Feb. 9, 2004 -- Here's some news for a society with a strong worth ethic: Play is good for you, adults as well as children.
"Participating in leisure activities contributes to your physical and mental health and overall life satisfaction. You're healthier, happier and more cheerful. You enjoy life more," says Howard E.A. Tinsley, professor emeritus of psychology at Southern Illinois University and author of Psychological Benefits of Leisure Participation, a summary of 15 years of his research that involved interviewing 4,000 people with hobbies.
Results were similar for a variety of groups, from high school students to widows.
"People who were more active in leisure activities reported greater satisfaction of life; they scored higher on standardized tests about satisfaction," Tinsley says.
Such also people appear to function better in society. David Schlenoff, a psychologist for the Baltimore County Public Schools, studies the psychology of hobbies and collecting. He's an avid collector himself, collecting and restoring antique cars and motorcycles. He explains why hobbies are good for us.
"As a psychologist, for me to help someone I work with, I need to be as well balanced as I can be," he says. "To do the best I can for my family, I need to be relaxed, I need to be centered. If hobbies provide that much-needed centering and relaxation, then you're more available to the people you love and work with."
Everyone in the family should have hobbies, he adds.
"It's very healthy for children to have hobbies," he says. While it's not uncommon for children to pick up on their parents' hobbies, they should be exposed to a variety of interests so they can pick up their own., he adds.
How do They Help?
Just why do hobbies benefit us so? Theories vary. Dr. John Milton, associate professor of neurology at the University of Chicago, studied the brain activities of professional golfers playing in the U.S. Women's Open and of amateur golfers. He used functional MRI, which detects small changes of blood flow in the brain, in effect "lighting up" a certain part of the brain when it goes to work.
He found that the more proficient someone is at golf, the less their brain "lights up" as they play. And it's important for your brain to be able to go on autopilot, because that frees up the brain, giving it some time to catch up with all that's going on.
Milton uses the example of a child playing with a doll. The child has that activity down pat. Although she looks as though her main task is playing with a doll and she obviously enjoys playing with the doll, what's really happening is that her brain is catching up on other parts of her life, assimilating all that that's been going on around her.
Talk to people about their hobbies and they'll talk about how that kind of absorption.
Peter Price, a professor of internal medicine, physiology and biophysics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, is a rock climber.
He likes rock climbing because it's outdoors and physical. But there's another quality to it.
"It's a total escape from everything," he says. "Basically, everybody who rock climbs says the same thing, you're totally spaced out."
Price and other rock climbers — and anyone pursuing any kind of absorbing hobby — are probably achieving what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, calls "flow." It's a state total absorption in what you're doing. You're free of self-consciousness. Whatever your hobby is becomes an end in itself and when you're in that state of "flow," you're enjoying yourself.
Price says that the total escape climbing gives him is not the reason he climbs, but he can't identify the exact reason that he climbs.
"I just like it," Price says, simply.
That's what many hobbyists give as the reason they do something, says Tinsley. They all say they enjoy it, get pleasure from it, that it's something they choose to do because they simply like it. Science can't really explain this "like," says Milton.
Researchers haven't agreed on whether people who have hobbies are happier and more balanced because they have hobbies, or they have hobbies because they're already happier and more balanced.
The parts of the brain normally associated with pleasure barely light up when people are engaging in their hobby. The pleasure of a hobby may simply be that it puts you in a comfort zone, Milton says.
How to Find (and Justify) a Hobby
Here are some reasons it not only helps to have a hobby, but also how you might choose one.
Get over the guilt. Tinsley says that many people might not think of themselves as thoroughly indoctrinated with a Protestant work ethic, but they are. That makes people feel guilty if they take time off for leisure. "It is the feeling in our society that we need to work and leisure is not a good thing to be engaged in as opposed to industry. But leisure can be quite beneficial," he says.
Finding time for a hobby is another matter, since many Americans feel they have less and less leisure time, Tinsley says. But a hobby can become a family affair. Schlenoff took all of his five children to antique motorcycle events and shows as they grew up. The family would camp for the whole weekend. "The kids loved it," he says. He'd pull the smaller ones around shows in a little wagon as he looked for parts. To this day, dealers who met the children when they were small ask Schlenoff about them. And they met colorful characters such as the self-proclaimed "Ice Cream Man from Hell." Although he looked like the stereotypical tough Harley biker, he was as sweet as the ice cream he'd stocked in his restored three-wheeled Harley-Davidson ice cream motorcycle, and would hand out ice cream treats to kids attending the shows.
Despite their early exposure to cars and motorcycles, none of Schlenoff's kids have adopted their dad's hobbies. "And that's OK," says Schlenoff. "Kids should be encouraged and given lots of exposure to all kinds of different activities to find their own hobbies." And he tried to give his children that kind of opportunity to find hobbies that fit their tastes, talents and personalities.
The hobby doesn't matter. It can be skydiving or teapot collecting, playing war games or collecting foreign currency, collecting Beanie Babies or Barbie dolls. Hobbies are as varied as people, says Schlenoff, and often reflect their personalities. What is important is that it be leisurely for and of interest to the individual. A sense of control is important; people have to feel as though they're making their own decisions, says Tinsley. (That's one reason why it's important for children to choose their own hobby). And, Tinsley says, it has to be intrinsically interesting. You have to have a certain amount of aptitude for it, yet also get some challenge from it.
To find a hobby, or help other members of your family find a hobby, try a variety of activities. Pay attention to how you feel or ask them how they feel afterwards. Paying attention to the feedback you get is a way to find good hobbies. Schlenoff finds some people like collecting because the item they collect reminds them of a less stressful past. Physical activities are what do it for others. "Some people work with their heads all day and choose a hobby to work with their hands and vice versa," he says. "It sort of helps them round out themselves."
Hobbies often are an introduction to a whole new social network. Schlenoff, a motorcycle and car enthusiast since sixth grade, when he used his lawn-mowing and snow-shoveling money to buy car models, has always been active in clubs related to his hobby. He belongs to the Antique Motorcycle Club of America (www.antiquemotorcycle.org/), which has swap meets and shows. Members attend to track down various parts they need to complete a restoration, projects that can take years. "Sometimes the act of looking and hunting for the part is more fun than finishing the motorcycle," he says — a classic example of Csikszentmihalyi's state of flow.