Kate Hanselman’s home is like a shrine to hobbies past and present. There’s fencing gear from previous lessons, and two pairs of shoes she used during her love affair with rock climbing. “I find yarn everywhere because I love knitting, and I have a whole set of embroidery stuff,” she says. Plus: stacks of puzzles, her partner’s golf clubs, and equipment from his flying lessons. “Our house is like a full hobby station,” she says with a laugh.
Challenging, fun, and engaging hobbies have the power to make us happier and healthier, says Hanselman, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with the counseling practice Thriveworks. Such pursuits help us grow in creative, physical, or intellectual ways, and can boost self-esteem. Plus, they often foster connection with others. Research suggests that hobbies lead to better physical health, more sleep, lower stress, greater life satisfaction, a larger social network, and improved work performance.
“Hobbies live in the pleasure world, not necessarily the mastery world,” Hanselman says. “We’re not trying to impress the board, we’re not going for a paycheck, there’s no ulterior motive. Hobbies are like dessert—and as a baker myself, dessert is the most important part.”
That resonates with Chris Johnson, who does woodworking, rides motorcycles, gardens, cooks, and runs in his free time. He’s accepted that he’ll never be a master surfer, but that doesn’t dampen his enjoyment of riding the waves. And he’s so taken with beekeeping that 20,000 Italian honey bees now live in his backyard. “I really love learning and figuring things out, and developing an understanding of how things tick,” says Johnson, 35, who lives in Carolina Beach, N.C. His hobbies tend to evolve out of curiosity, boredom, or need. Take the bees: After moving into a new home with a barren yard, he was concerned about a lack of pollinators, so he planted a garden and became a beekeeper. “If you derive joy from your hobby—it doesn’t matter if it’s a board game or beekeeping—I’m confident it will make you a better person in every aspect of your life,” he says.
But where do you start? We asked experts to share strategies for discovering the hobbies you don’t yet know you’ll love.
Ask yourself how you want to feel
Hobbies present an escape—they can help us get out of our head and calm down, says Matthew J. Zawadzki, an associate professor of health psychology at the University of California, Merced, who has researched the connection between leisure and well-being. He suggests asking yourself how you want an activity to make you feel: Mentally engaged? Distracted? Relaxed? Socially connected? It can also be helpful to consider what your life is missing, like creativity or physical activity, and allow that to guide your choices. “Recognize that you have different needs at different moments, and that’s OK,” he says. There’s no such thing as one perfect hobby.
Don’t invest a ton of time and money in a new hobby immediately. Ease in to figure out if it’s right for you, advises Rebecca Weiler, a licensed professional mental health counselor who specializes in career counseling: “You can always do more later.” If you’re wondering if paintballing might be a good fit, join an outing or two with a local Meetup group. Or sign up for a one-time pottery class, rather than a set of eight.
It’s also smart to resist the pressure to over-commit. Hanselman enjoyed learning to fence, but the next step was competing, and she didn’t want to do that, so she stopped. “You spend enough of your day pushing yourself,” she says. “Hobbies are supposed to be fun.”
Keeping an open mind and not dismissing potential hobbies—even if they seem out of your wheelhouse—is key, says Katina Bajaj, a clinical psychology researcher and co-founder of Daydreamers, a company that aims to help adults tap into their imagination, creativity, and curiosity. She and her husband recently went hiking in San Francisco, where they live, and someone handed them a pamphlet of plants to look for along the trail, like miner’s lettuce. Instead of tossing it, they paid attention—and have now embraced foraging as a new hobby. “We’re wired as humans to be curious and open, but in a very burned-out world, we forget that,” she says. “It’s the first thing to go.” So next time someone hands you a flyer, or invites you to tag along to an event, seize the opportunity. It could introduce you to something you never guessed you’d love.
Take a trip back in time
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? The answer could point you toward an appealing hobby, Weiler says. “If you wanted to be a major league player, what can you do now that fulfills that urge for you?” she asks. Joining a softball team or coaching neighborhood kids could help reignite a long-dormant passion.
The nostalgia doesn’t have to stop there. Revisit activities you loved when you were young, Bajaj suggests, like drawing pictures, putting together model kits, collecting things, or building clay figures. Doing so “is a really helpful place to start, and it allows you to feel comfortable,” she says. Childhood delights can easily evolve into adult hobbies.
Go “back to school”
Consider auditing a class at a local university or signing up for a lesson to learn more about a potential hobby, Weiler advises. You’ve always dreamed of writing a novel? Enroll in a fiction-writing program. Fascinated by family history? Take a genealogy class.
Take an assessment
Lots of colleges offer career assessments that can help students determine what to major in and how to navigate their professional lives. You can also use these tools to glean insights about potential hobbies, especially for those “starting from square one,” Weiler says. If you’re a college graduate, connect with your university’s alumni center; sometimes, she notes, they make these assessments available for free. Or, you can pay a career counselor for access to one.
Keep a list
Hanselman and her partner keep a running list on their fridge of all the things that strike them as interesting. “Maybe a month from now I’ll be like, ‘Butterfly garden. Why did I think that was a good idea?’ Or it might be just the right time for it,” she says. Log potential interests as they come to you, and you’ll have no shortage of options to explore when you’re ready.
Remove guilt from the equation
Zawadzki’s research indicates that when people feel guilty about spending time on leisure activities, they experience increased symptoms of depression and anxiety. “Give yourself permission to do something that you like,” he urges—and keep in mind that if a hobby makes you healthier and happier, everyone around you will benefit.
Think of discovering new hobbies as an adventure that will add fulfilling new dimensions to your life, and enjoy the process. “I sneakily suspect that we have more leisure and hobbies in us than we realize,” he says.
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