How Hobbies Bring Meaning to Our Lives

One of the ways I cope with the vagaries of life, from mundane, day-to-day stressors to major events and tragedies, is to focus on one of several life projects that I have cultivated over the years: reading, gardening, aquaculture, and, of course, blogging. These and other activities give me something to look forward to each morning, and serve as a form of therapy, allowing me to suspend all other worries and focus on something as simple yet gratifying as completing a chapter in my favorite book, or watching my plants bear fruit.

Over at QuartzAlex Preston explores the philosophy of hobbies and why they are integral to personal identity and quality of life.

Our hobbies tell a great deal about us and our world: about how we choose to present our lives to others; about the burdensome, expectation-freighted nature of free time; about our slippery relationship with the exigencies of productivity in late-capitalist society. Hobbies are a corner of our existence over which we have the impression of control, a sphere in which we feel we can achieve a kind of mastery usually denied to us in our wider personal and professional lives. In All the Names, José Saramago says that hobbyists act out of “metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe, which is why, using their limited powers and with no divine help, they attempt to impose some order on the world.”

This might seem like a melodramatic way of putting it, but it actually makes a lot of practice sense: in the face of difficult, emotionally training, and / or longer-term goals — finishing college, getting a good career, finding someone to settle down with, coping with tragedy — creating your own little milestones within a particular area of life can feel empowering. In the grand scheme of things, my thriving garden may not count for much, but my ability to help nurture and create something makes me feel more accomplished and successful compared to my continuing struggles with, say, finding a stable, better paying career. Hobbies give us control over these little but gratifying areas of our lives.

There is also a key socioeconomic component with hobbies, which were historically exclusive to the upper classes that actually had the free time to enjoy and cultivate them.

In 1899, the Norwegian-American social theorist Thorstein Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. In the book, he famously coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption,” but also outlined the development of the concept of leisure time. Leisure pursuits, Veblen argued, derived from models established in pre-Industrial societies, where the aristocracy chose economically unproductive professions and pastimes–warfare, hunting, religion, art–while the lower classes performed productive tasks–manufacturing and farming. With the burgeoning of the Victorian middle classes, conspicuous leisure became another form of social emulation, so that having a hobby–being deliberately unproductive–denoted elevated status.

Veblen also tracked the way that leisure time began to play a part in conceptions of identity. In the past, all but the aristocracy had defined themselves by what they did: “since labour is their recognized and accepted mode of life, they take some emulative pride in a reputation for efficiency in their work, this being often the only line of emulation that is open to them.” With one of the by-products of industrialization being free time for the growing middle classes to fill, people began to seek companionship and self-definition in their leisure pursuits. From identity being dictated by what a person produced, we began to conceive ourselves through pastimes which privileged the pleasure of production over the value of the product.

The idea that people are shaped by their hobbies pre-dates the nineteenth century, though. In the first epistle of his Moral Essays(1731), Alexander Pope said that if you really want to know someone, you must find out their “ruling passion.” How they chose to spend time that was theirs, Pope argued, told deeper truths about his largely upper-class readership than the role that birth or society had foisted upon them

It is easy to take for granted how most people, at least in the developed world, have the capacity to enrich their lives and identities with interests and activities that are nonessential on a practical level yet serve a pivotal psychological and existential purpose. There is more to life than trying to meet one’s basic needs; even many animals need some base form of play and recreation to live long and healthy  lives.

We’re increasingly recognizing that Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs got it wrong when it relegated hobbies to a distant corner of “self-actualization” (the fifth and least important of the needs.) Hobbies are of central importance to our psychological well-being. A recent study by Kevin Eschelman at San Francisco State University found that workers recovered more quickly from the demands of their working lives if allowed to indulge in hobbies in their free time. Similarly, Google discovered that its 20% rule–allowing employees to spend 20% of their work time pursuing projects of their own choosing–led to more focused, productive employees.

Even these examples fail to break the linkage between labor and leisure time, though. Tom Sawyer said that “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and… Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” Our hobbies should be a form of dissent, a radical expression of our individuality, a celebration of doing things that we’re “not obliged to do.” In a world in which our work lives and non-work lives are Venn diagrams with ever-growing areas of intersection–part of me dies every time I read a Twitter profile that states that the user’s views are not a reflection of those of his or her institution–hobbies should celebrate their independence from labor.

In other words, leisure and recreation are not the luxuries or secondary concerns they are so often considered to be, but a crucial component of human existence. The freedom to “waste time” doing and indulging in things that seem unimportant or unproductive is a source of comfort, freedom, therapy, or just plain fun. We should make every effort to develop and embrace the activities that give us meaning and happiness, that burnish our identities and psychological well being and perhaps even teach us something valuable and applicable to the rest of our lives (for example, I have learned a lot about the importance of patients during the course of my gardening).

The articles delves into other interesting aspects of hobbies, such as the unusual tendency for humans to make hobbies out of obsolete or archaic activities like collecting stamps, brewing beer, or knitting. The nostalgic aspect of many hobbies reflects a deep seated need to hearken back to seemingly simpler and more familiar times.

Ultimately though, we mustn’t essentialize hobbies –after all, the whole point of them is that they are nonessential and serve any discernible or practical person. It is all summed up by a quote at the end of the article from Aldo Leopold, which pretty much encapsulates my view of hobbies.

Becoming serious is a grievous fault in hobbyists. It is an axiom that no hobby should either seek or need rational justification. To wish to do it is reason enough. To find reasons why it is useful or beneficial converts it at once from an avocation into an industry–lowers it at once to the ignominious category of an ‘exercise’ undertaken for health, power, or profit. Lifting dumbbells is not a hobby. It is a confession of subservience, not an assertion of liberty.

What are your thoughts?

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