Leisure activities have always been linked to productivity. But as more of us see the need to opt out of the grind, hobbies could be a way to reclaim our time.
Hobbies, to use the parlance of the internet, are in their flop era.
I know, that’s a pretty hot take, especially considering there’s so much evidence to the contrary. For people who weren’t essential workers or stressed-out parents and teachers, sheltering in place brought with it an unnerving amount of free time. That abundance of seconds, minutes, and hours spurred an interest in activities—idle hands and what not.
A 2021 online survey by Lendingtree found that out of 1,013 American respondents, 59% “took on a new hobby during the coronavirus pandemic,” with 79% saying they would continue their new hobby “after the pandemic is over.”
The hobbies people flocked to were esoteric (birdwatching!), nostalgic (rollerskating!), and homesteader-y (urban farming!). They led to shortages of yeast, seeds, and lumber, and an increase in a specific type of online humblebrag: the performative hobbyist’s finished product.
“Oh, this?” your friend’s photo of a loaf of sourdough bread seems to say. “This was nothing.” (It looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in an artisanal bakery, Greg, but sure! Okay!)
But there was something else happening amidst this mad rush to pick up and sustain a hobby that doesn’t feel particularly leisurely. We’ve gotten away from unproductive play, exploration, and creativity. Nowadays, a hobby is often another type of work for some, one that can be seen as an extension of your personal brand or an opportunity to turn a spigot and secure a stream of revenue. It’s not enough to enjoy reading or sewing; you have to consider being a book influencer on TikTok or setting up an Etsy shop.
Why do I feel like I have to girlboss my way to a hobby?
This doesn’t apply to the folks who would genuinely enjoy their pastimes without an audience—the ones we only hear from when they’ve spotted a blue-winged teal in Central Park or when their fire escape tomato plant finally bears fruit. That all feels very wholesome.
No, it’s the performative and grind culture approach to hobbies that l find troublesome. It’s like we’ve taken the same metrics of productivity and excellence expected from work and applied them to pastimes.
Weren’t hobbies supposed to be relaxing? Why do I feel like I have to girlboss my way to a hobby?
How did we get here?
Trying to reclaim my time
That question has been top of mind for me lately. Like most sentient beings, I’ve been feeling incredibly stressed over the last two years. Looking for a solution to all this overwhelm, I’ve found myself saying “I need a hobby.”
Historically I’ve spent more time watching people do their hobbies. I used to cross-stitch and crochet during extended day in my elementary school library, but stopped because I wasn’t as good as my fellow classmates who were advancing on to more complicated stitches.
Now I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to have something outside of work and friends/family to help me find meaning and joy?
Not only that, studies say having hobbies could be good for my health.
“Participation in artistic activities can help decrease symptoms of depression, lower stress response, increase positive emotions, and improve immune function of some people,” said host Les Alfred on an episode of her podcast Balanced Black Girl. “And that’s just from participation: That’s not from being Picasso. That’s not from being Beyoncé.”
But even though studies back that up, this performative hobby trend makes me feel like one has to reach a certain level of acuity, if not outright professionalism, to have one. (Law professor and author Tim Wu took it a step further in a 2018 New York Times op-ed: “When your identity is linked to your hobby—you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber—you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?”)
That could be just my own neuroses, but I don’t think so. No matter the hobby, there’s always a push to improve on your craft: shave time off your jog, start making your own clothes, learn a new frosting technique, turn it into a business.
Now there’s nothing wrong with making money off of your passions. But when the drive to make money morphs into a joyless march to burnout, we have to pause and really take a look at what we’re doing and why.
I want to be able to create for myself and without expectations. To have a pastime that’s purely about my own enjoyment and not about getting likes or about being seen or the best.
But it turns out that this view of hobbies is nostalgic for a time and concept that never existed.
From hobby horse to work horse
According to historians and sociologists, hobbies didn’t have much time being about the “unproductive play” I had romanticized.
Up until the Industrial Revolution, the word had deviated twice from its origin (hobi, a word used around the 1400s meaning “small, active horse”): First, to describe the hobby horse, a wooden children’s toy, and then, in 1816, to describe “a favorite pursuit, object, or topic.” The modern use was still linked to children and play, however, as it initially meant "activity that doesn't go anywhere."
Despite my handwringing, there are examples of low-stress hobbying out there....
Millennials made it through the Great Recession (and are currently keeping tabs on the threat of another) and realized that the school-work-retirement pipeline their parents sold them on was clogged up with subprime mortgages. And Zoomers want a flexibility and freedom that earlier generations could never have conceived.
So that’s how we get the creator class and with it, our interests being asked to carry a heavy load: to provide meaning, pleasure, and sustenance. Having a hobby just for funsies? In this economy?
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Opting out of hustle culture through hobbies
Ok, so hobbies have mostly always been about productivity and economic anxiety and self-improvement. But that doesn’t mean we have to follow suit. Despite my handwringing, there are examples of low-stress hobbying out there we can look to as a guide.
Much of the takeaways I picked up from these hobbyists was the antithesis of the professionals I regularly see on my YouTube, Instagram, and Reddit feeds. For starters, they often had more than one hobby.
But according to a great PBS video on the origins of hobbies, a growing middle class looking to “keep people productive and away from more decadent and frivolous off-the-clock pursuits” led to what historian and author Steven M. Gelber calls “productive leisure.” This leisure was considered socially valuable because it “bridged the worlds of work and home.”
“Gelber states that for the middle-class worker, this created a process of ‘disguised affirmation,’ where you still feel rewarded and happy for not working/taking it easy, but you’re also unconsciously mirroring the kind of productivity you experience and are rewarded for at work,” host Danielle Bainbridge explains.
That workplace mirroring is why sociology professor emeritus Robert Stebbins classifies hobbies as “serious leisure.”
“Under Stebbins’s serious-leisure framework,” The Atlantic reports, “entertainment and socializing are too passive to be considered hobbies and would be classified as ’casual leisure.’ Serious leisure, on the other hand, requires effort based on special ‘knowledge, training, or skill,‘ and people often try to make progress and get better at it over time.”
Several factors have brought us to where we are today, where serious leisure has become even more divorced from spare time. There’s the creation of the weekend, economic disasters like The Great Depression (which turned what were once hobbies into life-saving skills and business opportunities), the emergence of hobbyist businesses and competitions, and the rise of the creator class.
Some could see that last bit as a direct response to how newer generations have called business as usual into question. According to a 2022 Deloitte survey, 46% of Gen Zs felt “burned out due to the intensity and demands of their working environments.” (Millennials feel the same way and were just a percent point below them.)
Wages have stagnated since the ‘70s while the cost of living has increased, causing financial anxiety in both cohorts. As a possible way to cope, “as many as 43% of Gen Zs and 33% of millennials have a second part- or full-time paying job in addition to their primary job,” the report states.
"Not everything has to be made for consumption or monetary value."
Take Brandon Bidwell for example: He plays the guitar and piano, builds Lego sets, designs costumes, and is restoring a busted piano that was once on the set of an old Regis Philbin show. Bidwell didn’t go all in on becoming, say, North America’s foremost refurbisher of pianos graced by former talk show hosts. He picked a bunch of interests that spoke to him, and let each one serve a particular purpose.
“With Lego, for example, I enjoy not having to think,” he explained over email. “It’s almost a creative purge, where I’m just following the steps and appreciating someone else’s work. I find it very relaxing to slowly watch as these tiny blocks become shapes I would never have attempted.”
In author Tim Wu’s Times op-ed, he pointed out that the reason why many people didn’t have any hobbies at all is because “we’re afraid of being bad at them.” Not Bidwell.
“It’s important for me to draw a line with my hobbies,” he continued. “I don’t want my hobbies to become another stress in my life. I do them because the pressure is off. As soon as it feels like I’m obsessing over something being perfect, I take a step back.”
Having boundaries with your hobbies is something Alisha Ramos talks about a lot as the founder of Girls’ Night In, a “newsletter for downtime.” Ramos and her team sends their community of 140,000 subscribers emails about things like the value of low-stakes hobbies and how to nail some basic DIY skills.
For Ramos, tapping into her creativity and hobbies (she calls gardening her “greatest” one) is part of unlearning the “girlboss” rhetoric she absorbed when she first started her business.
“I’m still recovering from that, this notion that my work is my identity,” she wrote in an email. “I’m more than my work, and creativity is one of the best tools for me to reclaim that thought.
“It's so important to destress [and to] remind yourself that you’re a whole human outside of your job,” Ramos continued. “Even better if you don’t share it with anyone or share it on social media. Not everything has to be made for consumption or monetary value.”
Fostering connection and finding opportunities for sharing can amplify the joy of having a hobby.
I can see what Ramos means. Seeking external validation can be a slippery slope; it becomes less about the joy the activity brings and more about the praise of an invisible audience or cultivating a personal brand. It can also start to impact your perception of your work. Now is this loaf of bread good because of how it tastes or the time you were able to check out of your body while you kneaded the dough? Or is it because you scored an intricate design on it, and the picture you posted of it got a bunch of likes?
Yeah, removing social media from the mix could allow one to focus on the doing rather than the final product.
But getting away from the need for external validation is harder to do as an entrepreneur. It’s something interior designer Camille Simmons knows firsthand. A full-time solopreneur for 10 years, Simmons rode the ups and downs of that path and did, if not “it all” then definitely “a lot.” She blogged, she took photos, she did floral design, she designed people’s homes, she opened a brick-and-mortar store.
“I’ve done so much work with so many big businesses…yet all with very little pay or sense of fulfillment,” she explained over email. “Needless to say, the past few years, I’ve been burnt out.”
Since closing her store, Simmons has spent time trying to figure out what’s next in her career. But along with gardening and watching movies, she’s also returned to gaming, a hobby she had put down years ago because she “felt insecure about being a Black girl wasting time on silly things.” (It’s common for people of different classes and/or racial groups to feel like hobbies aren’t a good use of free time as time could be spent improving their station through work, education, or caring for their family.)
Picking up Mario Kart or a Oculus VR headset as been transportive, Simmons says. She’s been able to have fun, thanks in no small part to finding a community of Black women who enjoy gaming too.
“I’ve never felt like I fit in to the communities I belonged to in the past. [Now] I don’t feel like I have to present myself in a certain way. There’s no judgement in buying pink and girly gaming gear,” she explains. “I’m finding other female gamers on Twitch, following their streams, chatting, and learning more about the games I enjoy.”
Finding people who you can relate to because and beyond your shared interests can make hobbies more communal in a way that reduces the need to be the best that can happen in individual pursuits. That doesn’t mean there won’t necessarily be a little bit of rivalry or comparison happening. But it sounds like fostering connection and finding opportunities for sharing can amplify the joy of having a hobby.
It’s helpful to know that hobbies don’t have to be the work-lite activity I’ve seen them as for awhile. I plan on taking a little bit of everything from what Bidwell, Ramos, and Simmons shared as I find what my hobbies are.
I have a bag of yarn and crochet hooks stashed away somewhere in my apartment. Now I think it’s time for me to pick both back up, and see what happens. I can join the crochet club that happens at my local library every Thursday. I envision a clutch of crocheters in a circle chatting quietly amidst the stacks of children’s books and young adult fiction, our hands focused on our projects instead of framing the perfect “in progress” shot on our phones.
And I wouldn’t post the final product on social either. Nope, it would just be about me sitting with fellow crocheters, moving my needle and feeding some yarn through its hook, making row after row of me time.