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Ah, hobbies. Once an aspect of life we took for granted, now a key part of staying sane during a pandemic that has sucked the fun and sociability out of the world quicker than a strawpedo.

Sure, you probably love to ski, hike, and perform stand-up at your local open mic, but you just don’t have the time to do them very often. And the venue that hosted the open mic may well have gone under since you last graced the stage.

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Vitalij Sova/Stocksy United

We’re going to help you find that balance. First, we’ll suggest some bangin’ hobbies to keep you company when no-one else can, and then we’ll provide some science backing up the power of a hobby to replenish your mind and body.

As adults, it can be hard to justify hours away from our busy (and often underfunded) lives to devote time and money to learning something new especially when that something is crafting model airplanes or knitting scarves for your dog.

But Stepfanie Romine, a health coach, author, and yoga teacher, has recommended hobbies to multiple clients as ways to cope with anxiety and depression. So, who better to help us guide you through the options of where to start?

Romine once had a client who was struggling with managing her weight. Though the client was trying to be healthy, she started to obsessively dwell on weight loss. She became anxious and depressed, and her constant obsession with her body didn’t make weight loss any easier.

So, Romine encouraged her client to find a new hobby. Once she started learning a new skill, her anxiety started to calm.

“By focusing on things she found joy in, she had less time to focus on her body,” Romine says. “It ultimately helped her find the balance with her weight and life that she’d been fighting to find.”

As frivolous as hobbies may seem, participating in leisure activities can actually make you happier, more productive, and a flat-out more interesting person.

And if you experience anxiety or depression, hopping on the hobby train may be the next best thing to frequenting a therapist’s couch.

Hobbies don’t solve everything

To be clear, Romine insists that if you experience serious symptoms of depression, anxiety, or any other mental health condition, you should seek help from a professional.

But if your experiences are mild, or you’d like to actively manage your mental health through a hobby in addition to talking to a professional, hobbies can be surprisingly beneficial.

At face value, hobbies are good simply because they’re fun, and you should have fun from time to time. But they have a closer connection to your overall health than you might think.

A 2009 study found that those who participated in more leisure activities (such as social outings, sports, and hobbies) had lower blood sugar and stress hormones. They also tended to have low BMIs and smaller waists.

But it goes even deeper hobbies affect more than your blood pressure and waist circumference. They can lead to an “upward spiral of increased well-being,” according to a study.

Researchers found that students who participated in a creative task felt a greater sense of positive personal growth and excitement — basically, they’d do something creative one day and feel more content and enthusiastic the next.

Creativity had a significant emotional impact — and always a positive one.

We don’t really need a ton of studies to see that this is true. You probably know from your own life that whenever you learn a new skill or do something fun, you feel mentally and physically better, and the effects are lasting.

So, why are we so prone to work until we’re exhausted and slumped in front of a Nailed It! binge? (And as messy as many of those cakes are, the contestants are well up on their hobby time.)

How we mess it up: Valuing working hard over feeling good

“We’re so focused on productivity and moving up in our careers that hobbies take a backseat,” says Jen Billock, a career coach. Though Billock regularly knits, crochets, and learns new languages, even she has to remind herself that it’s OK to do something fun.

Self-questioning thoughts like, “Why am I doing this when I could be working?” might run through her head from time to time, but she shuts down that voice and goes back to her hobbies.

“Though that impulse can feel selfish, or even lazy, hobbies are a wonderful way to exercise your brain,” Billock says. Activities such as knitting, painting, or jogging force your brain to function differently than it usually does, which can enhance your creativity and focus.

If you’re especially worried that taking time for a hobby will hurt your work, take a look at this 2014 study.

Its findings demonstrated that creative and meditative activities lead to better performance at work. So, go ahead and start writing rap battles at your desk. Just tell your boss it’s because you want to be a better employee.

After reading about all these benefits, you may feel primed to start a new hobby. But should you pick up cross-stitching or learn the fine art of archery? Crochet or croquet? Baking or Zorbing?

Option paralysis can get in between you and all the fun. So, instead of going down a Google wormhole, here are our most recommended hobbies and the explanations about why they top the list.

Here are some ideas for hobbies that will boost your soul.

1) Knitting/crochet

Fun fact: Knitting uses two needles (sometimes four, but that’s getting advanced) and crochet uses just one hook.

Why knitting or crochet? Because all the cool kids are doing it! Though both Billock and Romine recommend yarn-based hobbies, Romine says knitting and crochet are especially good for overcoming bad habits.

Many bad habits, like smoking or eating junk food, tend to involve repetitive motions (unwrap burger/nom/repeat). A lot of people who try to quit smoking miss the physical action of putting the cigarette to their lips.

So, when you busy your hands with knitting, you’re fulfilling that craving to “do something with your hands,” Romine says.

Romine found that her clients were much more successful in breaking habits when they had something to replace the habits with. And since knitting and crochet keep your mind and hands busy, they work incredibly well.

You don’t need a lifetime’s worth of sock-darning to get handy with a knitting needle. Tutorials are available on YouTube. You could rewatch the A Christmas Prince trilogy, or you could put in hours of work and be rewarded with a lovely pair of convertible mittens. Or you could do both.

If you aren’t interested in knitting or crochet, you could try cross-stitch, puzzles, felt art, or model building. Anything that takes a little hand-eye coordination does the trick.

2) Gardening

If you’d like something more active than chair-based yarn arts, try gardening. Romine recommends this hobby to induce a parasympathetic state.

Your parasympathetic system is responsible for slowing your heart rate, increasing digestion, and generally helping you relax.

“The meditative nature of gardening helps enable your parasympathetic system to take over, which reduces your overall stress,” Romine says.

If you don’t have access to a garden or don’t feel like pulling weeds, Romine recommends coloring. It produces a similar meditative response and is great for relaxation.

Garden-free folks looking to get their fingers a little green can also grow plants and veggies indoors. Not only is it a fun challenge, you can also save money on your food bill! That, friends, is a win-win.

3) Learning a new language

Both Romine and Billock actively learn new languages as a hobby.

Romine admits she does French verb conjugation drills when she wants to do something stimulating. How’s that for smarts and motivation?

Even if you don’t want to spend your spare time drilling être, learning a new language can be incredibly beneficial.

Opening your mind to a new language helps increase your neuroplasticity or your brain’s ability to learn and change. Simply picking up a few flashcards now and again is a wonderful workout for your mind.

Start with an app like Duolingo. It features tons of languages and makes learning feel like a game. Plus, you get all kinds of fun phrases. You could finally learn how to say, “We do not choose who we love,” in Norwegian.

Or maybe give American Sign Language a go — it could lead to you volunteering later and is a completely different way of putting together sentences that’s super fun.

4) Dungeons and Dragons

OK, hear us out on this one…

You might be more about spin classes and peppermint mochas than raiding castles and developing your ability to cast fireballs, but D&D has been enjoying a resurgence of late.

This tabletop role-playing game revolves around a fantasy story weaved by one of your friends, who serves as a Dungeon Master.

Everyone else creates and develops characters with different characteristics, from Barbarian to Bard, and the other players improvise and take actions by rolling dice and building specific traits and skills.

If you’re not inclined toward nerdy goodness and prefer a fast-paced game with friends, then that’s OK. But if you’re looking to foster a hobby because you have far too much free time on your hands, this is both a highly social and deeply creative way to spend it.

2020 has really knocked the wind out of the way we socialize. Being a game that requires very little in the way of a board, pieces, or occupying the same room, you can set up a video chat and the Dungeon Master can run the game remotely.

This is not a solo pursuit. If you don’t feel comfortable coming up with an engaging story on the fly, you can have someone else act as Dungeon Master while you roll your way through their story.

You’ll also need the guide book — available online here — and a set of dice (twenty-sided and twelve-sided variants come into play a lot). It’s involved, complicated, and subject to a lot of rules, so it’s a good idea to find a friend or group to play with when you’re introduced to the game.

The great thing about it is that some campaigns can last years, and you have a group of friends holding each other accountable for keeping the fun going. That’s why we’d class this as a hobby, not a game.

This can spiral into painting tiny figurines (oh, they make those, alright) of your characters and building into reality the fantasy world you and your friends inhabit. Look at that, a hobby within a hobby — whodathunk?

Depending on your group of pals, you can take it super seriously or make the story as exciting as you like. It’s not miles away from getting into acting — but you get to tread the boards in your own home (and do so more than many actors in 2020).

5) Pick up an instrument

Knowing how to play instruments is the gift that keeps on giving.

It takes a lot of practice, but getting passable at guitar or being able to loosely hammer out Christmas songs at your next office party can be the key to a whole new chapter of you.

Learning an instrument also enables limitless noodling, playing around at home, a massive confidence boost, and the ability to play Baby Shark ad infinitum when you want to joke with people.

Of course, there’s a startup cost that varies with the instrument, unless you’ve had a guitar sitting around for years gathering dust. But pretty much every instrument has a “practice” version that’s usually well under $100 and allows you to pick up the basics without overinvesting.

It gets bad press as a “joke” instrument, but an absolutely perfect starter instrument is the ukulele — it’s smaller than a guitar, with softer (and fewer) strings, and you can form entire chords with one finger if you so choose.

You don’t even need to pay a tutor — there are a whole multitude of tutorials on YouTube that can get you to grips with anything from the simplest guitar melodies to the most complicated music production software.

Whatever your journey, try to learn how to bang things and make some noise. A study showed that it boasts a whole bunch of cognitive and social benefits, especially for older adults.

Before you jump into your new hobby of choice, Romine advises keeping a beginner’s mindset. You will be learning a new skill, and that’s not always easy.

Every bum note on a guitar or frustrating knitting technique may well rile you up. Just know that it gets easier as you get better and surrender yourself a little to the process.

Still, it’s irritating to not be good at something right away. To get through that annoyance, remember you’re just a beginner and there’s no rush to learn.

Get excited that you’re mastering a new skill. Feel good that you completed even the smallest part of a new task. This mindset will get you through the toughest learning stage of a new hobby, according to Romine.

After you get through the basics, the hobby will become a much-needed break from your busy life.

And, if you realize you truly hate a certain hobby? Let it go. You want to find something that makes you happy and gets you on a positive track. No-one has a crossbow to your head, forcing you to do this (except maybe Gilbrath the Elder in your D&D game, but that’s literally a different story).

Make time for your hobbies. Seriously — write them into your calendar.

They make you a more well-rounded person and can help keep depression and anxiety symptoms at bay. Whether you start painting, knitting, or making the Ghostbuster’s firehouse out of Legos, you will feel better and massage your busy mind — all while getting better at a skill.

This is only five of many, many ways to spend your time at home. The important part of finding and pursuing a hobby is listening to your curiosity and following it.

So, close your laptop, put away your phone, and get busy on that Princess Leia cross-stitch you’ve been dying to do.