Elisa Missio-Marocchi has been riding horses for as long as she can remember. But in 1992, she took up a sport called combined driving, an equestrian activity where the riders sit in a carriage and get pulled by the horse. She started driving because she thought it looked interesting, but it soon turned into a lifelong hobby.
For this 100 Mile House, British Columbia-based emergency room nurse, combined driving, which she tries to do three times a week, helps her relax. “I feel calm and happy when I work with horses,” she says. “Carriage driving takes concentration – the rest of my day is put on hold when I work with them.”
Missio-Marocchi is lucky she found a hobby she cares so much about, she says, especially considering how busy most of our lives are today. With many of us working long hours, and replacing downtime with phone time, many people are finding it harder to make time for hobbies.
But not indulging in an extracurricular activity – whether it’s sports, stamp collecting or knitting – can make us less productive in our working lives. There’s increasing evidence that hobbies bolster our mental health and improve the way we function both on and off the job. Here are some of the psychological benefits of pursuing a passion during your downtime.
“Having something outside of work to look forward to, that you derive some self-esteem from, lifts your mood and destresses you,” says Jaime Kurtz, an associate professor of psychology at James Madison University in Virginia. When you’re feeling frustrated at work, making something with your hands after hours can give you a sense of accomplishment, she adds.
Some hobbies induce what’s called a state of flow – a sense of absorption so complete, you lose track of time. “People who experience this kind of flow report higher levels of happiness, and they don’t feel as stressed,” Kurtz says.
One UK study found that reading decreased stress levels by 68 percent, lowering heart rate and relaxing tight muscles within just six minutes. In a U.S. study, participants felt 34 percent less stressed and 18 percent less sad while engaging in a recreational activity. Their heart rates also slowed – a calming effect that lasted hours afterward.
Reduced anxiety, increased happiness
Hobbies with repetitive movements, such as knitting, tai chi and yoga, can be especially helpful, as they help you stay firmly rooted in the moment. These activities keep your mind busy, preventing you from worrying about work. They function like mindfulness meditation, a practice that’s been shown to ease anxiety and depression, notes Kurtz.
Attending dance lessons, joining a knitting circle or competing in a sport can also connect us with like-minded people, which can promote positive emotions in another way. “I’ve met so many friends through my hobby,” says Missio-Marocchi. And, as it happens, “our social lives are one of the biggest predictors of our happiness,” Kurtz says.
Improved work performance
Hobbies can boost productivity, too. A study involving U.S. Air Force captains found that creative pursuits such as painting and playing music boosted job performance and improved both problem-solving skills and the ability to work with other people. “People were coming back to work more energized and feeling recouped,” explains Kevin Eschleman, an assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, who worked on the study.
Of course, you don’t want to spend an overabundance of time on your hobbies, no matter how much you enjoy the activity. Some hobbies are expensive and can turn into money pits, while devoting too much of your life to leisure activities can crowd out work commitments.
But if you can find the right balance between work and play, you’ll feel refreshed and reenergized in no time. “Find something that feels authentic and interesting to you, and commit to it,” says Kurtz. “Unfortunately, hobbies can be the first thing that goes when we get busy, because we think of them as a luxury, as opposed to something essential for health and happiness.”