Last month, I applied to a study abroad program in Paris and had to fill out an application with an “activities” section. My heart sank. I got the same feeling as when a professor, attempting an icebreaker, asks: “What do you like to do for fun?” To be truthful, what I like to do for fun is send TikToks to my roommates as they sit right next to me doing the same, but that didn’t seem like an acceptable answer to present to my upper level psychology course on the first day.
The application question forced me to ask myself a question that I sadly had no immediate answer to: What do I choose to actively do for fun, with no social, economic or otherwise measurable reward involved?
I used to have hobbies. I used to play softball and volleyball, write poems and creative stories and play guitar and bass. So what changed?
Answering this question made me sad. I hadn’t realized how this noticeable lack of hobbies in my life has made me feel less fulfilled until I had to confront it, and now I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
As it turns out, American hobbies are a byproduct of the historical context in which they were created. During the Industrial Revolution, as long, dreadful hours in factory lines became more normalized, labor unions began forming, advocating for shorter working hours and five-day work weeks. The result was an increase in free time. People began picking up hobbies as a way to fill the hours in between work with something pleasurable, while still not wasting the day away.
Additionally, the Great Depression and World War II in the mid 20th century created a national landscape of tension and apprehensiveness. As the author of an article about “How Hobbies Infiltrated American Life” describes, anxiety and low employment are the perfect cocktail to ensure a rise in hobbies.
Not only were hobbies used to kill time, they also acted as an escape from whatever reality plagued the country or one’s individual anxieties. COVID-19 is a prime example of how national and personal distress led people to find refuge in kitchen hacks like whipped coffee and making sourdough bread. Hobbies give people a sense of purpose and enrichment. Research even shows that engagement in hobbies for personal pleasure is associated with higher levels of psychological and physical health.
As illustrated by the book “Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America,” it is clear that in times of distress, the American public turns to hobbies as a means of “productive leisure.” There is a clear oxymoron here, and it seems that 21st century capitalism has put an emphasis on the “productive” part of hobby creation and maintenance.
Maybe this is the reason I don’t have hobbies the way I used to. I am too busy being “productive,” keeping myself busy with other things society has deemed more beneficial and important than unnecessary activities of pleasure. I have a full school schedule, a job and engage in extracurricular activities that would look impressive on a resume. Hobbies, without any monetary or professional benefit to myself, have been put on the backburner.
It’s not that the activities I do engage in don’t bring me joy – they do. But, adding extrinsic rewards (i.e. money, good grades, a job interview) to something that one already finds pleasurable changes the nature of the activity and decreases the intrinsic value from engaging in the activity.
This isn’t to say that my experience of losing interest in hobbies as life has gotten busier is the norm. If someone spent approximately ten minutes scrolling on TikTok, they would be bombarded with extremely talented painters, dancers and bakers, all showing off their skills in an entertaining, accessible format. It’s not that hobbies don’t exist anymore, but they have become something to gawk at and commercialize, rather than something to find intrinsic, personal pleasure from.
As content creators showcase their talents and hobbies online, consumers gobble up this media with delight. Sometimes just watching another person engage in a hobby satisfies the creative itch that instigates a desire for hobbies in the first place. Watching someone crochet a hat and shirt entertains me to no end, but doesn’t necessarily encourage me to engage in a similar act myself.
The fact is, leisure time is spent very differently today than it was even just two decades ago. In a study conducted by Swedish researchers that analyzed three cohorts of young adults from 1990-2011, they found that there has been a decrease in time spent on in-person social interactions, reading and other offline activities. All the while, time spent online increased considerably, including activities like watching TV.
Findings from the Pew Research Center corroborate this idea, showing that teens experience less leisure time than they did a decade or two ago. Current teens spend more time on homework and sleeping than their peers did in the 90s. But, besides those two activities, the majority of the former group’s time is spent on screens.
In addition to this, time spent by teens in other activities such as socializing and enjoying extracurriculars has declined, reaching barely over an hour a day. With screens readily available to entertain, captivate and distract, the drive to spend this limited leisure time creating and actively doing instead of consuming has become less appealing.
Even though we know that hobbies provide immeasurable color to our lives and actually contain health benefits, they are harder to maintain in a society that values productivity and money-making.
In an article advocating for the importance of hobbies in the 21st century, a section is dedicated to how easy it is to turn a hobby into a career. But, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of hobbies in the first place? Hobbies, at their essence and origin, were an escape from work. Using the incentive of a career as a reason to adopt a hobby shows just how much the meaning and purpose of hobbies has changed.
At the same time, if social clout or monetary rewards are incentivizing people to maintain and showcase their hobbies, I can’t claim that this is necessarily a bad thing. If anything, I applaud and admire people who create careers based on activities they truly enjoy. Work should be enjoyable, but I wonder if once a hobby becomes “work,” can it still be classified as a hobby?
It can’t be deliberately concluded that in an age of technology and productivity, hobbies have completely fallen to the wayside. But, they have shifted from their original purpose as personally-motivated, anxiety-quenchers and free-time-fillers.
Obviously, we live in a completely different society than the 19th century Industrial Revolution, and the way we spend our leisure time has changed and adapted with it. As long as we keep creating and continue to find pleasure in these activities (whether we get paid for them or not), hobbies will remain an essential lifeline for those bogged down with work and the sad realities of our modern world.
So, to answer the question on my study abroad application, I guess writing about the collapse of genuine, intrinsically motivated hobbies is what I “do for fun”…in addition to watching TikToks with my friends.