Last spring, I forgot the word for hobby. I was on a hike with friends, and I was explaining how much happier my spouse had become recently after starting a band with some friends.
“It’s just nice for them, I think, to have this creative outlet that’s not their job,” I told my friends. “It doesn’t have to be something that brings them money, just something that lets them unwind and have fun.”
My friends reminded me there was a word for that.
For many of us, expectations of an “always-on” working life have made hobbies a thing of the past, relegated to mere memories of what we used to do in our free time. Worse still, many hobbies have morphed into the dreaded side hustle or as paths to career development, turning the things we ostensibly do for fun into … more work. (“Like embroidery? You should be selling your creations on Etsy!”).
But it’s time to divest hobbies from productivity. Their value lies in more than their relationship to work. Yes, studies have shown that having a hobby can make you more productive at work, but hobbies can also remind you that work isn’t everything.
“Isn’t it telling that you forgot?” said Brigid Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time,” when I told her I had blanked on the word.
“That’s so indicative of where we are in our culture right now, that you can actually forget what it is to have something you like to do that’s not a) tied to work and b) productive,” Ms. Schulte said.
While researching her book Ms. Schulte realized how many “lifehacks” make hobbies out to be keys to productivity rather than activities just meant to be enjoyed, and she saw that it was difficult for people to get out of that way of thinking.
But eventually, she found that people responded to “neuroscience and research about how you need a space where you’re calm that leads to insight.” Yet even with that knowledge in hand, Ms. Schulte said, people still saw hobbies as means to improve their performance at work. “That’s the only way I can break through to people about why having leisure is important.”
Indeed, Americans’ difficult relationship with leisure is nothing new.
“People forget that when we were negotiating the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, there were three conditions people wanted: minimum wage, 40-hour workweek and mandatory two-week vacation,” Ms. Schulte said. We got two out of three, “and we’ve been stuck ever since.” One in four Americans has no access to paid time off, and those who do often don’t take all of their vacation time or they spend their vacations checking email. Many of us have been taught to hate not being productive, and we’ve structured our culture around work, not play.
The irony of all this is that hobbies do make you more productive, in a way. A 2009 study showed that more time spent on leisure activities was correlated with lower blood pressure, lower levels of depression and stress, and overall better psychological and physical functioning. Hobbies can also jump-start your creativity, or allow your mind to wander and look at problems from a new angle.
Still, framing hobbies this way compounds the original problem: We’ve professionalized and productized our respites from the working world.
“For me, I like to think of leisure in its purest sense — that is, it is time away from work, not facilitating it,” said Thomas Fletcher, chairman of Leisure Studies Association and a senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett University in Britain.
“In thinking about the relationship between work and leisure, I would argue that rather than thinking about how leisure can promote greater productivity at work, a more important consideration is about how work inhibits our leisure time,” Mr. Fletcher said. By viewing work as something we do to support our leisure time, rather than our hobbies as something to lower our stress so we can get back to work, we can actually start enjoying our lives. (I know, wild idea.)
It’s worth mentioning that for many people, there are structural impediments to hobbies and leisure time. It’s easier to have a hobby if you have things like a steady salary, affordable rent and reliable child care. If you’re working two jobs and are on food stamps, you’re a lot less likely to take up watercolors.
But there’s a reason that even those of us with vacation time aren’t taking all of it, and that instead of clocking out at 5 p.m. we’re checking email and Slack until we fall asleep.
“There is this achievement-oriented culture,” said Ms. Schulte, that teaches us that our only purpose is to produce. Why pick up the guitar if you’re not going to become the best at it? Why make something if you can’t sell it? Better spend your time doing something that actually has value. “You get busy and you feel like you don’t deserve it and you need to earn it,” she said.
“Is a hobby actually leisure if we are making money from it?” Mr. Fletcher asked. “At what point does payment turn that hobby into a job?” For him, this is more about hypotheticals than anything, since when presented with actual leisure time, we either don’t take it or feel guilty about it.
“In a nutshell,” he said, “leisure time spent doing what we want to do is aspirational and when it does come about, it is a guilty pleasure (and I emphasize the guilty).”
So what would it take for us to drop the guilt and take up a project purely for fun? According to Ms. Schulte, most people don’t realize the value in their leisure time until they force themselves to take it, and then they can’t get enough of it.
“You have to begin experiencing this kind of time, and once you see what it does for you and how valuable it is, you’re going to want more of it,” she said. “And you will actually make the decision to create space for it.”
Like any habit, taking leisure time or picking up a new hobby has to be actively cultivated. And, yes, they can lower your stress and clear your mind. But the most meaningful benefit? You can finally “sink into the wonderful experience of being alive,” Ms. Schulte said.
Where to get started
Picking up a new hobby or skill takes some effort, but it should always be something you’re genuinely interested in and want to do just for the sake of doing it. Here are a few suggestions and how to get going with them.
How to Be Creative: If you want to pick up any sort of creative pursuit, this guide is a great place to start. Everyone has a creative streak, you just have to learn how to tap into yours