 1816, however, the term was being used as we use it today, to describe “an individual pursuit to which a person is devoted (in the speaker’s opinion) out of proportion to its real importance” (OED). Every now and then someone may throw out the phrase “they are on their hobby horse”, derisively, meaning, “oh, here they go on their favorite topic again”; for the most part, though, we use the word hobby to speak of a personal pursuit or favorite past time.
Before we can connect, or reconnect, with society on a positive level, it’s important to take care of ourselves. Hobbies are a form of self-care, and it’s important to perform tasks simply for the pleasures they bring. One sidenote: beware the reverend wisdom of finding a way to make money doing what you love. For example, many of my colleagues, as educators, derive a great deal of pleasure from reading. Yet, when asked, they describe reading as tedious when they have to read; and not just emails or departmental news or updates, of which there are many; even literature they might normally enjoy loses its savor when reading to prepare a lecture, for instance, or to give a presentation. This is probably true of other professions as well. Mechanics who find their daily work mundane will spend entire weekends engrossed in building a classic in their home garage; the guys at my LBS (local bike shop) constantly complain about how busy it is, and lament the lack of time they have to ride or work on their own projects. Essentially, the work is the same. When performed for pleasure, though, rather than out of necessity, so much sweeter the harvest.
Hobbies interrupt the quotidian routine, that part of our lives that involves eating, sleeping, working, and repeating. Even those lucky few who have found and/or pursue a career that is both pleasurable and rewarding need a break. Work may be pleasurable, but it is still work. Failure to break the work, eat, sleep, repeat cycle leads to poor mental and physical health, and by consequence, an early grave. In a recent conversation with a friend—whose guest article on this blog and be found here, he told me that the pandemic has added years to his life. Working from home has allowed him flexibility with his schedule, a renewed vigor in finding joy in running again. Previously we have talked about how he has found time to get outside more with his kids, and started thinking about joining me on a backpacking expedition. Now, not everyone possesses this ability, or the freedom to work from home. However, this example does go to show how finding and committing to a hobby benefits one’s mental and physical health.
Hobbies come in all shapes and sizes, and may be classified any number of ways: intellectual hobbies such as reading, writing, learning a new language, games of strategy like chess; physical hobbies include cycling, running, rowing, etc.; there are social hobbies like book clubs, knitting circles or volunteering; and some hobbies may even occupy several categories at once. What makes a hobby fun will depend on the individual’s taste; to be truly fulfilling, however, a hobby must involve some degree of intellectualism; for instance, passively watching or binge-watching Netflix or Hulu is not a hobby, but an analytical discussion of whether these shows are good or not, and why, that is to say, being a critic, would be a hobby. Why? When we learn or wrestle with new ideas, we create new circuitry in the brain: we literally create more space in which information can be stored. Or, that’s one way to think about it. An article in Psychology Today explains it like this:
The learning effect is manifest in the growth of existing synapses and the formation of new synapses. In the absence of mental stimulation, the spines degenerate. Indeed, a typical effect of aging is that the brain actually shrinks as a consequence of the cumulative shrinkage of spines. (Emphasis added.)
So, failing to continue to learn new things as we age reverses intellectual growth, makes us more prone to illnesses of the mind, illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Of course, though, a hobby does not have to be classified as intellectual to involve learning. Almost certainly, any new activity is going to involve some degree of learning, and will, by consequence, be somewhere on the spectrum of being an intellectual pursuit.
My latest obsession, er, hobby, is mountain biking, and while most people would not categorize this as an intellectual pursuit—myself included—there is a good deal of learning that happens. Over time, I came to learn that some bikes are better than others, and why; I learned that not all group sets—essentially a bike’s transmission/power train—are created equal; I had to learn the different parts of a bike, how to diagnose a problem with my “rig” and how to fix it. I had to purchase a set of tools specific to working on a bike, as well as gear to ride in warm weather, cold weather, rainy weather, etc. That involved research: I had to learn. In addition to gear or the tools of the trade, there is also a lingo distinctive to each hobby. The vernacular that’s used in outdoor or adventure sports, such as kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing, is not the same that’s used in other past times such as, say, yoga, perhaps, or birdwatching. Some of this you’ve already read: “rig”, “group-set”. When I’m out there with my crew, we might be cheering each other on with fist bumps and high fives, hollering or congratulating: “Keep pushing, you’re almost there”: “Send it!”: “Dude, you fucking killed it today!”, or “Bro, that was soooo sketchy, but you crushed it!”. It’s hard to imagine a group of birders acting like that, or using that type of language when spotting a rare bird, or a bird far from its usual nesting or migrating range, especially when silence might be essential to the act. Mark Faherty, an ornithologist whose bird report has a regular spot on my local NPR station, usually finishes or begins his report with a witty pun on a bird name, theme, or saying. Instead of naming features on a trail—a skinny, a roller, a burm—Faherty’s listeners might be expected to recognize land formations or features, and locations such as salt marshes and barrier beaches, or certain types of feed or grains that are particular to each bird’s diet; or even families of birds such as plovers, raptors, gulls, etc. However, the differences are only on the surface. Birdwatchers may not worry about how many pawls they have in their rear hub, or how much travel their front and rear suspension carry, but they will know which brand of binoculars are the best or most reliable, what they want from a vest in which too carry their tools of the trade; they may not know what it means to shred the gnar, but they will know where to find any given species of bird during any time of the year. All hobbies involve some sort of learning curve.
Hobbies also provide an opportunity to meet new people, perhaps even find one’s tribe. There seems no end to the negativity brought about by the digital age: online trolls, fake news, misleading information. It’s important to remember, however, the other side of that coin: the internet and the digital age also bring people together. Facebook groups are an awesome place to find book clubs, film fanatics, knitting groups, RC enthusiasts, and anybody who enjoys just about any pastime activity. I’ve met some great friends on mountain bike pages, guys I now ride with all the time. This is my crew. We push each other to try newer and harder trails and techniques. As with any group, the collective knowledge always exceeds the personal. Online groups, such as those provided by Facebook—and there is a group for everything—offer an opportunity to ask questions, find services, watch conversations happen in real time, bringing up or answering questions that we didn’t even know we had. Followers may come to know some of these contributors personally, meeting and spending time with them, going new places, experiencing new things: that’s what life is about. Even passive hobbies such as collecting sports memorabilia or comic books have amazing conventions associated with them. Hobbies possess the potential to enrich our lives.
As opposed to passive hobbies—hobbies that don’t require too much physical activity—active hobbies provide any number of health benefits. In addition to the social stimuli mentioned above, active hobbies such as running, going to the gym, cycling, tennis, greatly reduce stress, improve cardio-vascular function, help prevent diabetes, may prevent or put off age-related illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, and will almost certainly extend life expectancy. To some extent, this may even be true of passive hobbies, if on a smaller scale.
All hobbies, whether active or passive, promote flow, or getting “in the zone”. I’ve written about this before, and I find myself coming back to this idea repeatedly—because it matters. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the book flow: the psychology of optimal experience [sic], reveals to his audience:
In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involves competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: it provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities. (74)
When we participate in, or perform a hobby that we truly enjoy, we focus all our thought and all our energy solely into that activity. That, in short, defines flow: “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (4). Achieving flow-state helps us grow; growth is essential to physical and mental health; hobbies help achieve flow; therefore, hobbies provide an additional avenue to stay physically healthy and mentally sharp.
People easily achieve a meditative state when participating in their hobby. The commonality among this variety of experiences—passive or active hobbies, crocheting, fishing or cycling—is absolute presence in the moment: the focus of the tennis match, the closing of the business deal: in each of these activities, the subject is ever present in, and only in, that very moment of their lives. Hobbies promote that sort of mindfulness: focus, concentration, not thinking about the future or the past, only the immediate present. I’ve often (half) joked with friends that physical activities are a moving meditation; especially physical activities such as hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, that get you outside and interacting with the living planet. Writing this essay, too, has helped me achieve flow. At certain points over the course of this project, I was thinking about nothing but what I was writing on the page, or how I might have to change a single line, or word. All that matters is what’s happening right now as my fingers fly across the keyboard. That is what it means to meditate: simply “to be”.
It’s not the hobby that matters; it’s simply that you have one. Find something enjoyable. If you find that you are not the type of person who is going to enjoy an active hobby, such as running, basketball, kayaking, you might try a passive hobby. Collecting things might be more up your alley, or gardening. Some hobbies probably walk the line between passive and active; you just have to find what’s right for you. You will learn new things, acquire new skills, and in the process of becoming a more complex, more interesting human being, you will find the quality of your life improved.
So pick up something new and give it a go. And get out there.
“hobby, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/87460. Accessed 9 July 2021.
Kimm, Suzy. “The hidden Covid-19 health crisis: Elderly people are dying from isolation”. NBC News, October 27, 2020.
Klemm, William R. “How does learning change the brain?” Psychology Today. January 7th, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/memory-medic/202001/how-does-learning-change-the-brain
Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, Simon and Schuster, 2000