You know those red felt stockings you can get at the dollar store at Christmastime? That’s what my kids used as Christmas stockings for years. It was unacceptable, really, if you consider my lineage. I come from a long line of master knitters and crocheters, and my mother is supremely crafty. At her house, everyone has a homemade embroidered stocking personalized to his or her interests. My husband’s stocking has a race car on it. My son’s features Santa on a train. What hung from our mantel was the felt equivalent of a lump of coal.
So a couple of years ago, despite warnings that it was “very complicated” and “you can just buy one that looks as good,” (my mother and husband, respectively), I purchased the Bucilla Sugar Plum Fairy Stocking Kit. And as I taught myself how to turn pieces of felt, sequins and thread into a dancing ballerina that thrilled my daughter, I noticed something. My mind was so occupied with trying to figure out how to perfectly embroider an eyelash that it couldn’t focus on my worries and concerns. If I did, they somehow didn’t seem as dark and scary. And most surprising of all — this self-confessed cell-phone addict went hours without checking her email or sending a text.
It got to the point where I started looking forward to the time after dinner, when the kids were in bed, and I could escape into the world of felt flowers. With every section I completed I felt myself exhale — physically and mentally. And then I realized: This is what they mean when they say people should have a hobby. Here’s why you need one too — and why investing in a diversion is a worthwhile investment in yourself.
Clear Your Mind
Focusing on a hobby is a way to clear the mental palate. Betsan Corkhill, a knitting therapist who has done research on its therapeutic effects, encourages patients in her pain clinic to pick up their yarn. The bilateral, rhythmic motion induces a relaxing, meditative state.
“If you chose a difficult project, you’re concentrating so deeply that your mind doesn’t have time to think of anything else,” Corkhill says. “That gives the mind a break. If you knit a very easy project, you can go into a state where your mind is just free to roam.”
Jennifer Racioppi, a women’s health and success coach, encourages her clients to pick up hobbies that “help us enter flow states” — something similar to meditation. Flow, she explains, is the state of mind where action and awareness are merged, and you can shut out everything in the world other than what you’re focused on.
Ever look up from a task and find yourself surprised how much time has passed? That’s the flow state. “We can experience flow anywhere: reading a book, listening to music, playing music,” she says. “Hobbies can be intentional ways of entering into flow.”
Ignite Your Creativity
When the mind is focused on something it enjoys — intrinsically motivated is the scientific term — it’s much more likely to think creatively. “There is a lot of research linking intrinsic motivation and thinking outside of the box,” says Racioppi. “If I’m working on a problem, I’m highly creative when I’m in flow.”
Hobbies open your mind to new possibilities. For example, Racioppi was engaged in her favorite hobby — snowboarding — when the solution to a problem at work suddenly came to her. “When I’m snowboarding, I have access to my intuition that, in other ways, I wouldn't,” she says. “It’s in the process of not thinking about it when I get solutions.”
Explore New Social Opportunities
Hobbies can encourage you to interact with other people in ways that don’t ignite social anxiety. For example, if you’re sitting in a knitting circle, you can choose whether or not to make eye contact with others, Corkhill says. If you’re in a book club, you can choose to participate in the conversation. “You’re in complete control of the situation and of how much you participate,” says Corkhill. “So that makes it much easier for some people to attend a group.”
Sports can be the same way. You can interact with people on a soccer team or a tennis court without having to make small talk. Or conversely, getting on a team can give you the social interaction you crave. The genius of it is that you get to choose how much you need or want to have.
Find Stress Relief
Stressed out by a situation with your aging parents? Are your kids giving you premature gray hairs? You might have the urge to put your head under the covers. Don’t. Instead, use a hobby to zone out and calm down.
“The hobby that brings me the most peace is gardening,” says author Traci Bild. “There is something about getting my hands dirty, picking out new plants, seeing them come to life, watering, fertilizing and nurturing them to grow. No matter what's going on around me, when I get done gardening I feel restored, calm, happy and proud of what I just accomplished out there.”
This works because the brain has limited capacity. Overload it with fun stuff, and it doesn’t have room for the stressful stuff.
“The more capacity you’re using up being totally absorbed in a task, the less capacity there is left to focus any attention on any problems,” says Corkhill. “Distraction is one of the most powerful analgesics we know of.”
Concentrate on Unitasking
I enjoy cooking. But often I combine that with listening to the news on the radio, refereeing the latest sibling squabble and checking emails from work — all at the same time! Is all that mental channel-changing the proper way to take advantage of a hobby? No. When we allow our brains to focus on one solitary task, we give it a break. And in doing so, we’re giving it a kind of neural reboot.
“In this day and age, with so many distractions and responsibilities and the complications of technology, if we don't set aside time to lose ourselves in a project, we're doing ourselves a disservice,” says Racioppi. “We want to use the brain in a way that is generative. When you do so, you create and strengthen neural pathways. That has a ton of health benefits in the long term.”
Boost Your Confidence
When I first received the stocking kit in the mail, I was completely intimidated. It was a lot more complicated than I had expected. So when I finished it, I felt like a 9 year old who had to run home to show her mom her latest art project. (I did, in fact, glow when my mother told me how proud she was of me.) Solving problems along the way and realizing I could complete the task gave me confidence in my craftiness I’d never had before.
That chutzpah seeped over into the problem-solving part of my brain. If I could figure this out, what other challenges could I conquer? Zeheria Brown has the same experience when she’s immersed in paper crafting, which she does through her craft business RSVP by Z Marie.
“Finding creative solutions through crafting empowers me to know there is a solution to every problem,” she says. “My crafting mistakes often turn into new crafting ideas. Even when I am given the impossible DOA-task at work I think, ‘Let me figure out a creative solution’ — and it might just come to me while working on paper origami.”