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“Useless” hobbies may be vital for your health and holiness

Many hobbies

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John Touhey - published on 05/20/24

A recent study shows that hobbies provide many health benefits. The saints already knew that they could also be good for your soul.

For a few years when I was a boy, I was certain that I wanted to be a professional magician. I asked my parents to buy me books about sleight of hand and to give me magic books for Christmas. I practiced palming coins and forcing cards for more hours than I could count. The high point of my magic career was a show I put on for my little sister’s sixth birthday party. It remains (at least in my mind) one of the great unsung entertainment events of the later 20th century.

I had lots of other hobbies when I was a kid – I made a Frankenstein head for myself out of paper mâché, briefly collected stamps, performed on stage, found out that I didn’t like tennis that much, and even bought an old typewriter from a secondhand shop for five dollars so that I could play at being a writer.

Only that last hobby ended up eventually paying dividends in my adult life, but that didn’t really matter. A hobby isn’t supposed to provide any practical benefits; in fact, hobbies enrich us by their very uselessness.

The stuff we do for fun

A 2023 study in Nature Health defined hobbies as “activities that people engage in during their leisure time for pleasure, such as the arts, crafts, reading, playing games, sports, gardening, volunteering and participating in societies/clubs.” That sounds about right to me, though I might simplify it to “the stuff that we do just for the fun of it.”

I suppose it isn’t surprising that as we get older there are fewer and fewer things that we do “just for the fun of it.”  We often feel guilty if our time isn’t spent on practical things. There is a lot of pressure to make every minute count as we race to grow our careers and build up our bank accounts.

This pressure to be constantly productive may only increase as A.I. technology improves. Faced with algorithms that can churn out data 24/7, we are already starting to feel that we have to keep up. It will be a sad irony if as machines become more like humans, we become more like machines.

But I doubt that will happen. There is something inside us that rebels against the increasing demands of infinite efficiency.  In fact, last year a record number of Americans participated in some kind of outdoor sport. And a recent Gallup poll found that people rated their hobbies as slightly more important to them than making money. Deep down we sense that those useless activities we call hobbies are actually good for us — and it turns out that science agrees.

The benefits of doing useless stuff

That Nature Health study I cited above found that hobbies “involve imagination, novelty, creativity, sensory activation, self-expression, relaxation and cognitive stimulation, all of which are positively related to mental health and wellbeing via psychological, biological, social and behavioral pathways. Participation in hobby groups can additionally provide social support and reduce loneliness and social isolation.” The researchers recommended that countries help people engage in more such activities in order to promote healthy aging in their populations.

Of course, the saints have long understood how important it is to have fun. Regular Aleteia readers will already know that Saint John Paul II and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati were both avid skiers. And that St. Thomas Beckett liked to play chess. But were you aware that St. John Henry Newman wrote novels in his free time? Or that Blessed Solanus Casey played the violin for fun? These examples make me wonder… Is it possible that engaging in frivolous activities could actually bring us closer to God?

There’s only one was to find out. As summer approaches, go ahead and take up hiking, crocheting, role-playing games, fishing or whatever other activity makes you happy. Offer that activity up for the glory of God. Maybe even say a prayer before going out on the tennis court or building that plastic model. Not only will you be benefiting your mental and physical health, but you may even grow in holiness.  

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