How Hobbies Infiltrated American Life

Illustration of a man wearing overalls using a watering can to water plants whose flowers look like gears
Illustration by Antonio Giovanni Pinna

America has a love affair with “productive leisure.”

Grocery-store scallions repotted on windowsills. Sourdough starters in the fridge. Cooking, knitting, jigsaw puzzles. Hobbies could not cure the coronavirus, but for a moment it seemed like they could cure the anxious stagnation of pandemic life. Time had become unsettlingly abundant, but we tried our best to avoid falling into idleness and despair. Articles that were meant to be comforting suggested that exploring a new pastime could help reduce the stress people were feeling: Yes, we are living through a once-in-a-generation catastrophe, but have you ever tried baking bread?

One nonscientific survey found that 59 percent of Americans have picked up a new hobby during the pandemic. People baked so much that all the flour ran outLumber prices soared, thanks in part to a boom in home DIY projects.

Sure, there were other popular ways to spend time during the pandemic’s early days—playing Animal Crossing, organizing Zoom happy hours, watching Tiger King. But we all kind of knew that picking up a hobby was somehow better than those things. The Protestant work ethic that is foundational to American culture positions labor as morally good in and of itself, whether you’re working hard at a desk, on a farm, or teaching yourself the guitar tabs to “Wonderwall.” Conversely, any time not spent productively is wasted.

“Hobbies take on this aura of being good, useful, appropriate, and socially sanctioned. Something you should—the word here is should—be doing,” Steven M. Gelber, a historian and the author of Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, told me. “And if you’re one of those slackers that doesn’t have a hobby, then you are suffering from some kind of a moral weakness or failing.”

This attitude far predates the coronavirus pandemic. If you’ve ever felt like your Instagram feed is taunting you with all the lovely crafts, elaborate home-cooked meals, and sweaty Peloton rides that other people seem to manage to fill their time with; if you’ve ever felt like your dating profile looks empty unless you list several impressive leisure pursuits; if it seems like everyone has a hobby and you should too, there is a reason for this. The anxieties of capitalism are not confined to the workplace. They have a long history of leaking into our free time.

A hobby was not always something to aspire to. Up until around the 1880s, the word was used to refer to any sort of preoccupation, which could be positive but could also be an obsessive fixation, as in “riding a hobby horse.” The word evolved, and a hobby came to be understood as a wholesome, enriching form of leisure and the most virtuous way for a person to spend their free time.

The moralization of hobbies followed a major shift in how Americans spend their days. During the Industrial Revolution, the nascent labor movement advocated for reduced work hours, eventually leading to the eight-hour workday and the five-day workweek. Some people saw the resulting increase in leisure time—and the saloons, theaters, and amusement parks that popped up to fill it—as a threat. The thinking was that leisure “led to both delinquent activity and deviant ideas,” Gelber writes. The solution to the moral depravity of cotton candy and Ferris wheels: hobbies.

In scholarly circles, the hobby is defined by oxymorons: “productive leisure,” as Gelber calls it, or “serious leisure,” a term coined by Robert Stebbins, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Calgary. Under Stebbins’s serious-leisure framework, entertainment and socializing are too passive to be considered hobbies and would be classified as “casual leisure.” Serious leisure, on the other hand, requires effort based on special “knowledge, training, or skill,” and people often try to make progress and get better at it over time.

Of course, many hobbyists enjoy this effort. Serious leisure is enriching; it brings a different kind of satisfaction than either relaxation or paid work. Research shows that leisure activities, including hobbies, are linked to better physical and mental well-being.

They also help us build a sense of self outside of paid work. People tend to consider their hobbies to be a big part of their identity—you’re not just someone who runs, you’re a runner. But “we don’t get much identificational mileage out of telling people that we just dig the TV and we watch it all the time, or that we go to the pub every night and have a pint,” Stebbins told me. “It’s not distinctive. Everybody does it, and in the end, you haven’t much to show for it.” I asked Stebbins if he thinks serious leisure is a requisite ingredient for a meaningful life, and he said yes.

But the way American culture glorifies and promotes hobbies also serves to reinforce the notion that idleness is wrong—what Gelber in his book calls “the folk wisdom of capitalism.” Gelber believes that hobbies reinforce the values of achievement, productivity, progress, and hard work, even as they provide a break from people’s actual jobs. “If capitalism is culturally hegemonic then productive leisure is surely one of the instruments of its continuing domination,” he writes.When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

So it makes perfect sense that hobbies flood the national consciousness at times when paid work is declining or in jeopardy, such as when the workday shrank to eight hours. During the Great Depression, when huge swaths of the population were out of work, hobbies were the answer to the question of what to do when there was nothing to do—“a job you can’t lose,” as one 1933 magazine article put it. In the ’30s, advocacy groups dedicated to the promotion of hobbies sprang up in American cities. Hobby-themed radio shows and newspaper columns populated the media. Hobbies magazine even proposed that crime would be lower if everyone had a hobby.

A decade later, hobbies became the solution to not just idleness but the existential dread brought on by World War II. In 1942, a doctor named William Menninger published a paper in The American Journal of Insanity (which was later renamed The American Journal of Psychiatry) called “Psychological Aspects of Hobbies: A Contribution to Civilian Morale.” In it, he wrote: “… at present, most individuals are aware of a feeling of unrest and mild anxiety; of some degree of personal and economic insecurity; of concern regarding some member of the family or close friend in the armed forces.” The need for leisure and recreation, he concluded, was paramount. But ideally, of course, that leisure would be “constructive and intelligent.”

Nearly 80 years later, a panicked nation once again turned to hobbies to self-soothe, but, you know, productively. This time, high anxiety collided with low employment to create the perfect conditions for a hobbies boom. Wherever there is a productivity vacuum, it seems, hobbies rush in. Which raises the question: Does society value hobbies because of the real benefits they provide, or because we value the appearance of busyness?

Hobbies are, at their core, productive. Even if a hobby doesn’t create an actual product of some kind—a birdhouse, a garden, a novel—it produces the value of so-called self-betterment. You are building a skill, or a knowledge base, or you are simply giving yourself the value of a fun fact to share at the next awkward icebreaker.

Anat Keinan, a business professor at Boston University, coined the idea of the “experiential CV”: an extended résumé filled not with work experience but with life experience. In her research, she’s found that people who measure their self-worth by their productivity are inclined to spend their leisure time seeking “collectible experiences,” trying, essentially, to build up résumés that prove they are interesting people.

Keinan is currently working on as-yet-unpublished research on what she calls the “hobbies paradox,” which digs into the trouble with approaching hobbies this way. “You pursue these activities with the intention to de-stress and relax,” she told me. “But because of these high expectations you have for excellence, for outperforming others, they can lead to stress and frustration as well.” A recent study found that people who believe that leisure is wasteful or unproductive enjoy their leisure less.

Though the pressure to be productive in our free time has a long history in the U.S., Dawna Ballard, a communication professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies chronemics, or how humans communicate about time, suspects that social media has made things worse, as it so often does. Social media enables constant comparison of our lives—our physical appearance and professional success, but also our home-cooked meals and DIY projects—with others’, and enables us to transmute our own hobbies into social capital. Even the things that bring us joy are marketable online, Ballard told me. At least, they get incorporated into our personal brand: “You’re always aware of what story you’re telling.”

Social media rewards anything we share with likes and views. This is extrinsic motivation, as opposed to intrinsic motivation, which is doing something because of the satisfaction it brings you in and of itself. As my colleague Arthur Brooks has written, “extrinsic rewards can actually extinguish intrinsic rewards, leading us to enjoy our activities less.” Theoretically, hobbies should be among the most intrinsically motivated things we could do—they are the work we choose to do when we could be doing anything. But the validation we get from others online, and the validation we get from our culture writ large for spending our free time in a productive, virtuous way, muddies that motivation.

Keinan did another study, published in 2006, in which she asked both alumni of and students at a university about their regrets. What she found is that in the short term, people regretted the absence of self-control. They were more likely to say they should have worked harder or studied more when thinking about the relatively recent past. When thinking about the distant past, people were more likely to regret having too much self-control, and to say they wish they’d indulged more.

Hobbyists are “seldom aware of the ideological implications of their pastimes,” Gelber writes. But whether we realize it or not, even when we are alone, off the clock, doing whatever the hell we want, the Protestant work ethic and its pressure to be productive are still with us. Imagined audiences are with us. The yoke of should is a heavy one, and it can weigh down even the things we love.

The message that a hobby is the best way to spend one’s free time is also a message about what you should value most in life: hard work, achievement, productivity. Those aren’t bad things, but are they really more important than relationships, contemplation, and rest? Hanging out with your friends, caring for your family, enjoying creature comforts, replenishing your energy—these may not make for a unique fun fact to whip out at parties, but they are good for the soul.

All Rights Reserved for Julie Beck 

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