Rediscovering the lost art of having a hobby  

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We all did stuff when we were kids, but many of us stopped when adult life got in the way. However, there’s something to be said for doing things just for fun, says Helen Russell

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I used to be quite the joiner. From Brownies to school choir, my formative years were spent busy doing things – just for fun. Then I became A Grown Up and the hamster wheel of work-commute-socialise-sleep, repeat, seemed to sap all my time and energy.

Since adding a baby to the mix, there’s always some sort of domestic or emotional labour that I feel I could be doing, instead of pursuing a hobby. No one’s telling me I “should” be slaving away over a hot stove (except vice-President-elect Mike Pence), but I’ve noticed that many friends also forget to prioritise their own interests. A recent study even found that the average woman gets just 17 minutes a day to herself. Although, perhaps “gets” should be replaced by “takes” – because my husband suffers from no such puritanical guilt about leisure. His hobbies include cycling, wood whittling and spending an inordinate amount of time and money on fancy designware and lighting (he’s basically a cross between Bear Grylls and Liberace). These are his things. And, impressively, he always manages to make time for them. Which is smart, as it turns out.

While researching a new book, Leap Year, about making changes to improve every area of life with the best get-happy hacks, I found out that hobbies are more than just “nice to have” – they are fundamental for a fulfilled existence.

Having a hobby improves our quality of life, according to Australia’s Happiness Institute. Challenging ourselves to do something different also creates new neural pathways in our brain and learning a new skill can make us happier, according to researchers from San Francisco State University. Like kindling for the fires of change, or replacing a spark plug, hobbies are an easy, instant way to trigger something in our everyday lives and feel refreshed – childlike, even.

Deciding it was about time I did something, just for me, I resolved to be open and willing to try the very next hobby-esque experience that the universe threw at me. Alarmingly, this turned out to be an experimental dance class (damn you, universe!), so I signed up. An instructor wearing sweatbands and Lycra flares told a room full of quaking newbies to move around, “expressing ourselves through our bodies”. Then she said two words guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of any sober Englishwoman: “free dance”. I managed, somehow, not to spontaneously combust and, instead, scuttled up and down like a terrified crab. And yet…

A recent study even found that the average woman gets just 17 minutes a day to herself. Although, perhaps ‘gets’ should be replaced by ‘takes’ – because my husband suffers from no such puritanical guilt about leisure

By the end of the session, I was so far out of my comfort zone that I felt sure the experience must be doing me some good. Yes, it was scary – but then, I reasoned, so’s life. If I could find a way to be more resilient in the relatively “safe space” of a dance studio, who knows what else I might be able to do! So, I agreed to come back the following week. I still felt nervous, but just showing up felt like half the battle won. When the instructor asked us to “flap like a bird”, I found I secretly enjoyed it. When she told us to try “being a wheel”, I spun like a toddler high on cake. And when she asked us “what kind of wheel we’d like to be”’ (if you’ve never posed this existential question, you haven’t lived), I started thinking about how much I’d always wanted to muck about with a potter’s wheel (and, preferably, Patrick Swayze. RIP…). So, back at home, drunk on endorphins, I went online and booked a residential pottery course – for a new-hobbies double-hit.

Five weeks later, I was inhaling the scent of lavender and cow dung in an agricultural village in southern France, under the tutelage of a ceramicist who wore exclusively beige and socks with sandals. She gave a demonstration of how to use the potter’s wheel and fulfil my Ghost fantasy, then I was let loose on a lump of slimy clay… with disastrous results. I made pots that look like genitalia, consistently, despite all efforts to expand my repertoire (it is amazing how easy it is to make earthenware accidentally look like genitalia). By the end of day one, I had cracked nails, glaze-clumped hair and soot on my face. My bizarre, misshapen creations would never see the light of day – but I’d had one hell of a time making them.

And that’s the beauty of a hobby – it’s just for fun. There is no “wrong” and, although scientists may have uncovered a plethora of benefits to having a pastime, the purest of these is surely the joy of doing something just because – because we enjoy it and for the sheer heck of it.

Now, I’m a regular at dance class. Taking time out for myself means that I recharge, so I’m more relaxed and happier. Oh, and I’ve got a pretty racy pot collection, too…

Helen Russell is the author of Leap Year - How to make big decisions, be more resilient and change your life for good (Two Roads, £16.99)

To mark our Small Changes Big Difference Week The Pool' is hosting an evening with Helen Russell at Waterstones Picadilly (London) on 16 January. Tickets are free. Click here to reserve your placE


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