Are hobbies a waste of time?

It feels like we’re in an era where productivity and profitability equal value. This culture of achievement dictates what activities are deemed “worthy” and which ones aren’t.  If we engage in actions that will not bring us further to a professional goal, or a benefit, it might seem as if we are just wasting time. Why would you start learning the guitar, if there is a 4-year-old kid somewhere on the internet that is playing better than you ever will? Why make something if you can’t sell it? Or the most basic question of all, why should you even bother?

It’s a valid question, no doubt about it. We are constantly faced with images of other people’s success on social media, or advice from gurus who seem to be doing better than us. This constant comparison can lead to a sense of urgency or even guilt for not doing more. However, I think there is a compelling argument to be made for hobbies. A case for engaging in processes that might allow us to develop our character, broaden our perspectives, and just make our lives more enjoyable. After all, isn’t that what life is all about?

The case of the Bonsai

I (Sanjin) am someone with a wide range of interests, easily captivated by new pursuits. If tomorrow, I stumble upon something intriguing, no matter how strange it might seem at first, there’s a good chance I’ll become obsessed with it. You might think I am exaggerating but it is true. Allow me to illustrate it with a story.

It’s the first year of covid, the spring of the infamous 2020. The lockdown was in full effect in Austria and everyone was confined to their homes. I live in a small student apartment with a roommate, who, as luck would have it, also has quite a few strange hobbies. We were spending some time in the garden when he asked me if I knew what bonsai was. I, like many, thought it was simply a type of tree. But he enlightened me: bonsai was an art form, involving the cultivation and shaping of miniature trees in pots. He told me he came across a video on YouTube on how to make bonsais and thought we might try it. I was more surprised by the fact that he shared this possibly embarrassing new interest of his, than by the definition of bonsai. However, he caught my attention, and I took the bait.

Now, bear in mind that I knew nothing about plants, trees, or anything similar. Until that point, the only plant I had in my apartment was a dead orchid on my window (a gift from my sister; she obviously didn’t think it through) that was “living” proof of the lack of my green thumb. As a city kid, nature wasn’t my strong suit. However, this sparked an episode in our lives that changed my understanding of nature and opened up a whole new world for me – of people, friends, trees, and most importantly, of understanding myself.

my bonsai hobby

Our bonsai adventure moved quickly, and before we knew it, we had a garden full of bonsais. From the ugliest thuja that ever existed (may she rest in peace, that poor thing) to some pretty aesthetic junipers, maples, and pines. Our landlord, not impressed by the ever-growing number of bonsais filling the garden, told me quite clearly: “Please, no more bonsais!”. Realizing we couldn’t hold an infinite amount of them in the garden, we decided to sell them and use any money that we might get to buy tools, soil, pots, and other stuff we needed to upgrade our bonsai game. Lo and behold, in the first week, we sold almost all of the bonsais we had! Every day I was in the garden talking to all kinds of people. Younger, older, families, boyfriends and girlfriends, and bonsai enthusiasts that I never even knew existed (I foolishly thought we were the only ones).

A part of our little Bonsai garden collection. As you can see, the landlord stopped us in time.

To make a long story short, we reinvested the money into our hobby and got some more adventures out of it. However, it lasted about three years, and right now, we only have a few for ourselves. I can’t remember the last time I sat down and did some actual work with them. So, the question beckons – was it a waste of time? We didn’t start a company, we didn’t make a bunch of money or hire other people to work for us. None of the lucrative ideas that one might think of. So was it worth it spending so much time on a niche hobby that most people don’t even understand? – Absolutely.

Hobbies are what you would do if you could do anything

If you look up the definition of a hobby, you will get the following: “an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure.” If money was not an issue, and if you were not defined by your productivity and effectiveness, you would do things that you enjoy. You would not just sit around. Sitting around might be fun for a little while, but eventually, you would die of boredom and wish that you had a problem to solve. But it’s not really the problem itself that you crave. It’s the process of creating, expanding, performing, and, most importantly – learning.

Hobbies make you see the world differently

My little hobby changed the way I looked at the world. Before, I had never noticed a tree in my life, let alone could tell you something about it. But after spending time growing Bonsais, I started noticing the intricate systems that surrounded us, as if I unlocked a new level in a game. Entire ecosystems living and thriving, both beautiful and functional, that I never appreciated before. But it gave me much more than an appreciation for nature. Through my little hobby, I made new friends, cultivated a relationship with beauty and aesthetics that I never had before, developed an eye for symmetry and design, gained knowledge about horticulture, and became a more interesting and creative person in general.

Even though I haven’t tended to bonsais in some time, I don’t feel guilty or unproductive. There’s no sense of abandonment or failure. I know that someday, I’ll return to it, perhaps repeatedly. That’s the thing about hobbies: life will get in the way, and there will be more important things. But you can always go back because it’s not about the goal: it’s about getting lost in the process itself. Time spent on hobbies isn’t wasted; it’s an investment in personal fulfilment and enrichment.

But why not sell it and make some money off it?

As we live in an achievement-oriented culture, it can be hard for people to let themselves do things that aren’t “productive” or tied to work. Many activities that were once enjoyable hobbies might have transformed into “side hustles” or projects that turn out to be… well, work!

When discussing the perks of hobbies, we often ask: what exactly counts as a benefit? For instance, if I said hobbies boost your productivity by 20% and improve your love life by 50%, you might be tempted to give them a shot. In other words, we seek reasons to justify our actions. The more benefits something offers, the easier it is to convince ourselves that it’s worthwhile. Yet, the most important reason to pursue something is simply because you enjoy it! Ultimately, hobbies provide a pleasant escape from daily worries and stress, allowing us to unwind and, well, play!

All work and no play makes everyone dull

As adults, we tend to forget the importance of play, but it’s crucial for both children and adults alike! Research shows that play can foster cognitive, social, emotional, creative, and physical skills through active engagement. The most important thing is that this active engagement is experienced as joyful and meaningful. Companies often leverage this knowledge for team-building activities. Suddenly, you find out that the dull guy from the office next door is actually pretty cool. It seems weird, but you can learn a lot more about people through one play activity than years of working together.

The greatest irony is that hobbies can actually enhance your professional performance! By immersing yourself in play, exploration, and learning, free from the pressures of an achievement-focused culture, you are spending time in the zone of creativity and spontaneity. This mindset shift allows you to approach tasks with a lighter perspective, leading to increased flexibility in problem-solving, thinking, and overall outlook on life.

What does science say about hobbies?

Since this is a scientific blog, we always like to look at the data. One scientific review analyzed various hobbies and found more than 600 ways they can benefit you! Psychological benefits range from decreased stress and an improved mood to the development of creativity, resilience, and self-confidence. Hobbies can also offset some of the negative effects of working long hours, providing a counterbalance to your professional life.

Physically active hobbies contribute to improved physical health and immune function. But that’s not all! Many hobbies open up new relationships and communities, fostering a sense of belonging and sharing. Exploring hobbies can also lead to behavioural changes. They can help you develop healthy habits or, even more importantly, stay away from bad ones.

old people with hobbies
Hobbies become more important as we get older

Interestingly, hobbies become more important as we get older. One meta-analysis looked at over 93,000 older adults and discovered that the ones with hobbies had higher self-reports when it comes to happiness, health, and life satisfaction. They also noticed that people who experienced signs of depression were less likely to be engaged in hobbies. Thus, as we age, prioritising activities that bring fulfilment and facilitate continuous learning and play becomes increasingly essential for maintaining well-being.

What if I don’t have a hobby?

I am jealous of you! There are so many doors waiting for you to open them. The beauty of hobbies and play lies in their ability to take you out of time, where the act of it is more important than the outcome. Therefore, don’t force it or stress about it. Instead, allow yourself to be drawn to activities that pique your interest naturally.

You have the freedom to experiment, change course, pause, or resume without fear of losing anything. It is also clear that impediments are possible, and life can get in the way. There will be more important and pressing issues at a time, and that is perfectly fine. However, remember to integrate some form of play into your life. It has the power to enrich your experiences and ease the challenges you may face.

Conclusion

In conclusion, pursuing your interests and passions doesn’t always have to lead to tangible profits or conventional achievements. However, it can lead to self-discoveries, therapeutic processes, personal growth and friendships, and perhaps just time spent doing the things you love. While not all outcomes may be immediately apparent, they are undoubtedly present. Following your passions is never a misstep. Even amidst a hectic job and numerous responsibilities, indulging in activities you love offers valuable breathing room and clarity of thought.

Life is a tapestry of experiences, and while professional endeavors hold significance, they are just one part of a much larger mosaic. Broaden your horizons, try new things, learn, and explore in your paste and style. You will definitely find that it was worth it. You might also discover things you may not have even thought of…

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