Lately, with the pandemic making international travel impossible, I’ve found myself reminiscing on the adventures I had in foreign countries when I was younger. I caught the travel bug in my early twenties, while I was working on my Ph.D. For a decade, I would spontaneously drop my meager savings on backpacking trips to Indonesia or the Czech Republic or Cambodia. It was sublime.
The summer I turned 25, I spent six weeks by myself in a small seaside village in south India called Pondicherry. I remember spending my days navigating the little town, trying to find the ripest mangoes in the market. I discovered the most delicious okra curry and coconut rice among the food stalls. I remember the faces of the people I befriended on my street, like the chai seller who dispensed steaming cups of sweet tea every morning and the seamstress whose young son played under her sewing table.
I regret that I didn’t cultivate a wider array of hobbies in my twenties, but I’m grateful I stumbled onto my love of travel. As I explore in my new book, The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch the Rest of Your Life, hobbies play a much more important role in our lives than we imagine. They are a key to happiness, balance, and even health.
I’ve found this to be true in my own life. Traveling is one of a few deeply satisfying activities I have outside work and family. These adventures allow me to tap into parts of my identity that I don’t get to experience in everyday life. They allow me to remember who I was before I became a journalist or a mother.
Hobbies researchers (yes, that’s a thing!) have found that most of us pick up our lifelong hobbies in our twenties, and as we move into our thirties, forties, and beyond, we are likely to fall back on activities with which we are already familiar. This is partly because hobbies require picking up new skills, and it gets harder to do this as we age.
Once we hit our late thirties, it becomes much harder to learn how to play the violin, or perfect ballet techniques, or master the nuances of photography, or figure out how to pitch a tent in the wilderness. Even travel, which can seem so instinctive, involves things like figuring out what to do when you get sick in a foreign country. Learning new skills in our later years is actually good for our brains because it improves memory and staves off cognitive decline, but because it can feel so challenging, people tend to give up easily. All this means that if we don’t make a conscious effort to pursue new hobbies as we get older, we aren’t likely to pick them up.
On the other hand, since we tend to pursue the same activities throughout our lives, hobbies are a powerful way to hold on to our sense of self as time passes and our lives change. Hobbies allow us to miraculously travel back in time, to connect with the people we were when we were just starting out in life. Researchers have found that people in their seventies who play the violin, or dance the polka, or sing in a choir are often momentarily transported to earlier moments in their life when they did these things.
Medical researchers have also found that spending time on hobbies is good for your body and mind. People with hobbies tend to be less depressed, have better cardiovascular health, and show more interest in the world around them, which is a marker of good mental health. All of this translates into improving your day-to-day life in tangible ways. Your hobbies allow you to cultivate parts of yourself outside your close relationships, which puts less pressure on your friends and family to be essential to your happiness. When your work gets stressful, having interests outside your job provides a healthy outlet for your anxiety.
The data suggests that we should carve out as much time as possible for our existing hobbies and actively pursue new ones throughout our lives. The problem is that in our hectic, career-oriented culture, many of us treat our hobbies as an afterthought, rather than a priority. This was certainly my mentality. Once I entered my thirties, I found that I had little spare time outside of my job and my growing family. And frustratingly, it got noticeably harder to learn new skills.
As I wrote the book, I decided that there was still time for me to course-correct. I was determined to figure out how to cultivate new passion projects which could carry me through the years to come. To do this, I found people who had gone against the odds and continued to pick up new pastimes across the years. I asked them to share their secrets. One man, a professor named Stuart, was studying for his pilot’s license in his mid-fifties, after mastering martial arts and cross-country motorcycling in the previous decade.
I discovered that people whose lives are full of fascinating hobbies make these activities a priority; they create time on their calendars for them, believing that they are important. They pick hobbies that reflect their identities and personalities, which allows them to express themselves in new ways. And these people are prepared for the challenges; they realize it may take them longer than they might like to learn the ropes, so they’re patient with themselves.
During this quarantine, I’ve found myself with pockets of free time, and I’ve tried to fill them with nurturing new hobbies. I’ve been remarkably prolific. So far, I’ve learned how to knit from YouTube, picked up gardening from a neighbor, and taken a Zoom painting class. As the hobbies researchers would predict, these activities have provided an escape from this incredibly stressful moment.
The other day, I experienced a moment of ecstasy when my rose bush, which appeared to be dying, suddenly produced new buds. It’s not quite the thrill I get when stepping off a plane in a new country, but it came close. So until I can fly again, you can find me pruning my flowers.
Adapted from The Rocket Years by Elizabeth Segran. Used with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth Segran.
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