Magazine article USA TODAY

A Habit Worth Acquiring

Magazine article USA TODAY

A Habit Worth Acquiring

Article excerpt

"IT'S NICE TO HAVE HOBBIES," someone remarked when I described what I did over my vacation. It was a "stay-cation," and there was ample time for the reading, writing, painting, and other activities that work too often crowds out of the schedule. There was more than a hint of sarcasm in that individual's observation. When did "hobby" become a dirty word? Hobbies have gone the way of scouting, service organizations, and families gathering around the piano to sing; they have acquired cultural mustiness and lost their appeal. In middle school, you raise your cool cache by ditching homework; in high school, by ignoring school rules. Adults raise their cool quotients by not doing much of anything.

Historically, passive entertainment has been a luxury: to watch a show, or hear music, meant paying admittance or taking turns in the amateur hour in someone's home. If you wanted music you sang, played an instrument, or went to hear people who could; every activity required that someone be, well, active.

Even quiet pursuits entail considerable mental activity. One cannot read anything worth reading without thinking. If you are reading a brilliant writer (an Oscar Wilde or a G.K. Chesterton), someone whose skill with words makes you greedy so that you read too much, too quickly--you will have to go back and reimmerse yourself after the self-indulgent rush in order to benefit fully from the process. Reading is, or should be, work. It is active. Reading, drawing, needlework, whittling--none of these is passive. Yet, all of these are, or are becoming, passe.

Passivity as the norm for activity is illogical. The usual suspect is television, which feeds the latent sloth in us, and is the socially acceptable substitute for doing anything. This aspect of television has permeated me culture so that, for many, "watching" and "doing" apparently are interchangeable. Recall, if you can, without wincing, the bedroom scene with Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine in "Being There" and its subscript of ironic social commentary. There is no irony when a coworker asserts, "Oh, you like dancing. You'd love 'Dancing with the Stars,'" as if dancing with one's spouse was equivalent to watching other people perform a rehearsed routine. There is a place for enjoying skilled performances but, generally, not as a substitute for real life.

Treating "hobby" as a slur degrades critical aspects of adult psychological, emotional, spiritual, and social development. An adult passionately pursuing an avocation enriches his or her life, helps others, and protects oneself from the brain-disabling effects of age. There is plenty of research--the famous "Nuns' Study" comes to mind--that correlates a lifetime of learning with long-term mental acuity. There are, however, reasons to have hobbies besides hoping still to be sharp at Canasta at 102. Fun is one reason. A chance to do something "real" and hands-on is a joy for those whose daily vocation mostly is mental. Creating art, furniture, or model rockets; it is all tactile and challenging. Fostering creativity is another benefit. In therapy, I often recommend playing in one activity as a way to unlock creativity for another. Writers successfully have overcome a frustrating block through a pottery course, painters through immersion in other art media. It seems that exploring an area where there is no ego investment unleashes creativity which, happily, infects other areas. …

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