In this age of the side hustle, it feels like everything has to have an end goal but research suggests it's time to sign up for that pom-pom crafting course just for the sheer joy of it
Words by Clare Thorp
Three months ago, I started learning Italian through an app on my phone. I’m not planning on moving to Italy. I don’t need to learn the language for my job. Aside from a vague desire to spend some time mooching around Puglia mainlining plates of pasta next year, there’s no reason at all for me to learn Italian. But for half an hour every single day, I practise my past participles and plural nouns. I memorise verb endings. I inexplicably (thanks Duolingo), learn how to ask: ‘Why do we die?’
I won’t be reading Elena Ferrante in her native tongue any time soon. But I love those thirty minutes I spend learning something new each day, when I forget about the emails I need to reply to or the latest depressing update in the news cycle. It’s the first time in a long while that I’ve dedicated myself to a new skill that’s totally removed from work. Something that won’t benefit my career in any way. A hobby, if you will… and doesn’t that seem quaint?
Because in this age of self optimisation, it feels like everything we do has to have an end goal. Why do something purely for pleasure when you can turn it into a side hustle, flog it on Etsy, or use it to build your personal brand. The lines between work and leisure have never been more blurred, and few of us carve out time to do something if we don’t think it will lead to something else or look good on the ‘gram.
But there’s huge body of evidence to show that spending dedicated time on leisure activities is good for us, with benefits including better physical health, such as lower blood pressure and stress levels.
A friend of mine, Louise, recently signed up for dance classes. ‘I used to love dancing as a child,’ she says. ‘I’ve spent the last seven years juggling work and kids and have never had time for my own interests. Now the kids are a bit older, I’m trying to do more for my own enjoyment.’
She says she comes away from each class feeling energised and on a massive high. ‘It’s made me realise that it’s unhealthy not to have any interests unrelated to work and family. I’m never going to be an expert dancer but it’s really boosted my self confidence and sense of well-being.’
Claire Moore, who runs her own gym in Sheffield called Believe and Achieve, says having a hobby is vital for keeping a sense of balance in her life. She recently took an eight-week art class, and draws every day. ‘I love my job but could work 24/7 and still have a to-do list. Having a non-work hobby is my sanity. I forget all about work, bills, chores. I also doodle at night so spend less time on my phone.’
Recent research by Sheffield University backs up the idea that hobbies unrelated to our work sphere are good for us. A study showed leisure activities that are either different from work – or similar but pursued in a lighthearted, playful, less serious way – can have a positive effect on our wellbeing by acting as a buffer between our personal and professional lives. Ironically, the research found that pursuing an activity unrelated to work in our spare time can then lead to a better performance when we are at work.
Dr Ciara Kelly, a Lecturer in Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield’s Management School, who led the study, explains this effect is about giving ourselves time to recharge and replenish our psychological resources – and anything too closely related to work won’t give us the mental space to do that. It’s also about equipping ourselves with a more rounded set of skills and experiences. ‘Essentially it gives you more versions of yourself that you can draw from in terms of how you feel about yourself and what gives you your sense of confidence.’
So how do you choose a hobby if you don’t have one? ‘Pick something that you enjoy in the moment and that you actually get a kick out of the experience of doing,’ says Dr Kelly. Thinking about what you enjoyed when you were younger can provide inspiration, or perhaps it’s about finally starting that thing you’ve always wanted to try. You might not be very good at it. That’s absolutely fine. Just make sure it’s got absolutely nothing to do with your day job.