Cross-stitching, anyone? Or how about archery? As new research reveals that an old-fashioned pastime is good for our health, workaholic Marisa Bate reluctantly puts it to the test.
Recently my partner sent me an email with the subject line: Get a Hobby. I opened it to see a link to a new study by the University of Sheffield, which had found that having a hobby unrelated to your job can make you happier at work by boosting your confidence.
I don’t ‘get’ hobbies. In my head, they are the grown-up habits of the girls who were register monitor at school. They took pleasure in being productive, helpful and involved. I, on the other hand, was the girl who hid behind a wall during cross-country. At university I was accused by friends of having FOTP – Fear of Taking Part.
But, armed with the study, my partner had me cornered. Its authors found ‘leisure activities that are either different from work – or similar but pursued in a lighthearted, playful, less serious way – can help to keep people happy and healthy by acting as a buffer between their personal and professional lives. This barrier gives people time to develop themselves and recharge their batteries, which is particularly important in helping to generate and preserve “psychological resources” such as confidence.’
The reason my partner wanted me to take up a hobby was because when I’m not working, I’m still kind of working. I write about women’s issues for a living, and in the evenings I’ll listen to a podcast about the rise of child brides in the US or watch a Netflix series about rape (so zero personal/professional barriers). He believes spending time thinking about something other than injustices against women would be good for me – and he may have a point. But there’s another reason this study was his trump card. Since leaving a job to go freelance, I’ve had a massive crisis of confidence, one he has been the brunt of as tears have flooded the kitchen table night after night. Now there’s solid evidence that if I had a hobby I might be able to rebuild my morale.
Eventually I caved: ‘I’m getting a hobby,’ I announced over dinner. I told him I was joining a book club. He looked at me the same way he does when I tell him that I’m going to start going to the gym four times a week.
‘You read all the time for work.’
‘OK. How about a writing club?’
He pointed out that it’s not a hobby if it’s also your job. And so began the hardest part of having a hobby: finding one. I thought of my friend Louise who does salsa dancing. My mum booked me and her lessons when I was 14, and I was partnered with a 70-something by the name of Snake Hips – so that’s a no-go. Then I made a list. At first, it all sounded a bit Women’s Institute: pottery, knitting, flower arranging, upholstery. Next my mind turned to summer camps – archery, go-karting… Then I remembered a yoga teacher friend telling me that her career started as a hobby – so that’s where I decided to start, too.
Once you’ve found your hobby the next hurdle is commitment: being organised enough to turn up at a certain time each week when work and life get in the way. So I eased into it with a few drop-in classes. I quickly remembered why I never got into yoga (it’s very repetitive) but I enjoy the stretch and feeling in touch with my body. I’m calm and clear-headed after each class. The crop-top-wearing bendy brigade at the front didn’t do much for my confidence but as the weeks went by I enjoyed the learning process. Seeing yoga for the first time as a hobby (ie time out of life) rather than exercise (ie how to get thinner) was a massive plus. I no longer associated it with the guilt of a dress size but more as a moment to catch my breath.
Reading an article about how millennials are bringing stamp collections online made me realise this is a type of hobby that doesn’t have to involve other people. With my FOTP, I’d struck hobby gold. I decided to collect second-hand Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple novels. Brought up on the ITV series, I owned the complete Poirot box set, but I wanted to read Christie’s originals. Although this hobby is technically reading, it was firmly out of my usual remit, and scouring old book stalls for the copies felt like the closest I’d ever get to orienteering.
A dim memory of a school exchange to Toronto began to surface: a friend and I went indoor rock climbing and, as I recall, we had actually been quite good at it. Was this the hobby that got away? I looked up climbing walls near me and wrote it down on my to-do list. Having told one of my most chic friends about my new mission, she mentioned how cool cross-stitching had become, and that she does it to relax. I spent that evening downloading a free course and watching YouTube videos, after buying a kit off Amazon.
But as weeks passed, ‘Try out climbing wall’ remained on my to-do list and the stitching kit lay under a pile of newspapers. The climbing classes were on Saturday mornings but the weeks were clogging up with plans. When are people supposed to do hobbies? I looked at the kit on the table. Who, exactly, was I kidding?
While I was still doing the occasional yoga class, I hadn’t found a second-hand Agatha Christie novel in a while. So I was feeling guilty that my hobbies had not materialised. If this exercise was about restoring my confidence, I’d fallen at the first hurdle. Impulsively, I emailed the members of my former writing club. Years ago, a few of us would meet in the pub after work to discuss our creative writing. Now all leading busy lives, I tentatively asked that we skip the wine and perhaps cram it into a Friday lunchtime once a month. They were as excited about the prospect as I was. I had found my hobby.
Now I’ve gained pleasure from my second-hand Christie collecting, and a sense of achievement from building my strength at yoga. I can see that doing something simply for the sake of it has its own rewards – not everything has to be a race to the top. Today’s value system is rooted in exposure; the more people see you, the more influence – and money – you gain. A private project seen by no one else but me, driven by a simple ‘just because’, is a relief from the relentless show-offy hustle. But I’m also lucky enough to have a job that sometimes feels like a hobby, and maybe that’s why I don’t need extra activities to bolt on to my life. I can appreciate the confidence derived from mastering a new skill, yet I can’t accept the motivation; why would I want to become expert at origami when I could improve my writing – the thing I find most fun of all?
Google co-founder Larry Page once said, ‘You never lose a dream, it just incubates as a hobby.’ My dream has always been to write well. If I’ve lost confidence in my writing, perhaps the best thing for me isn’t wall climbing or cross-stitching but to actually write – though, crucially, in a ‘lighthearted, playful’ way as the study suggests, so that I remember why I found it fun to begin with. In writing club there’s no deadline or fee to negotiate, just people helping you get better at something you enjoy. And surely that’s the foundation for any worthwhile hobby?
Marisa Bate is a journalist who covers stories that impact the lives of women for national magazines and newspapers. She is also the author of The Periodic Table of Feminism.