The science behind why you need a hobby to boost your brain health and self-esteem

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When Dr. Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and author of You Are Not Alone, interviewed 130 people with mental health conditions for his new book, he found a common thread among many of his interviewees: they used hobbies as a way to manage their stress and mental health. 

One person Duckworth interviewed began drumming as a way to calm themselves and felt that the rhythmic aspect engaged them, while another enjoyed the playful nature of routinely going thrifting with a friend: one of them would look for motorcycle parts while the other searched for baseball cards. 

“Engaging in activities, particularly ones that help you feel connected to something—a mission, community, a belief system—are really valuable for people’s mental health overall,” Duckworth says. 

Whether out of desire for connection, purpose or just distraction, it’s no surprise that people began routinely baking bread, puzzling or crafting during the early part of the pandemic—one study even found over half of Americans began a hobby during the pandemic. 

Research shows partaking in a hobby can serve us psychologically and improve well-being. And even though the majority of U.S. adults feel the financial stress stemming from current economic uncertainty, 30% say spending on hobbies brings them the most joy.

So what constitutes a hobby? A hobby, in the straightforward definition, is “a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation,” something other than the required daily duties. In the era of hustle culture, people chase being hyper productive, and hobbies can be a way to stay busy, bolster the cool post-work section of our resumes, or provide another photo op for social media, which doesn’t seem to be the answer. Instead, we should view a hobby as a form of leisure, even self-care, with a focus on doing something that brings joy or relaxation without guilt. 

The key: find something you enjoy and can stick with.  

Hobbies are good for the brain 

Beyond being a helpful distraction from life’s given stressors, a hobby can make us feel anticipation and excitement which promotes the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter in the brain associated with pleasure. Even the thought of that exciting new activity can release dopamine. 

When we get excited about a hobby, we activate the brain’s reward system, which can motivate us to stick with it. 

“You will then start to kind of kickstart the cycle where then you start to expect to enjoy the experience again, and then you become more motivated to seek out that experience,” Dr. Ciara McCabe, professor of neuroscience, psychopharmacology and mental health at the University of Reading tells Fortune

Learning a new skill also helps develop new pathways in the brain and can help us get out of a rut and improve our self-esteem. 

Feeling a lack of motivation or interest in doing things is a common symptom of depression, known as anhedonia, so having a hobby can actually work as a protective measure, McCabe says. 

“Partaking in hobbies seems to predict a kind of resilience against getting depression in the future,” she says. “A hobby might be a way to keep somebody still socializing and engaged.” 

Learning a new skill or having a hobby can also act as a preventive measure touted for reducing the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. Music therapy, which helps treat a variety of neurological disorders like depression, anxiety and Alzheimer’s, draws on this science and can reduce blood pressure and improve mental health and mood. 

It can give us purpose outside of work 

A hobby can reinforce that your identity isn’t tied solely to the work you get done during the day; you’re not only an engineer, but a boxer, craftsman or jogger (if that’s your jam). 

Hobbies, simply put, are “good for the soul,” Duckworth says.

“[They] might give you some sort of resilience that you’re receiving that positivity even when things are bad in other parts of your life,” McCabe says. 

In the era of remote work, it can feel harder to maintain social connections at work. Hobbies can be a way people find another community. Social connections can also improve physical and mental health. About 60% of adults aged 55 and older say they would try a new activity if they had someone joining them, according to a survey of 2,000 Americans by OnePoll.

Not all hobbies need to be social or even traditional hobbies, though, and some can provide you with a sense of purpose that Duckworth deems a “gearshift,”—the pleasure of pivoting and working on something new.

“I don’t know if I’d consider my writing a book for the first time a hobby, but it was a definite gearshift for me, and I think it was fantastic,” he says. “Instead of going to Zoom meetings, I wrote a book.” 

How do I start? 

You don’t need to necessarily make the world a “better place,” Duckworth says. For him, it was writing, and it’s also playing wiffle ball and watching 1940s British war movies. 

It may help to think about the things you liked doing as a kid, and find ways to incorporate those in your life now, however small, McCabe says. Even starting out taking a micro-break to fit in something you enjoy can help it feel less daunting. Mindlessly scrolling can subconsciously take up our leisure time, so being intentional about the time we do have matters.  

A hobby looks different for everyone, and stepping out of your usual day-to-day to energize another part of yourself may even help you manage the stressors you face. Without the pressure of making a hobby a side hustle or following a particular trend, simply try anything because when your reward system goes off and signals your enjoyment, it will be hard to stop. 

“Drumming is so different than thrifting [and] is so different than wiffle ball,” Duckworth says. “I think the magic of it is to find your own path.”

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