Happy hobbies make for happy lives.
When we spend just a small amount of time each day doing positive, non-work-related hobbies, we greatly improve our mental health.
Science shows that hobbies are actually essential to our well-being.
Take a look at this list of the benefits of having hobbies.
As that article says, hobbies are a way of:
- Exercising the brain
- Reducing stress
- Improving social connections
- Getting out of the house
- Learning something new
- And much, much more.
- But not all hobbies are created equal.
When I was a teenager my major hobby was playing video games, which I did for four hours a day every day. Later, when I went to university, I swapped my gaming for dancing and acting. Huge difference. Within a few weeks of changing my hobbies I was feeling more energetic, happier, more connected to society, and I was also hanging around with girls, which was a fantastic bonus.
Changing our hobbies means changing our lives. And better hobbies mean better lives.
In this list, we’ll look at the best hobbies for happiness and mental health. We’ll see which hobbies can stop anxiety, put an end to depression, destress, and boost our levels of happiness. And it’s all acked with scientific proof.
Let’s get started.
The Top 10 Hobbies For Happiness, Mental Health, And Positivity
There are over 100 scientifically proven health benefits of meditation.
Meditations is beneficial to many areas of life. As a meditation teacher, I’ve personally seen how practicing meditation can quickly and powerfully create happiness, physical and mental health, and of course, relaxation. And there are many more things meditation can help with, too.
Do you already meditate? Or are you looking to get started? Either way, I’ve created a free guide to more than 31 meditation techniques so you can get started today.
And if you love meditation, definitely join our Facebook Page. We share meditation tips daily.
Is it just coincidence that mental health issues are on the rise at the same time that dance is in decline?
More people have mental health issues now than ever in history, and less people are dancing. Think about your average black and white 50s movie. People danced in it. And they were happy. Not today. Now no one dances and not many people are happy.
Anecdotal evidence, true. Either way, dancing is good for mental health. In fact, it is one of the best happy hobbies there is, and dancing will work miracles for mental health.
Scientific research has proven that dance can help with everything from happiness, to Parkinson’s disease, to neurological movement disorders.
In a 2008 edition of Scientific American, a neuroscientist at Columbia University wrote that dance simulates the brain and activates sensory and motor circuits to create a “pleasure double play”. (Source: Harvard).
Positron Emission Tomography imaging (a process that takes images of metabolic processes in the body) shows that dance activates specific regions of the brain.
Dance activates regions of the brain associated with coordination, planning, control, movement, and hand-eye coordination. And all of these are improved by dancing.
A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that dancing boosts brain health (one reason we put it in this list of daily brain-training activities. Take a look). The test compared dance to swimming, cycling, golf, tennis, and other physical activities. The researchers concluded that dance is the only physical activity (out of the ones they tested) to reduce the risk of dementia.
Another study in 2012 by North Dakota’s Minot State University showed that Zumba improves emotions, boosts happiness, and enhances cognitive skills like visual recognition.
Dancing makes us happy. Simple.
Want to get started? Take a look at my favorite Zumba DVD.
Now I gotta cut loose. Footloose. Kick off the Sunday shoes.
Acting is a fantastic hobby for mental health. But it can also cause psychological problems.
Amateur acting is generally fantastic. Joining a theatre group is a great way to make new friends. Learning lines is good for the memory. When we perform, we become more mindful of the way we move the body, which is fantastic for mindfulness. And putting on a live show is a brilliant way of getting out of your shell, especially if, like me, you suffer from shyness.
As an actor, I started as an amateur and became a professional.
My amateur career was fun and healthy. Amateur dramatics were fantastic for my mental health. I joined a theatre group, made friends, socialised, learned new plays, and put on great shows. It was all so good.
Then I turned pro.
Turning pro means doing pro things, things like method acting.
As a professional actor, I’ve used many different acting techniques, such as Stanislavski’s “method”. These techniques train us to bring up highly emotional memories to create emotional states that we then use in a show. This can be a cathartic practice. But it can also cause emotional trauma.
When I was preparing for Hamlet, I got far too into the role. I was method acting Hamlet every day. It got to the point where I actually hallucinated that I was inside an old castle in Denmark with Cladius having just killed my dad. And no, there were no narcotics involved in this incident, we’re not talking River Phoenix in the Viper Room here.
Repeatedly digging up emotional memories made me genuinely depressed. And I ‘m not alone. There are countless stories of actors who experienced psychological disorders as a result of acting. The Atlantic has an insightful article about actor and playwright Deborah Margolin that explains more on this. Read it here.
But back to the point: Amateur dramatics are a fantastic hobby for happiness, and incredibly healthy for the mind.
- Mind body exercises (yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong)
Mind body exercise like yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong exercise both body and mind and are wonderfully relaxing.
Scientific research shows that Qigong, Tai Chi, and yoga are effective ways of stopping anxiety, depression, and mood disorders.
Though research is in its infancy, some studies suggest that Tai Chi and Qigong are both effective ways of treating insomnia, cognitive impairment and even Parkinson’s disease. (source: National Library of Medicine)
The 15 million people who practice yoga in North America are also boosting their physical and mental health and happiness.
Yoga is fantastic for weight loss, pain management, illness, strength and flexibility (source: Mayo Clinic). And 90% of people say they start yoga as a way to manage stress and improve mood. (source: Huffington Post).
Yoga slows down the heartrate, lowers blood pressure, and increases heartrate variability. At the same time, it increases neurotransmitters and boosts GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). GABA helps get us out of a narrow-minded perspective and reduces the symptoms of stress and anxiety. One single hours of yoga increases GABA by 27%.
Yoga also helps with depression. One scientific study showed that 20 sessions of yoga reduced anger and elevated mood in those with major depression disorder (source: National Institute of Medicine).
My advice? Choose at least one mind-body exercise to do at least once a week for an hour (my choice is yoga. How about you? Leave a comment).
- Walking / Hiking / Running in nature
Researchers at Stanford have proven what we’ve all known for years: getting out of the streets and into nature boosts happiness and lowers the risk of depression.
The study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, stated that 90 minutes in a natural area decrease activity in the region of the brain associate with depression.
The researchers asked a group of participants to walk either through a forested area or next to a busy main road. They then tested the participants’ heartrates and neural activity. The group who walked in the forested area had reduced activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associate with negative emotions where the other group did not (source: Stanford).
This is especially important news for the more than 50% of the world’s population living in urbanity. City dwellers are 40% more likely to have mood disorders, 20% more likely to experience anxiety disorders, and twice as likely to develop schizophrenia.
Walking and hiking are two of the best hobbies for happiness. But running may be even better, especially at preventing and treating depression.
When we run evolution takes over. We start running and the reptilian brain interprets this as meaning we are in a fight or flight situation (this is why we feel excited when we start running). This fight or flight response initially creates stress. The body reacts by releasing Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein. This protein creates calm and alertness, making us feel cheerful.
Another reason running is a good hobby for happiness is because it allows us to set goals, like personal best times or distances. This gives us something positive to work towards, and a sense of motivation and achievement.
Running gets even better when we run as a group, especially a supportive group. This makes us even happier and improves relationships with the people we run with.
And, of course, the weight loss makes us feel great.
There’s one more way to make running even better. What is it?
If you’re a runner, read this.
- Art / Writing / Photography
Art, writing, and photography are all hobbies with very similar benefits.
Artistic hobbies are a fantastic way of exercising the creative brain. They train the brain to be more creative and more expressive. And they are usually relaxing.
The past few decades have seen the rise of art-based therapy: art therapy, drama therapy, dance therapy… these therapies prove that artistic hobbies can help improve mental health.
Artistic hobbies are good for happiness too. They make us more aware of the beauty in the world, give us a way to express ourselves, allow to create beautiful works, and teach us new skills.
There are two ways to make them even better.
For starters, try practicing real-life art. Draw still life. Photograph beautiful and relaxing scenes. And write about pleasant experiences. This turns art into a mindfulness exercise.
Do you love writing? Take a look at these mindful writing activities.
Considerable research has proven that gardening is good for mental health. And little wonder, between the flowers, the fresh air, and getting your hands dirty, there are lots of reasons why gardening is one of the best hobbies for happiness.
For starters, looking after plants is similar to looking after pets. It’s a responsibility. Something to care for.
I can remember the first time I was gardening. I was a week seven-year-old in primary school. All the kids were given a square foot of earth to plant what we like. I planted lavender because it reminded me of my grandma. And the whole time I had a big grin on my pudgy little face. Even for kids, gardening is a happy hobby.
Gardening gives us a great perspective. Looking at all those beautiful trees and flowers reminds us that we are just one tiny little flower petal in this giant garden of a universe.
Group gardening adds to things. Research in 2003 showed that the collective skills required for group gardening make it one of the best activities for those with mental health conditions and, interestingly, for prisoners too.
Let’s not forget how relaxing gardening is as well. Whether we’re just looking at the flowers or rhythmically thrusting the spade into the earth, gardening is a truly therapeutic pastime.
Let’s go get our hands dirty and plant something beautiful.
- Spending time at the beach
Nothing feels better than putting your shorts (or bikini) on and hitting those golden sands on a warm day.
The moment we get to the beach the body releases serotonin, relaxing us, and the blue sea, even bluer sky, the swash of the ocean waves, and the seemingly infinite expanse of water calms us while the rays of sunlight give us some light therapy.
Getting your vitamin D is important too, and you’ll get your daily amount in just ten minutes of beach time on a warm day. That vitamin D is vital to physical and mental health and produces strong bone and happy minds.
The salt water in the sea is full of anti-fungal and antibacterial properties that can clear out infections (so long as the water is clean, of course—damn industrial pollutants). The water also contains iodine, which is antiseptic and helps boost the thyroid gland, upping the immune system.
While the water is working its miracles, the sand exfoliates the hands, feet and body, getting rid of those dead skin cells. And the sun opens-up the skin pores to detoxify us.
These are just some of the benefits of the beach. There’s also the swimming, the socialising, the connecting with nature…
Spending time at the beach is unquestionably one of the best hobbies for happiness, and it’s great for our health too.
Dana Valden, author of the inspirational must-read Zen cooking book Finding Yourself In The Kitchen, says this:
“Cooking is compelling in part because of the physicality. It requires a kind of engagement that is both grounding and practical.”
Cooking brings together lots of cognitive processes. There’s the creativity of creating a meal, the practicality of following a recipe, the mindfulness that comes from focusing on the senses (smells, sights etc) in the kitchen, and the accomplishment of creating something beautiful.
I personally cook every day on the week at least once, any often three times a day. I do this partly because I cannot stand processed food, partly because I enjoy my own cooking, but mostly because it is so utterly rewarding.
I guess I’ve been doing culinary therapy, which is the new trend in mental health clinics.
Culinary therapy is used for treating many mental health disorders, including anxiety, ADHD, depression, eating disorders and addiction.
The reason cooking is one of the best hobbies for mental health isn’t just because of the healthier meals and nutrition, either. There are many healthy psychological processes that take place when we cook.
For starters, when we cook mindfully (meaning when we are intentionally fully-conscious of what we’re doing) we bring ourselves back in to the present moment. You can red more about this in my guide to learning to cook for yourself.
Then there’s the fact that cooking for ourselves makes us more aware and more appreciative of food in general. Many people eat mindlessly, which is bad both the gut and for the mind. Being more appreciative of food makes us enjoy it more and makes us more likely to choose healthy and natural foods.
Then there’s the creativity. Cooking is a truly creative process, taking the ingredient from their raw state to a finished meal. It’s creativity that ends with a tasty treat.
Cooking is one happy hobby we should probably all do every day.
- Altruism and compassion
For most people, altruism and compassion aren’t really hobbies, but they can be and quite probably should be.
Take a look at this list of the health benefits of compassion. Read it? Go on. Take a look. You will be mind-blown.
Compassion and kindness are two of the best things for mental health. When we are compassionate we create better relationships, heighten self love, improve our sense of self worth, and increase our confidence.
There are many ways to start doing compassion as a hobby. Probably the best is to volunteer for a charity.
The benefits of volunteering include:
- It boosts self worth
- Improves perspective
- Is a good way of making new friends and contacts
- Puts our problems in perspective
- Provides experience
- Protects against heart disease (source: PsychologyToday)
Volunteering is one of my favorite happy hobbies. Trust me, you get more than you give.
Which of these happy hobbies most appeals to you? Which ones do you already do? And what other hobbies would you add to the list?
Leave a comment.