The Upside of Having a Hobby

The key to self-improvement this year? Your beloved pastime.

The benefits of having a hobby during the pandemic
Sisters Ginger and Heather Berry of This Little Light and Company. Photo by David Stuck.

Two weeks into the first coronavirus lockdown, my fingers longed for silver keys. Why, after nearly 15 years, was I missing my flute-playing days? It wasn’t like I magically had downtime or had suddenly run out of tasks on my to-do list. Something inside me desperately craved grounding, the soothing feeling of being in control of the chaos happening around me. And so, I picked up my neglected instrument, placed mouth to metal, and was filled with—as the French would say—joie de vivre.

From all the Instagrammed bread baking, I know I’m not alone in my revival of leisurely activities. While 2020 downright sucked in many ways, the quarantine year did beget something good: the renaissance of hobbies. Whether we sought out small joys of the Before Times or desired fresh challenges while cooped up indoors, many of us turned to pastimes in order to disconnect from daily pressures and spark creativity in the midst of the mundane.

Lucky for us hobby-hounds, avocations can be fundamental tools on our journey toward self-improvement, as they directly benefit our mental and emotional health. Dr. Elizabeth Carr, clinical psychologist and founder of Kentlands Psychotherapy in Gaithersburg, imagines overall wellness as a pie chart divided into sections like social connection, creativity, self-nurturing, physical movement, mental acuity and the spirit of adventure.

Hobbies, she says, round out that wheel, as they give you the chance to satisfy your internal needs, whatever they may be. Playing an instrument and scrapbooking express your imagination, hiking new trails and learning a new language keep your wanderlust alive (especially when travel restrictions exist), journaling is an outlet for self-reflection and joining a virtual book club fosters critical thinking and togetherness. No matter what you seek to fulfill, hobbies fill your cup—and we all know it’s difficult to be your best self (and help others do the same) when that cup is empty.

Joan Golding of Golden Goodies. Photo by David Stuck.

Take, for instance, Joan Golding, owner of the Olney-based dessert business Golden Goodies. A lifelong baker and mother of four, Golding has found that decorating cookies enables her to tap into several sections of her pie chart at once. After turning her beloved hobby into a professional trade in 2016, she has been able to showcase her creative side, hone time management and develop entrepreneurial skills—she even learned how to film and edit videos of her cookie decorating process.

Golding notes that cultivating community bonds, in particular, has been invaluable to her personal and professional growth. “Baking and decorating cookies [especially during the pandemic] has been a way to connect with others during a time of social distancing because I know that I am helping people celebrate their special occasions, even in trying times,” she says. “I also used that [pandemic] time to learn new decorating skills by taking virtual classes from others in the cookie decorating community.”

At large, hobbies often bolster an internal locus of control, or the belief that you are an agent of your own success or life change. That’s because partaking in a hobby prompts the mind to stay focused on the task at hand, according to Dr. Laura Goldstein, licensed clinical marriage and family therapist and founder of the Montgomery County Counseling Center.

“When we’re completing an activity one step at a time, the process gives us a sense of control over, awareness of and delight in the here and now,” she says. As a result, hobbies are practices in mindfulness, allowing us to not only remain in the present moment, but garner mastery over it. In this way, hobbies can be coping mechanisms, helping us feel less overwhelmed or defeated by past misfortunes or future fears and more resilient in times of strife—both of which are indispensable, especially in the wake of a global pandemic.

Plus, engaging in a hobby can make us feel good about ourselves and our abilities. As Goldstein reminds us, “Hobbies [can] build proficiency, which not only leads to feeling competent, but boosts self-esteem and subdues the impact of [potential or existing] negative emotions.” In other words, hobbies improve our mood and our confidence levels, empowering us to take charge of what we can. (“Control the controllable,” as my husband would say … and he did approximately 1 million times last year.) Carr agrees, noting that increasing self-efficacy—particularly through activities we don’t feel obligated to carry out—enhances feelings of independence and autonomy over our lives. What greater power exists than believing you are capable of flourishing, even during the toughest times?

This rings true for Ginger Berry, founder of local jewelry company This Little Light and Company. In 2019, Berry started the Gaithersburg-based earring-making business with her sister Heather as a self-care side project after feeling overwhelmed from the demands of her teaching job. Not only has This Little Light and Company been Berry’s outlet for both stress and creativity, but it has also challenged her to be the best version of herself.

“My business has helped me practice what I preach as a teacher: learning new skills can be uncomfortable,” she says. “It is easy to get frustrated [when something takes time to achieve], but sometimes that means it might be time to slow down and be patient and kind with yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so I can’t expect overnight success either.” This reminder, according to Berry, has catalyzed boundary-setting for both her business and mental health, allowing her to keep an enjoyable hobby (rather than a chore) and maintain a positive self-perception.

If you find yourself wanting to make 2021 one heck of a year, consider picking up a hobby. It’ll not only stave off boredom and distract you from the daily grind, but also nurture your personal growth and overall wellness. Solo hobbyists might ask themselves, “What’s something I’ve always wanted to learn that works within my current schedule and lifestyle?” or “What skills or abilities do I want to develop or hone this year?” As for folks looking to collaborate with friends or loved ones, Goldstein suggests creating a list of shared interests, then brainstorming activities you can do together (in person or virtually) to stay connected and maintain meaningful relationships.

No matter which hobby you pursue, I hope it sparks that same joy of living my trusty old flute brings me.

This story originally appeared in our February/March 2021 issue.


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