Why Hobbies Make You Happy

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The new year is the perfect time to finally take up ceramics, learn Mandarin, start a book club, start rock-climbing, or plant a garden. In 2018, the Cut has practical advice on trying something new. Make bowls, not just resolutions.

I’ve always considered myself a relatively well-rounded person — someone whose attitude to work-life balance is “healthy,” or at least consistent. And yet early last year at a barbecue in South Africa, a woman asked me a question that caused me to doubt this view of myself — or rather, her response to my response did.

“What do you do?” she asked.

“I work for a magazine,” I told her.

The woman laughed a little, as if she’d found my answer simple. “No, I mean, what do you do?” she asked, then moved on.

Perplexed, I listened to others answer this question over the evening. Some said they were surfers; others said they hiked, and many played music. Some people said they had been trying to improve their cooking skills. Others talked about their kids.

I’ve never heard such a variety of answers to the “what do you do?” question in the United States — we all respond with what we do for work — and that, I think, is no coincidence. Work defines our national identity, so it tends to define us individually too. More than half of us get a sense of identity from our jobs, even though more of us, some 55 percent, feel dissatisfied with them.

While identifying with your job isn’t bad on its own — who doesn’t want to make money doing something that contributes to their self-worth? — it takes on an almost fetishistic quality here. Like when overwork apologists blog about how great it is to take conference calls on Thanksgiving between apple-pie bakes. (In a clumsy stab at social rebellion, this particular blog post is called “My work is my life. Is that a problem?”) Or like when companies weave overwork into their brand identity, a trend The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino documented earlier this year. In a piece about the emergent gig economy, Tolentino examines a series of recruitment ads posted by Fiverr, a TaskRabbit-esque online service marketplace:

“One ad, prominently displayed on some New York City subway cars, features a woman staring at the camera with a look of blank determination. “You eat a coffee for lunch,” the ad proclaims. “You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.’”

Americans, so the cultural-industrial myth goes, are doers. But is that all we are? Not if we want to be healthy, according to Patricia W. Linville, an associate professor at the Fuqua School of Business and psychology department at Duke University. Linville has studied the idea of “self-complexity” — or how a human sorts the many traits, roles, and other identity markers that make up him- or herself. She has found that the narrower a person’s vision of their “self” is, the more prone they are to depression and anxiety. For instance, Linville writes, consider a woman who thinks about her life mainly in terms of her career and her relationship to her husband. If her husband says something dismissive, half of her “self” takes a hit. If her boss issues her a harsh reprimand, again, that’s an attack on 50 percent of her identity.

On the other hand, someone who considers themselves in a variety of lights — as a mother, sister, doctor, surfer, crossword-puzzle wiz, etc. — has less emotional dependence on any single one of these identity “baskets.” Thus, if this person faces a professional setback or deals with a difficult breakup, they will be able to weather it more steadily, and get back on their feet more quickly. A harsh blow to 20 percent of you isn’t going to knock you out.

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Attaining self-complexity is not an easy task, especially if you’ve identified with your work for most of your life. But hobbies can help kickstart the journey. For instance, my friend Allie Rawson, a 25-year-old employee at LinkedIn, is a hardworking person to whom balance does not come easily. But nowadays, in addition to working at LinkedIn full time, she sails and takes improv classes. “It’s really easy for work to become the only thing in your life,” Rawson says. Especially when surrounded by workaholics: Her team is comprised mainly of ex-consultants, so “there is a culture of staying late. It feels virtuous to be working a lot of hours.”

When Rawson first started working, she says, she made many mistakes — typical for someone just starting out, but also unnerving for someone whose identity rests on professional competence. Whenever she went out on the water, though, Rawson relaxed: For a brief time, her negative feelings dissipated. “It was nice to have something I felt I was good at,” she says. “Like, I might not be great at my job right now, but if I go sailing, I’ll feel good.”

Rawson is prone to depression, and she says that having hobbies that represent and nourish her various sides of self is the best means she’s found to combat her symptoms. “It’s important to have more than one way to connect with yourself,” she says. “Having a creative outlet and having a connection with nature are two things that are especially important for me. Sailing and improv fill those [categories].”

Another friend, Kaitlin Hansen, is also an example of healthy self-complexity, though her approach differs from Rawson’s. Hansen’s got a busy schedule, too — over the past year she helped prepare an inmate for his parole hearing, tutored at a federal prison in Brooklyn and worked with the Jails Action Coalition (“and tried to work out once in a while,” she says, laughing). Unlike Rawson, though, Hansen says her hobbies don’t speak to different aspects of her identity. They all align with her view of herself as a person committed to social justice, as does her job (which she admits is an immense privilege). For Hansen, who has enjoyed a fair amount of mental stability throughout her life, hobbies amplify a preexisting sense of self-complexity — and it’s not exactly self-complexity, either.

“I’m not very narrow in terms of what I want to spend my time doing,” Hansen says. “Instead, I know that I will feel happy and content in life if I feel that I have a purpose on this earth, and that I’m part of a community.” Thus, Hansen doesn’t immediately identify herself as an avid reader, a graduate of a prestigious university, or a fellow at the New York City Mayor’s office, even though she is all those things. Instead, she lists herself as a friend — she says her friendships are her main source of satisfaction — as a woman, and as someone who works to improve others’ lives.

In this way, self-complexity takes on a whole new meaning with Hansen — it’s less about how complex she is, and more about how many other selves she connects to. She sees herself as a node in a network, a member of a community. It’s a different approach to complexity, but it leads to a similar stability as Rawson’s. And Rawson’s strategy actually has more in common with Hansen’s than it might seem — beyond amplifying her own self, it connects her with new communities. “Most of the people I go sailing with are 50-, 60-, 70-year-olds,” she says. “It’s nice to have people [in your network] that you wouldn’t meet in your everyday life.”

As we begin 2018, it will be tempting to set work-related goals — again, not a bad impulse. But it’s also worth considering this question in the new year — What do you do? — and how to broaden it. Work aside, what else do you do? Why do you do what you do? What else would you like to be doing? If your job is bumming you out, take a step back and remember that your job is just one part of who you are. You’re complex — that’s what makes you human. And the more you realize your own complexity, the happier you will be.

Why Hobbies Make You Happy