One evening in October, while I waited at the bar for a seltzer with lime, my friend Seth asked me a question I wasn’t sure how to answer: “Do you have any hobbies?”
My brain quickly flipped through a mental scrapbook of activities I do outside of work. I pictured myself cooking, reading, running on the treadmill, scrolling through Twitter. I wasn’t sure any of these constituted a hobby. Though I love to cook, one could argue (as my editor later did) that it was ultimately a means to an end—nourishing my body. I’m a voracious reader, but I also sometimes read for work, or review books for pay. Running is, for many people, a hobby, but for me it’s merely exercise I do to stay physically fit: I don’t run with other people, I don’t try to get any better at it, not really, and I don’t particularly enjoy it.
Seth said he didn’t think he had any hobbies either, though he wanted one. I pointed out that I would consider biking—which Seth does often—a hobby, but he saw it as more of a form of transportation. Beyond our full-time jobs we seemed to be engaged mostly in the activities that sustained our lives: that is, the things that made work possible. And beyond that, we found that we spent much of our leisure time doing things out of habit that we wish we didn’t feel quite so drawn toward: reading Twitter, browsing Instagram, and other relatively mindless, internet-centric habits.
There are some straightforward explanations for these circumstances, which may sound familiar to those of us—particularly young people—who participate in contemporary work life and have the financial security and privileges to seriously consider such questions. Millennials earn 20 percent less than boomers did at the same stage of life, despite a larger share of them having at least a bachelor’s degree compared to boomers. Last year, the United States set a record for the longest period of time without a federal minimum wage increase, and though the number of Americans with multiple jobs has fallen over the last couple decades, the current data may fail to account for the enormity of the gig economy, and the seamlessness with which many of us pick up side gigs to supplement our income.
Americans are working more than ever, so it makes a certain amount of sense that there’s less time to pursue extracurricular interests. And people are attuned to ways that work can make finding—and keeping—a hobby difficult.
“Work feels to me like a really big obstacle to getting started with any new hobbies,” Seth, who does advocacy work in New York politics, later told me over the phone. “I don’t have regular evening or weekend work, but it happens often enough that signing up for music classes or something is kind of prohibitive for me.”
But there are also more subtle forces that prevent us from dedicating our time to activities outside of work. Over the last several years, “hustle culture” has pervaded nearly every facet of our lives, transforming work from something we do to pay our bills and feed ourselves and our families into a lifestyle or even an identity. “It is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor, and—once you notice it—impossible to escape,” Erin Griffith wrote for the New York Times last January. And we’ve assigned a high social value to the kind of hustle Griffith describes, or at least the appearance of it (which she calls “performative workaholism”): A 2017 study found that the busier someone appeared, the more important they seemed to others.
“Being raised in an upper-middle class family in the New York area, I was socialized to value success above all else,” Ryan Mandelbaum, who started birding after writing a story for the Washington Post about heron conservation efforts in New York, told me. “[At first] I couldn’t really figure out what I wanted to do because I got really stressed about wasting time and not doing something worthwhile.”
Not only does hustle culture encourage us to see any non-work passion or interest as a potential small business or “side hustle,” it also makes us acutely aware, as Mandelbaum suggested, that time is money.
In her 2019 book How to Do Nothing, the author Jenny Odell explains that under capitalism, we are forced to think of our days as being made up of 24 “potentially monetizable hours.” Even for those of us in less economically precarious situations than people who need to work a second (or third) job, these conditions make it so that “time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on ‘nothing.’”
“Hobbies require time and, depending on the hobby, money,” Odell told me. (She went on to credit Feminist Bird Club for making birdwatching more inclusive and accessible: The club is a space for LGBTQ people, women, and people of color to discover birdwatching, and most walks are free.)
“But let's say it's free or affordable for you, and you have the time,” Odell continued. “It may still be hard not to see even your free time as money—in which case hobbies appear ‘expensive’ if they produce nothing but personal enjoyment and satisfaction.”
Still, even those who have rejected this mindset might find it difficult to imagine how to spend their free time. And further, as Odell explains in her book, enjoying our leisure time also requires reclaiming it from the “attention economy,” the capitalist apparatus that vies for our attention in quite literal ways, as when social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram seek to keep users on their sites for as long as possible. What would we do if we could train our attention on something more meaningful to us?
“I sort of need to start from scratch,” Seth said. He said that can feel daunting: Finding a completely new hobby means accepting that the hobby he chooses—playing an instrument, joining a running group, climbing at a rock-climbing gym—is one he will likely suck at for a while. And that can be a deterrent for those who can’t stomach not being good at something right away.
In a 2018 Times op-ed, Tim Wu, the author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads, posited that this was the “deeper reason” why it seems as though so few people have hobbies. “Our ‘hobbies,’ if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be,” he wrote. “If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following."
But according to leisure experts—yes, there is such a thing—a desire to improve is an essential part of having a hobby. Pastimes like running or painting qualify as “serious leisure,” according to Robert Stebbins, a professor emeritus in the department of sociology at the University of Calgary. That doesn’t mean these activities are approached with the perfectionism we might apply to our day jobs—here, “serious” is merely the foil to “casual” leisure activities, like hanging out with friends, getting a drink at a bar, or watching television.
These categories are part of a schema Stebbins developed in the 1970s called “The Serious Leisure Perspective,” which breaks down “serious leisure” into three categories: amateur, hobbyist, and volunteer. An “amateur” activity is one that has a professional counterpart, Stebbins explained, like painting, astronomy, or soccer, whereas hobbyists don’t—within Stebbins’s classification system, hobbies include things like collecting rocks or birdwatching. Volunteers might donate their time to a nonprofit, or helping the elderly. Colloquially though, we’d consider most of the activities that fall under the “serious leisure” umbrella to be “hobbies.”
Stebbins said that if not being good at a hobby right away is too frustrating for you, or you find yourself putting too much pressure on yourself to succeed, it’s probably not the hobby for you. ”All of these activities require putting in an effort and persevering when things get tough so that one can discover the satisfaction of getting better,” Stebbins said. “The critical thing for any serious leisure activity is that a person loves it even if doing it is initially painful.”
The right hobby will bring joy to your life, not more stress, Stebbins said. And “serious” leisure activities especially correlate to happiness and wellbeing: People who had hobbies are more likely to have lower blood pressure, lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), and lower levels of depression, according to a 2009 study.
Mandelbaum says birdwatching is what finally got them to “log off and finally go outside.” They enjoy being a little competitive at birding, and trying to get better at identifying birds and capturing them on camera. And it’s completely changed the way Mandelbaum organizes their life: Work is no longer the center of it, they said—birding is. Their daytime job is what makes birding possible.
“It just reset my goals in life,” they said. "Rather than pursue success, now I just pursue doing the thing I like.”
After talking to Mandelbaum, I realized that I already had activities that made me feel this way. While some books I read may be more enjoyable than others, the very act of reading reliably brings me pleasure, as does trying out a new recipe and sitting down to a delicious meal I prepared myself—these are quiet times away from the world of work and obligation.
Stebbins confirmed for me that, despite my initial doubts, these things do “count” as hobbies, especially the way I do them: Reading is often a solitary activity, but I also discuss books I like with friends in book clubs, and exchange recommendations with other avid readers. I try to get better at it, aiming to read more books each year than the year before, collecting rare or first-edition texts, and challenging myself to tackle longer or more complex works.
Of course, I’m not totally immune to the effects of capitalism: Sometimes I can’t help but think if I put my book down and spent my evenings and weekends catching up on work I might be more successful in the conventional sense. And I’m still learning how to give my full attention to the things that make my life meaningful—sometimes, by force of habit, I pick up my phone and scroll even when I know I’d rather finish the chapter of the novel I’m reading. But it’s worth trying to resist these impulses.
“What makes a hobby so exciting is you get to have this default thing that makes you happy,” Mandelbaum said. “When all else fails I can run to the park and see a cardinal taking a bath.”