“So, what do you do?” We’ve heard the question (and likely asked it) a million times over when meeting people. It’s the standard line for small talk, but it’s always rubbed me the wrong way. Admittedly, the question itself isn’t the problem. I personally love hearing what people are up to, but the assumption behind the question—“What do you do to make a living?”—often won’t get you to the real stories. For me, I’d rather hear about how people feed their passions than how they pay their bills. For many if not most people, the two don’t go hand in hand. I think those passions might be in shorter supply these days, and it’s a sad turn of events for the collective creativity as well as personal well-being.
With extended work hours and commutes as well as the prevalence of technological distractions, many of us are devoting fewer hours to hobbies. We fulfill the requirements of the day, but what do we end up doing for fun beyond the passive entertainments of the television and computer? And when we do take advantage and do something we enjoy, do we take the time to cultivate our interest? Do we allow ourselves to delve into an activity many times over, to develop a skill for pure enjoyment and mastery’s sake as opposed to practical gain?
Even if we can’t recall the last time we devoted our time to anything resembling a hobby, we can likely recall our parents or grandparents at their pastimes—cooking, creating, tinkering. Maybe your mother sewed clothes for enjoyment or honed a photography talent. Perhaps your dad tended an impressive garden or built furniture. Perhaps a grandparent left behind a collection of poems, quilts, watercolors or birding sketches. If you’re like me, it’s a primary framework for the many memories you carry of them. You can picture them involved in that activity—maybe even teaching you something about it. Their tools and creations filled the house or garage. Neighbors or extended family called on them as the source for whatever their hobby produced, whether it was the best barbecued meats or expert clock repair.
The prevalence of hobbies in past generations wasn’t just a response to the old Puritanical saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” (Okay, maybe for a few folks…) Still, the inclination toward creative pastimes has long been ingrained in us—the product of our evolution over millennia.
Our species didn’t progress by sheer accident, but by random (and then selected for) cognitive jumps and simultaneous cultural innovation. “Emergent creativity,” a product of both these influences, was a boon for humanity. This wasn’t so much about any artistic talent of a particular person, but about the historical creativity that reflected a widespread, often co-occurring surge toward increasing inventiveness on both social and technological levels.
Yey culturally driven change wasn’t all a “necessity is the mother of invention,” “goal-directed behavior” enterprise. The conditions for creativity require experimentation and discovery, which happens largely by accident. A boy discovers that a certain plant leaves color on his fingers, and he later applies it to an animal skin. Another discovers a different rock for sharpening spearheads. A girl plays with a stiff reed and finds she can make different notes with varying perforations. People found interests—and, importantly for our species’ saga, kept at them.
Before archeologists can “find” and mark new developments in human history, they need to find evidence of them happening repeatedly. When relics show themselves in patterns, and a novel form is documented, they’re pinned to the time period related to the particular dig where they were found. But in actuality, many items were likely long in use before the date of the site they were found.
New inventions weren’t made by one person and then circulated over the globe. People everywhere stumbled upon and honed the same inventions by virtue of the same creative process. The process is the key. It might be unusual to imagine, but (once the critical cognitive leaps had occurred) we literally played and tinkered our way into cultural and technological advancement.
Today we live with that legacy, given that those innovators are our ancestors. While we may not have the same motivations toward survival or considerable hours of leisure our Grok families did, a good Primal lifestyle still calls to live out that dimension of our nature through our own play and hobby work—and for good reason. Those who engage regularly in self-selected leisure activities report more happiness and life satisfaction and less negative stress and depressive symptoms. Additionally, and maybe more significantly, they demonstrated lower heart rates, with the positive effect lasting for hours afterward. The “flow” state these hobbies commonly induce offers a potent and ongoing antidote to the physical and mental ravages of stress.
Older people may have more to gain, especially physically and cognitively. A Mayo Clinic study showed older adults who participated in hobbies such as reading and crafting were 30-50% less likely to suffer from mild cognitive impairment than those who didn’t regularly engage in leisure activities. The key here may be the building and maintaining of “cognitive reserves” through the connections these kinds of activities strengthen over time. The more we engage in hobbies that challenge us, the more resilient our brains may become.
Last week The New York Times highlighted enrichment programs for seniors that seek to harness the power of the arts for cognitive and physical health. The programs, which track their own results, reveal positive impacts as varied as decreased blood pressure and depression, fewer falls and doctor visits, and enhanced mood and well-being.
Beyond these suggestions from health-related research, there are experts who likewise push for a hobby comeback. One career coach shares that hobbies have helped her clients reduce stress, manage anger, and enhance work performance because of their potential to “improve…decision-making, creativity and confidence.”
Frankly, the modern hobby horse of specialization can backfire if we’re not investing ourselves in other ways outside our job sites. The best leaders I’ve worked with have not surprisingly been the most well-rounded. I find people who have outside interests to be more engaging communicators and more relaxed, self-possessed people. The less dependent you are on your job for your identity and fulfillment, the less desperate and intense you’ll likely be in the office and the more open to diverse opportunities.
Think back to the time before people assumed you were old enough to be working, the time when they asked you what you liked to do. What was your answer then, and what would it be now? That’s the question I’d argue we need to continue asking ourselves.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Share your thoughts on hobbies as an element of the good life and what your personal pastimes are. What do your leisure endeavors do for your sense of well-being? What opportunities and experiences have they opened to you? Have a great end to the week.
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