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What can hobbies do for our physical and mental health? How can they help us live better and longer lives?
Most people have hobbies, pastimes or interests outside of work or education. There are almost no limits to what the human imagination can find enjoyable.
Vast numbers of people play sports and music with no intentions of doing anything other than enjoying it.
Even when there is no possibility of any financial return, people of all ages love to spend countless hours immersed in their hobbies; playing. People are willing to pay with money and time to engage in their hobbies. Why?
Generally speaking, since we only engage in any activity if it brings us rewards, the payback from putting so much into our hobbies must be huge for us to justify such an ongoing investment.
Even people who claim to have no hobbies or interests have hobbies and interests. If you ask such people what they do with their free time, you might hear: “Nothing, I just watch TV (or online videos).” Their hobby is watching TV/videos, but they don’t consider that a hobby.
Other people claim to have no hobbies and declare that their profession is their hobby. For example, musician Ronnie Dunn, said: “I don’t have any hobbies. Music is my hobby.”
For the purposes of this article, a hobby or interest is an activity that a person voluntarily engages in for the purposes of enjoyment.
As a child, I can recall watching a children’s TV programme. A young man was interviewing a gardener of advanced years and was asking what was the secret of his health and happiness.
The elderly horticulturist talked about the cycle of life and how fascinating it was to watch and be part of creating new life and expounded on the variety of techniques for nurturing each type of plant.
The interviewer pressed the question again. It seemed to me that the interviewer was the only person who didn’t hear what the old man was saying.
What was the wisdom that was being passed on but not heard by the interviewer?
Pursue an interest, let it fascinate and absorb you, make it your focus, and find joy in it (as the old man was demonstrating by example), and that is how to be healthy and happy.
How can having a mind focused on something so absorbing and enjoyable be beneficial to the health of our bodies? When we are in such a state, our bodies are internally bathed in beneficial hormones, enzymes and other self-generated, helpful chemicals that we are only beginning to understand.
When people engage in their hobbies, in most cases, that reduces stress levels. That is, assuming they adopt a healthy attitude. We have all seen people turn a hobby into horror by taking it too seriously. Their levels of cortisol, “the stress hormone,” rise. As with, presumably, all hormones, too little is as harmful as too much; there is an optimum level.
Excessive levels of Cortisol are known to damage our bodies in many ways.
Cortisol enhances mental and bodily functions, which increases the chances of survival in a life-threatening situation while suppressing the body’s non-essential mechanisms (in a real or perceived fight or flight situation).
When people are in love with their interests, they feel good. Absorption in their hobbies blocks out all other thoughts. Blocking out negative thoughts reduces the production of the “bad” hormones. When fully absorbed, a hobbyist and their activity become one and the same; they are “in the zone”.
Being in the zone seems to release or increase the levels of many beneficial hormones, including but not limited to Oxytocin, Serotonin, Dopamine, and Endorphins. Joyful engagement in hobbies seems to trigger bodily repair mechanisms.
The phrase “recreational activity” to describe hobbies, seems to be accurate on many levels, including biochemically.
When a hobby involves learning or physical activity, it triggers the release of growth hormones and neural growth hormones. That enables our minds and bodies to repair, and improve. It seems reasonable to expect that when people engage regularly in hobbies they reduce the level of harmful hormones and increase the levels of health-enhancing hormones.
It seems that becoming regularly engaged in hobbies and interests enables our bodies to maintain the optimum level for most, if not all, hormones.
When a hobby involves being passive, both intellectually and physically, making no or fewer demands on the body and brain, it seems reasonable to believe that the unused organs will atrophy with lack of use and cause long-term health problems.
At the other end of the scale, hobbies that are too stressful, or too physically demanding, will damage health in many ways. For instance, orthopaedic surgeons have to treat large numbers of footballers, skiers and other sports hobbyists for knee injuries.
People who have great relationships with themselves and others tend to live longer and healthier lives. Having hobbies that involve connecting with others seems to create strong and health-enhancing bonds.
Perhaps the shared experiences, the shared passion, the shared language, and the mutual support enable people to feel more connected and, thus, mentally healthier. It could be that engaging in shared hobbies blocks out the negative thinking that is so destructive to so many people.
People who are optimistic seem more likely to engage in hobbies and thus obtain health benefits from those hobbies. Optimism is a driver of all sorts of benefits. Optimists feel better about life, are less likely to suffer from mental health problems, and more likely to be successful, and live longer than pessimists.
Andrew Carnegie, the Elon Musk of the 19th century, used his wealth to set up 2500 libraries across the world, and improved hundreds of millions of lives, said: “If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes.”
Perhaps for many people, one of the keys to high achievement is to choose a profession based on a hobby or to turn their profession into their hobby. Either way, for countless high achievers, life is one big hobby; they play whatever they do.
David Beckham did: “At the end of the day, I treat my job as a hobby. It’s something I love doing.”
Other people love their work and like to engage in different hobbies, too. For example, Robert Duvall, said: “A young actor once asked me, ‘What do you do between jobs?’ I said, ‘Hobbies, hobbies, and more hobbies.’
If you want to live a long and happy life, it seems one of the ways is to choose a hobby and immerse yourself in it. If you already have one (or more), you are on the right track. If you are looking for one, I suggest trying different potential hobbies until you find one that you feel increasingly enthralled by.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.