Your Brain Needs A Hobby

You need technical hobbies regardless of age. Not just for entertainment value but for the mental health benefits. Here, I’m using “technical hobbies” as a broad term. Sports, crafts, and cooking are all just as much technical hobbies as learning a computer code. It’s up to you to pick a hobby, or hobbies, that you can dive into and enjoy these potential mental health and cognitive benefits.

I always had hobbies, including things I tinkered with and crafts I made. But I never realized what a crucial role hobbies play in a person’s mental health, well being, and sense of fulfillment.


Avoid the Identity Crisis

Recently, I have witnessed a massive industry down-turn. I saw a lot of my mentors and colleagues do the “happy dance” out the door as they were asked to retire with a nice severance package. On the other hand, there were those who were talking about this year being “their last year” (people also of retirement age with severance packages) but were clearly not happy when the time came. Why not?!?!? I didn’t understand.

Then I started to see the difference. People’s entire lives and identities, without them realizing, had become work. Therefore, they experienced an identity crisis when their full time nine-to-five jobs came to an end.

The people who were fine with the change had a ton of other things going on.They hunted, gardened, took masters level microbiology classes (for fun), sailed, traveled, and each one of these tasks they dove into! They didn’t just hire someone to sail them around the world, but literally learned everything they needed to know to be self-sufficient on a sail boat for three months! They had strong family and social networks built around their communities and HOBBIES! These were the people who did the “happy dance”.

Hobbies provide a sense of identity with a network of fellow gardeners, hunters, sailors, etc. These folks had the other dimension, which fueled and challenged them outside of work.

Keep growing your brain, after your stop growing.

Our school systems utilize the concept of “cumulative learning”. That is, they build on one another; principles from arithmetic form the foundation for algebra, geometry, then finally cumulating in calculus. During our youth, as students, we have these cumulative learning opportunities built into our daily routine. However, as adults, there is no principal or teacher making sure that as professionals (and later as retirees) the cumulative learning process continues.

The consequence is we exercise our brains less. In turn, as the psychotherapist Dr. Luskin put it, our brains begin to “prune back” the underutilized connections. We lose grey matter which is responsible for higher cognitive function. We atrophy.

Technical hobbies provide the perfect outlet to continue the cumulative learning process. It does not matter if you pick gardening, learning a language, or a sport. The process of learning something which builds on itself is the key. Don’t go through the motions of being a player on the field, get into the science of what will make you great.

Just as our bodies stop growing in adulthood our brains also slow down. The difference is that brain growth and cognitive development does not have to stop.

The development assets needed for success.

The Search Institute found that there are 40 building blocks of healthy development for young adults, which they termed “developmental assets”. These assets were broken down in a few categories: support, empowerment, boundaries/expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, personal power.

Technical hobbies support each one of these developmental assets. There is no greater sense of empowerment than learning, problem solving, and figuring out how to do to something new. Our oldest always beams when he says, “I did it all by myself!”

Let’s look at those asset categories again and say it differently. While reading this, pretend your technical hobby is a sport.

This hobby provides a support network, sets challenging expectations, and reinforces discipline, practice, and effective use of time. It is a commitment to myself, my values, and my learning. It affords me the opportunity to meet others and exchange ideas, building my social skills while building a sense of purpose.

Now try this, pretend your hobby is gardening. Reread that last paragraph. All the same points apply. Just replace the coaches and teammates with fellow gardeners and the playing field with your community garden. This is true for any age group: teens, mid-career thirty-somethings, to retirees.

Though the Search Institute’s study focused on adolescents and the developmental assets they need to build, the same holds true for mature adults. The difference is these are assets we now need to retain. Remember if we don’t use our brain, it will prune itself. So once these assets are established, keep them active.

Your brain needs a hobby.

Technical hobbies. If you don’t have one, get one. If you think that instead you’ll sign up for some brain games and get the same result; don’t be fooled by the unsubstantiated claims. There is no research showing brain games help improve cognitive function. There is massive amounts of research showing that technical hobbies do.

Don’t play games. Get a hobby. Do it for your brain.

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