Developing a hobby is not merely an indulgence or an excuse a spouse might use to get out of the house. It’s actually good for you. Mind-body research shows that being absorbed in pursuits you love strengthens your immune system, reduces stress, and improves memory. It doesn’t matter what hobby you choose, as long as it’s engrossing and enjoyable.
“Engaging in pleasurable activities lifts mood, which in turn lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and stress-hormone levels,” says neuroscientist David Felten, M.D., Ph.D., vice president of research at Beaumont Hospitals in Royal Oak, Mich., and an expert in integrative medicine.
The opposite happens when you’re engaged in tasks you find disagreeable—your stress-hormone levels rise, which can lower the body’s production of immunity proteins. Over time that leads to a weakened immune system and can in turn increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. “People who work in jobs they dislike or who live under difficult circumstances can lessen the deleterious effects on their bodies by taking up a hobby,” says Felten. That’s true even of hobbies that require learning new skills—the resulting “good stress” increases disease-fighting immune response.
Hobbies can help you feel in control, which makes handling life’s demands easier, says Erik Rosegard, Ph.D., associate professor of recreation and leisure studies at San Francisco State University. “The sense of freedom that comes from doing something for its own sake and not for external reasons, like a paycheck, enhances self-worth— and that reverberates through every aspect of your life,” he adds.
While time can be the biggest obstacle to pursuing a hobby, Rosegard says the secret is to make a start. “Once you begin,” he says, “it’s easy to get hooked.”
We spoke to six people who swear by their hobbies. We hope they will inspire you to pursue one of your own.
Mom and full-time marketing professional Yoshie Yano-Pennings began studying hula while living and working in Hawaii. Now transplanted to Manhattan, the big city’s decidedly untropical pace has not deterred her. She continues her lessons at the Hawaii Cultural Foundation’s stateside branch and practices on her own or with her “hula sistahs.” “They’re like family. I always feel at home and happy when we’re dancing together,” she says.
Hooked first on Hawaii’s indigenous music, Yano-Pennings’s interest in hula soon followed. Lessons at a local high school were driven by a specific goal: “I wanted to dance for my sister’s wedding in Japan.” Both physical and mental benefits come from hula, explains the energetic Japanese native. “You can definitely work up a sweat doing hula, but for me it’s more mental. I do yoga as well and recognize similarities between them. They both bring mind and body together.” And, says Yano-Pennings, hula’s fluid beauty adds a particularly feminine dimension that yoga lacks.
Yano-Pennings says she can dissipate the stress of her busy day just by thinking about hula’s graceful movements. “It requires a broad and flexible mind. Hula reminds me to enjoy my job, put my soul into it, and smile.”
Now she shares that joy with her daughter, Kailani (Hawaiian for “heavenly waters”). “My daughter is 2, and since she was born she’s been coming to practice with me. She’s even picked up some moves.” Whenever she sees a palm tree, she cries “hoo-waa.” “It gives me a good feeling that she’s getting into hula,” says Yano-Pennings, who is delighted to pass on the tradition and its benefits to the next generation.
The Joy of Cooking
As a trader on Wall Street, Jason Rok, 42, cooks on all burners Monday through Friday. But on Saturdays he heads to the kitchen of the Gotham Bar and Grill on East 12th Street in Manhattan, dons a chef’s jacket and bandanna, and starts his 12-hour volunteer shift chopping tomatoes, peeling carrots, or trimming steak— whatever the restaurant’s weekend chef, Adam Longworth, asks him to do.
Rok says the intense concentration needed to keep up with prep work and orders actually helps him relax. “You’re forced to let other things go, you can’t think about anything else, and your mind starts to unwind,” he says. The highs come when he learns something new. “I get a deep feeling of satisfaction when I achieve a goal. Being able to keep up with the chef’s orders without help was a huge moment for me.” Learning how to hold a knife properly was another proud milestone for the enthusiastic cook.
Rok gave up other interests to pursue cooking. “If I weren’t working at Gotham, I’d be on a motorcycle,” he admits. But cooking is his real passion, so he’s more than willing to shelve other pastimes. “I’m going to eat for the rest of my life, and I want it to be interesting. Plus, the camaraderie and friendships I have with the kitchen staff will be with me forever.”
Going with the Grain
One infant and two new businesses would seem enough to keep anyone busy, but new mom and entrepreneur Sarah Welch, 34, of Westchester, N.Y., still finds time for woodworking. “Power tools are loud, fast, dangerous, and powerful—that’s what appeals to me about carpentry.”
It was Welch’s dad who got her hooked on wood. “He would disappear into his shop on weekends, so to spend time with him I helped out.” She remembers her first project when she was just 8 years old. “We found a pattern for a wooden spatula. He taught me how to use a band saw, and the final product was a success. That memory has stayed with me,” she explains.
Welch’s parents divorced when she was 13, and she gave up woodworking. When she was 20, her mother got remarried— to a man who also happened to be an avid amateur carpenter—and woodworking came back into her life. “I started making picture frames with my stepdad, and I eventually worked up to bedside tables and Adirondack chairs.”
A self-described spontaneous, impulsive person, Welch says woodworking has made her more mindful and patient. “Carpentry is both physical and meditative. You have to slow down and focus if you want to do it right. It’s also helpful for solving problems in general.” Making a joint gave her an idea for a product she needed at Buttoned Up, the homeorganization business she founded. Looking at wood grain inspired her to research information patterns for her data-mining company. “It is very subtle. I don’t go in looking for x, y, or z; ideas just bubble to the surface while I work.”
Keys to Success
The blues—jazz blues, that is—spurred Hal Purdy, 47, to take piano lessons. “I love that music and wanted to play it,” he says. So four years ago Purdy hunted down a teacher for private lessons. “I found a woman right here in Bernardsville, N.J., Mrs. Skerratt. She said she couldn’t show me how to play the blues, but she could teach me the fundamentals, which you really need before you can improvise.”
Although he’s Skerratt’s only adult student, Purdy was unfazed—even when he played at recitals with 5- and 10-year-olds. “At my first performance, I followed a 7- and an 8-year-old. I give lots of presentations for my job, and I do it with ease, but performing for less than a minute stressed me out—in a positive way. It was taking me where I wanted to go,” he says.
Purdy began his musical odyssey with an inexpensive keyboard but now plays on a very special piano. “Not long ago, I learned that my mother’s nephews had a family piano that I could buy from them, which I did.” Upon its delivery, Purdy discovered the piano was a Steinway grand from the 1920s. He had the piano rebuilt—including restoring the keyboard with the original ivory keys (ivory is no longer used on pianos). “Some keys are chipped and stained, but that only adds to the piano’s meaning.”
Purdy practices in a separate room, away from family bedrooms, to wind down before he goes to bed. “I always sleep better after I play.”
When a group of women in Linda Monastra’s San Francisco nonprofit office started a lunchtime knitting group, she eagerly joined. “I wanted to learn to knit, and one member of the group, Barbara Ludlum, taught me. She had been knitting for years and was very passionate about it.” Linda’s enthusiasm infected her husband, Richard; his third grade teacher had taught his class to knit, but he hadn’t picked up needles in the intervening 20-plus years. “Seeing how much I enjoyed it reminded Richard of that happy experience,” says Linda.
Linda and Richard, both 36, knit together in the evenings, often while watching Monday Night Football. In fact, the first thing Richard made was a hat in orange and aqua—the colors of his favorite team, the Miami Dolphins. “I love the idea that I can create things for myself. It’s a point of pride to say I’m wearing something I made,” he says, pointing to the rustic sweater he’s wearing.
For Linda, the sweaters, mittens, baby clothes, and shawls she’s produced aren’t the best part of knitting— it’s the friendships she’s formed. “It’s helped me draw closer to my colleagues, which makes work better. And I’ve met new people, so it’s widened my social circle.” She recalls one woman in particular who, before they got to know each other through knitting, seemed intimidating. “I discovered how kind and creative she was. If not for knitting, we would never have interacted, and I’d still think she was unapproachable.” Richard, who’s an actor, says knitting is perfect for acting gigs. “It’s the best thing to do backstage, because you can still listen for your cue.”
It might also be good for your social life, he adds. “Being male and able to knit—that’s a conversation starter.”