Sarah Green Carmichael

Winter Is Coming. Get a New Hobby.

Howard Schultz once described Starbucks as a “third place.” Unlike home or work, both of which are full of obligations — dinners to be cooked, TPS reports to be filed — Starbucks offered pure relaxation: a place to sit and not do anything.

These days, many of us are stuck without even a second place. We live and work at home. And although Covid-19 vaccines seem just over the horizon, we’re going to be stuck at home for several more months. Many offices remain closed. And third places such as gyms, restaurants and hotels present the highest danger of large Covid outbreaks, researchers have just confirmed.

To stay sane during this time, then, we need a way of creating new mental spaces. I’ve written before about how to keep your work-from-home headspace separate from your live-at-home headspace. But two mental spaces aren’t enough. You need a third — a place that’s not work, and that isn’t caregiving or cleaning.

Enter: the hobby.

A hobby is a pastime that is neither entirely productive nor entirely passive. You don’t make money off your hobby — otherwise, it would be more fairly called a side hustle. But it does require a little active effort. Watching TV is not a hobby; writing a blog about TV is.

And yet watching TV is how Americans spend more than half their leisure time — two hours and 47 minutes every day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey. And that was before the pandemic. After a long day of staring at a computer screen, there is just something a bit unfulfilling about staring at another, even bigger screen.
Watching hours of TV isn’t good for your brain, and binge-viewing has been associated with loneliness and depression, two things no one needs more of. Scrolling social media for hours is just as bad. It takes something a little more active to take our minds off our troubles.

Hobbies, on the other hand, are good for us. A 2016 study of elderly Japanese people found that having hobbies was positively associated with greater longevity. Multiple studies have found correlations between hobbies and reduced stress. Creative hobbies such as drawing, playing music or creative writing may be especially beneficial for beating burnout.

Curious to know how the pandemic had affected my own hobbies, I took one of the assessments that many of these studies use — something called the Pittsburgh Enjoyable Activities Test. Easily findable online, it asks how often you do things like engage in hobbies, clubs or sports, and how often you spend quiet time alone, go out to eat with friends or visit relatives. I filled it out twice — once thinking about my life now, and once remembering what it was like before the pandemic. (I realize retrospective studies aren’t always the best, but we work with what we’ve got.) I was somewhat surprised to find that my PEAT score is a lot better now.

Although there are entire categories of things that are off the table — going out for meals with friends, for example — I’m much more likely to engage in a smaller subset of activities on daily basis, as opposed to “occasionally” or “never.” What’s gone is the variety — I just do the same activities every day. Every. Single. Day.

And that’s because the pandemic has narrowed the scope of what’s possible. Choir rehearsal is out. Sci-fi conventions have been canceled. Travel is a nonstarter. The arrival of winter in the Northern Hemisphere means many outdoor activities such as bicycling and gardening will soon be off the table, too. And winter sports? Well, knowing that Covid spread in resort towns last winter, I’m not eager to get back on the ski lift.

The human mind thrives on a certain amount of variety, as my colleague Ferdinando Giugliano has observed. So we need some new activities to get us through this tough winter. If jigsaw puzzles and baking projects have lost their appeal, how about drawing or creative writing? Or calligraphy, birding, horology, flower arranging, archery? YouTube is full of tutorials, whether for playing an instrument or tying a fly.

Part of the joy of hobbies is finding a new community, and while in-person communities are still out of bounds, there are subreddits and Facebook pages for all sorts of leisure activities. A number of clubs and associations, such as the New York Adventure Club and the Royal Oak Society, are offering lectures over Zoom — usually for a nominal fee. No hobby is too geeky to be without some sort of organized, and now probably virtual, group.

Some might feel too busy for a hobby. But taking half an hour to glue together a model airplane or photograph your neighborhood makes the day feel more spacious, not more rushed. We get to think of ourselves not only as workers, parents or partners, but as beekeepers, quilters, geocachers.

Consider it a form of self-diversification — and diversification is always a prudent bet in an uncertain environment. If you spend the next six months trying your hand at something new, you probably won’t regret it.