The science behind why you need a hobby to boost your brain health and self-esteem

When Dr. Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and author of You’re not alone, interviewed 130 people with mental health issues for his new book, he found a common thread in many of his interviewees: they used hobbies as a way to manage their stress and mental health.

One person interviewed by Duckworth started playing the drums to calm down and felt the rhythmic aspect engaged him, while another enjoyed the playful nature of regularly saving up with a friend: one of they were looking for motorcycle parts while the other was looking for baseball cards. .

“Engaging in activities, especially ones that help you feel connected to something — a mission, a community, a belief system — is really valuable for people’s mental health in general,” Duckworth says.

Whether out of a desire to connect, out of purpose or simply out of distraction, it’s no surprise that people started regularly baking bread, solving puzzles or tinkering at the start of the pandemic – one study even found that more than half of Americans had started a hobby during the pandemic.

Research shows that participating in a hobby can benefit us psychologically and improve our well-being. And while the majority of American adults are feeling the financial stress of the current economic uncertainty, 30% say spending on recreation brings them the most joy.

So what constitutes a hobby? A hobby, in its simple definition, is “a pursuit outside one’s usual occupation”, something other than the required daily tasks. In the age of hustle culture, people crave hyper-productivity, and hobbies can be a way to keep busy, bolster the post-work section of our resumes, or provide another photo op. for social media, which doesn’t seem to be the case. the answer. Instead, we should view a hobby as a form of leisure, even self-care, with an emphasis on something that brings joy or relaxation without guilt.

The key: find something you love and can hold on to.

Leisure is good for the brain

Besides being a helpful distraction from life’s stressors, a hobby can make us feel anticipation and excitement that promotes the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter in the brain associated with pleasure. Even the thought of this exciting new activity can release dopamine.

When we get excited about a hobby, we activate the brain’s reward system, which can motivate us to stick with it.

“You will then start to re-start the cycle where you will start to expect to enjoy the experience again, and then you will become more motivated to seek out that experience,” said Dr. Ciara McCabe, professor of neurosciences, psychopharmacology and mental health at the University of Reading tells Fortune.

Learning a new skill also helps develop new pathways in the brain and can help us get out of a rut and boost our self-esteem.

Feeling a lack of motivation or interest in doing things is a common symptom of depression, known as anhedonia, so having a hobby can actually work as a protective measure, McCabe says.

“Participating in hobbies seems to predict some sort of resilience against depression in the future,” she says. “A hobby can be a way to always keep someone socialized and engaged.”

Learning a new skill or having a hobby can also act as a touted preventive measure to reduce the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Music therapy, which helps treat a variety of neurological disorders like depression, anxiety and Alzheimer’s disease, is based on this science and can lower blood pressure and improve mental health and mood.

It can give us a purpose outside of work

A hobby can reinforce that your identity isn’t just tied to the work you do during the day; you are not just an engineer, but a boxer, artisan Where jogger (if that’s your jam).

Hobbies, quite simply, are “good for the soul,” says Duckworth.

“[They] could give you a kind of resilience that you receive that positivity even when things are bad in other parts of your life,” McCabe says.

In the age of remote work, it can seem harder to maintain social connections at work. Hobbies can be a way for people to find another community. Social connections can also improve physical and mental health. About 60% of adults ages 55 and older say they would try a new activity if accompanied by someone, according to a survey of 2,000 Americans by OnePoll.

However, not all hobbies have to be social or even traditional hobbies, and some can give you a sense of purpose that Duckworth considers “shifting gears”, the fun of spinning around and working on something. new thing.

“I don’t know if I would consider writing a book for the first time a hobby, but it was a definite shift in gears for me, and I think it was fantastic,” he says. . “Instead of going to Zoom meetings, I wrote a book.”

How to start?

You don’t necessarily need to make the world a “better place,” says Duckworth. For him, it was writing, but also playing wiffle ball and watching 1940s British war films.

It can be helpful to think about the things you loved to do as a kid and find ways to incorporate them into your life now, no matter how small, says McCabe. Even starting to take a micro-break to fit into something you love can help you feel less intimidating. Mindlessly scrolling can subconsciously take up our free time, so being intentional about how much time we have is important.

A hobby is different for everyone, and getting out of your usual daily routine to energize another part of yourself can even help you deal with the stressors you face. Without the pressure to turn a hobby into a side hustle or follow a particular trend, just try anything because when your reward system kicks in and signals your enjoyment, it will be hard to stop.

“The battery is so different from saving [and] is so different from wiffle ball,” Duckworth says. “I think magic is finding your own way.”