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Why Analog Hobbies Make Us Feel Human

There's a reason we're all baking and sewing and doing puzzles.

by Gretchen Brown
May 4, 2020 | Living

Learning to play the ukulele means building muscle memory, shaping your fingers to each chord until it feels natural.

This is how I’ve spent much of my time in social isolation. For the first few days, my fingers felt clunky and not my own. The strings hurt. I struggled through songs of two or three chords.

As soon as I felt like it was finally starting to stick, I learned a song with a few new chords, or a different strumming pattern. It was a challenge all over again.

I’m not the only person keeping busy with a new hobby during this time. 

As social distancing laws went into effect across the country, folks started baking so much bread that yeast sold out at grocery stores.

Puzzles sold out, too. One jigsaw puzzle company told NPR its sales were up over 300%.

Other folks are learning to sew, or crochet or tackle home projects.

For me, this hobby isn’t coming from a need to be productive. I do it because it makes me feel good.

After a long day of staring at my computer, it’s my physical hobbies — playing ukulele, or cooking, or going on walks — that have been making me feel most human.

‘In the zone’

Brooke Bryan has felt this way too. She’s a professor of writing and applied liberal arts at Antioch College.

“The more that I have to sit at my computer in order to engage with others and to do my job,” she said. “The more inclined I am to go back to my studio.”

Bryan is an avid sewist and quiltmaker, and much of her research has revolved around the quilt.

Man playing guitar for his dog. REWIRE PBS health living analog hobbies
After a long day of staring at my computer, it’s my physical hobbies — playing ukulele, or cooking, or going on walks — that have been making me feel most human.  |  Credit: Adobe

She says we can see why physical hobbies are so fulfilling through the concept of “flow,” coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

“The experience of flow is where time falls away, you’re just in it,” Bryan said.

Flow feels like being “in the zone,” a mode of hyper focus. It’s an ideal psychological state. And it can be brought on by doing a physical activity at the very edge of your skill level.

That could be sewing, or running, or baking bread or playing an instrument. 

These hobbies can bring you to that flow state because they’re not abstract. They’re physical, they’re something you can feel and touch and engage with.

“Your senses are engaged in perceiving the materials that you’re working with,” Bryan said. “It’s not an abstract experience, but it’s a sensuous experience."

This is called haptic engagement. Touch is a language all its own, and it is linked with the way we think as humans. 

As Bryan describes it, it’s the way we engage with the things our bodies were actually built to do, as opposed to sitting in a chair and staring at a computer.

So people garden, or craft, or bake bread to get back to what is foundational about who we are. Making things is in our DNA.

Hobbies as stress relief

From a psychological perspective, physical hobbies can also be grounding, bringing us in touch with the here and now.

“Given that the pandemic leaves us feeling somewhat out of control and overwhelmed," Clinical Psychologist Carla Manly said. "‘Grounding’ activities such as baking bread or engaging in a craft feel both doable and rewarding."

That’s, in part, because of the creative side to many of these hobbies. The brain produces more serotonin, the feel-good chemical, and dopamine, the “reward” chemical, when we do something creative.

Puzzles and cooking aren’t always creative, but they are self-soothing, Manly said.

“A calm, focused activity tends to reduce the levels of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline,” she said.

“As a result, the person engaging in the de-stressing activity experiences a much-improved state of mind and sense of physical relaxation.”

With cooking or baking, you also get to enjoy some food at the end of it. Not a bad reward.

There’s also the fact that physical hobbies simply get us off of the internet for an hour or two. 

Even without a global pandemic, the internet can be a stressful place. According to a 2018 study in the American Journal of Health Behavior, social media use is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. 

That’s a new realization for me. Because for most of my life, I’ve seen the internet as a tool for comfort and connection.

I was four years old when Google went live. As a kid, I instant messaged my friends from our shared family computer.

By middle school, I was building my own websites and making social media accounts. 

But somehow, mindlessly scrolling through social media doesn’t seem to do it for me anymore. Especially not now.

Reading the scary news about the Coronavirus can be addicting. Folks on the internet are calling the habit "doomscrolling." Your eyes sort of glaze over, but you can't stop reading.

Taking a break from it feels big.

Last week, after a particularly bad day, I took a night walk, staring at the bright lights, dark store windows and empty streets. I didn’t feel stressed about the state of the world.

A song I’d just learned on my ukulele was echoing in my head.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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