'Life is difficult', the opening line of M. Scott Peck's (1978) The Road Less Travelled, is a profoundly simple description of the human experience in the 21st century. The pace of daily life for many of us is intense and unrelenting, with multiple demands on our time, financial resources and energy. The pressure to fulfil obligations at either the office or at home, or indeed to perform the delicate feat of balancing both, leave many with the feeling of being unable to afford adding any further tasks to the day. Yet embracing the challenge of taking on a hobby may well be just the activity we need to enhance our lives. Indeed, once the unrelenting pressures of career and family life begin to abate in the retirement years, the recreational activities and interests we have integrated into our lives become essential to curbing personal stagnation ... by Carl Kingsley, MA (Clinical Psychology) (Stellenbosch University)
As a pastor and practising clinical psychologist I frequently encounter people grappling with the question of meaning in their lives. In my experience, a fundamental lack of meaning so often underpins all manner of psychopathology, including depression, anxiety and addiction. Consequently, the therapeutic process often involves the letting go of maladaptive forms of coping with this deficiency in meaning, and the quest to discover renewed purpose and significance in both oneself and the activities that constitute life.
The psychological need for purpose and significance is inarguable. The physician and author Atul Gawande (2014), in Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, tells of a doctor working at a nursing home who persuaded its administrator to bring in dogs, cats, a parakeet and even a group of laying hens to be cared for by the residents. The results were overwhelming as individuals that had been completely withdrawn, silent, irritable or frequently immobile began engaging more with the nurses, with one another, and offered to walk the dogs or collect eggs from the hens. The use and need for medications for low mood and agitation dropped by 38% and deaths fell by 15%. The doctor posited that the reason for these dramatic shifts in the lives of the residents could be traced directly to the fundamental human need for a reason to live – to discover a sense of personal significance and purpose in daily life.
However, a great societal problem of our times is the emphasis on personal drivenness, productivity, efficiency and pressure to specialize in terms of work, often at the expense of the development of a diversity of interests and recreational pursuits. This leaves many living somewhat one-dimensional, highly stressed lives; straining for success in niche areas whilst in sore need of greater personal enrichment and the cultivation of a healthier work-recreation balance.
So what constitutes a healthy hobby? This question requires that a distinction be drawn between amusement and recreation. The etymology of the word 'recreation' literally means 'to re-create', implying an active engagement of the mind and body that is fun, focused, life-enhancing and restorative. Amusement on the other hand can be mindless – often constituting sitting in front of a television or hand-held device, cycling channels aimlessly or 'binge-watching' series! Although there is a place for the occasional night of 'vegging' on the couch in front of a screen, the results often invoke greater tiredness, a gnawing sense of emptiness, heightened anxiety, and disconnection from ourselves and others.
Living lives in the pursuit of ever more stimulating, exciting, thrilling, or even dangerous amusements will never satisfy – much like a tool being used for the incorrect purpose will consistently frustrate the user – only when we tap into our innate purpose to learn and 're-create' will we begin to feel a satisfaction and sense of significance we otherwise would not have. Alongside such benefits numerous psychological studies over the past years consistently verify positive correlations between creative hobbies and interests and reduction in the incidence of physical diseases, including breast cancer and dementia (Hughes, Chang & Ganguli, 2010; Tominaga, Andrew & Nagai, 1998).
Just as recreational activities provide wonderful benefits in terms of self-esteem, physical health, a sense of personal significance, and a more coherent identity, so too a lack of self-esteem and an inability to live a regulated, balanced life can foster unhealthy dependencies or coping mechanisms. For instance, in my work as a psychotherapist I often encounter adolescents who have become unhealthily dependent on illicit substances or computer games – although they might fiercely assert that no problem exists. Over time, if they are willing, they might come to understand their unconscious attempt to establish a sense of identity by rebelling against society's rules and norms, or escaping into fantasy online worlds that offer them the ability to feel powerful and in control where in the reality of their lives they might feel frequent powerlessness and inadequacy. Facing this reality and choosing to engage in new pastimes, such as team sports or art, that require creativity, mastery and relationship with self and others, often help such adolescents navigate these crises of identity and foster a genuine sense of self-worth.
Life enhancing hobbies, as opposed to unconscious, undermining pastimes, also require that we plan, prioritize and act intentionally – providing a sense of personal agency as opposed to becoming passive slaves to entertainment or amusement's offerings. Deciding to sit down with my cello and work on my technique does bring with it frustration and requires a measure of self-discipline and perseverance. But this in turn always leads to at least one or two moments in which I get to invoke something beautiful and transcendent. This is deeply satisfying!
Think about the things you might enjoy doing: fishing, a team sport, exercise, playing an instrument, reading, writing, hiking, learning a foreign language, collecting and savouring historical objects, gardening, prayer, meditation, or painting. In most cases these activities and interests require intentional planning, personal investment of oneself, occasional frustration, and the embracing of risk or a challenge – and yet these costs are so often what make them most rewarding.
As M. Scott Peck (1978) asserts, 'Life is difficult'. The challenge for each of us on this journey, therefore, is to embrace this reality and choose to tap into our full potential; to transcend our lower instincts that compel us toward passivity or a denial of the responsibility to live each day to the fullest. Courage is simply taking the risk to start!
Gawande, A. (2014). Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Metropolitan Books: New York.
Hughes, T., Chang, C.H., & Ganguli, M. (2010). Engagement in reading and hobbies and risk of incident dementia: The MoVIES Project. Americal Journal of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, 25(5), 432 – 438.
Peck, M.S. (1978). The Road Less Travelled. Arrow Books: New York.
Tominaga, K., Andrew, J., & Nagai, M. (1998). Family environement, hobbies, and habits as psychosocial predictors of survival for surgically treated patients with breast cancer. Japan Journal of Clinical Oncology, 28(1), 36 – 41.
Carl Kingsley is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Somerset West in the Western Cape. He also serves as a pastor in his local church. He is married to his best friend and partner, Anita, and has a passion for reading, trail-running, the ocean and classical music.