Study: How a Hobby Could Save Your Life

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So in 2020, if you’ll recall, we had a little worldwide pandemic that forced a lot of us to hole up in our homes, alone, and drastically limit interactions with other people–friends, family, and strangers alike. A lot of people, understandably, did NOT like this: people who lived alone now had no in-person interactions, couldn’t touch or hug their loved ones, and had to get all their socializing over texts, phone calls, Zoom calls, and social media. People who lived with others were now basically stuck with that other handful of humans, and no matter how much you love someone or enjoy spending time with them, if you are stuck in a small enough space for a long enough time, eventually you WILL try to murder them because of the peculiar way they sip their tea every morning. There’s a reason NASA puts astronauts through a battery of psychological tests before deciding that yes, this person can hang out with other people on the space station for a few months without going Event Horizon on everyone.

A year or so into the pandemic I started seeing more and more articles about an “epidemic of loneliness” plaguing humanity, particularly Americans. And I remember thinking to myself, “Well of COURSE there’s an epidemic of loneliness, look what’s happening in the world.” But when I looked into it, I realized that this idea actually predates the COVID-19 pandemic: public health officials have been raising the alarm about the rise of loneliness since at least 2010, when an AARP report found that 35% of US adults over the age of 45 reported feeling lonely.

It’s important to note that loneliness isn’t the same as being alone: the UCLA loneliness scale does include measures of social isolation like “I feel completely alone” but it mostly focuses on statements like “I am unhappy doing so many things alone” as opposed to just “I do many things alone.” It also includes statements like “People are around me but not with me,” acknowledging that it’s possible to have a large social network but to still feel lonely. Loneliness is the difference between how connected we feel to other people and how we envision our ideal connection with other people.

“Okay, but who cares,” you might wonder. Everyone feels lonely sometimes and it’s not the end of the world, right? Well, that AARP study found that “loneliness was a significant predictor of poor health” and also was positively associated with drug use. As early as 1988 researchers have compared a lack of social connections to a rise in mortality similar to smoking cigarettes. 

Interesting sidenote: I constantly found trustworthy sources claiming that loneliness is “associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day” but each claim just seemed to end up back at that paper from 1988 which doesn’t quantify the number of cigarettes, just that “social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health-rivaling the effects of well-established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity, and physical activity.

Indeed, the theory and evidence on social relationships and health

increasingly approximate that available at the time of the U.S.

Surgeon General’s 1964 report on smoking and health, with

similar implications for future research and public policy.”

And that “The age-adjusted relative risk ratios shown in Figs. 1 and 2

are stronger than the relative risks for all cause mortality reported for

cigarette smoking (10). There is, however, less specificity in the

associations of social relationships with mortality than has been

observed for smoking, which is strongly linked to cancers of the

lung and respiratory tract (with age-adjusted risk ratios between 3.0 and .11.0).”

But yes, over the decades researchers have found more and more evidence that loneliness is a real problem for humans. We evolved to be social creatures, and to yearn for meaningful connections with others. It makes sense that when we don’t get those connections, we’re more stressed out. More stress equals more disease and a lower quality of life.

All of this is just a preamble to the study I’d really like to talk about today: “Do associations between sense of purpose, social support, and loneliness differ across the adult lifespan?” was published last month in the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology and Aging. Psychologists delved into the survey results of more than 2,000 Swiss adults who described their feelings of loneliness over the course of a month. They also took a survey to determine how these subjects felt about their life’s purpose – what gets them out of bed every day, which could be a hobby or their family or their job, with statements like “Most of what I do seems trivial and unimportant to me” or “I have lots of reasons for living.” 

The researchers found that people who reported greater sense of purpose were less lonely, and not just for people whose “purpose” involved giving or getting support from other people. So, sure, people whose passion is, say, volunteering at a food bank where they meet and interact with new people, those people are less lonely, but the people whose passion is translating Latin poetry in their basement are also less lonely.

What’s all that mean? Well, it means that even in the face of, say, a global pandemic that forces you to limit your social interactions with other people, you might be able to fight the feelings and the negative effects of loneliness by simply finding a hobby you love.

By the way, this goes right along with past research like this study from 2009 that found that “Greater purpose in life,” just like lack of loneliness, “is associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality among community-dwelling older persons.”

All of this made me think about my own reaction to the pandemic and resulting isolation in 2020.  I am frequently considered by others to be an extrovert, so many of you might assume that I am one of those people who promptly went bonkers in quarantine. I mean, more bonkers than usual. A different kind of bonkers. Type B bonkers. And honestly I thought I was going to, too, because I also think I have extroverted traits. But to be honest, I was fine. Happy, even. Not only was I living with my now-husband, whose tea-drinking-habits did NOT annoy me in the least despite the fact that we lived in a fairly small apartment, but I also was one of those people who dove right into trying random new hobbies.

It was a bit of a joke back then, like all these people are bored to death so they’re taking up sourdough bread and knitting. But I LOVE trying out new hobbies and while not all of them were something I wanted to stick with (RIP Boudin Tang the 2020 Mother dough), others were unexpectedly life-changing. I learned that not only could I keep houseplants alive, but that I could propagate them, give them to friends and help them grow them, and now I’m growing my own native plant pollinator garden and food crops. When I get stressed out while researching video scripts, by which I mean scrolling social media, I take a break and walk outside and just…stare at my beans. It’s so simple but seeing this thing grow from a seed to a seedling to a plant, watching the bees and hoverflies and hummingbirds turn the flowers into food, it’s like…I don’t know, it’s somehow like a big middle finger to entropy and death and pointlessness. It’s small but it’s weirdly rewarding.

Am I going to do this forever? No, and that’s why I have several backup hobbies that I get an equal amount of joy from, like keeping the world’s cutest, but dumbest, dog alive, for instance. 

And I think that while COVID ultimately was HORRIBLE for humanity, in terms of illness and death and yes loneliness, I think that there were a lot of lucky people who, like me, were suddenly inspired to explore passions that they previously hadn’t considered. So many of us spend a ridiculous portion of our lives in jobs that we may or may not find rewarding. For those who are lucky enough to be passionate about their careers, if that’s it then they might find themselves at a loss when they eventually retire. Because when we aren’t working, many of us (myself included) are often just scrolling social media and news feeds, the mental version of eating junk food. It’s easy and gives us that little dopamine reward but it also could be encouraging us to miss out on harder but healthier and ultimately more rewarding experiences. 

Anyway, that’s why I support universal basic income and healthcare, work-from-home policies when feasible, a 3-day work week, paid vacation and sick days – all these things that we would put in place if we were building a society from scratch right now because the data shows that it makes us all happier.

I know it can be hard to find something that you’re passionate about, especially if you, like me, suffer from pesky conditions like severe depression and anxiety. So I’ll end with a partial list of some of the hobbies and passions I’ve enjoyed over the years that were relatively cheap and easy, and some that I didn’t enjoy but hey, you might. Maybe one day you’ll be bored and instead of opening up and refreshing your Threads by Meta app (god help you) (I’m @ActuallyRebeccaWatson on there please follow and like), you can pick one of these at random and try it out!

Juggling (easier than you think, I swear!)

Card and coin tricks (same)

Reading (get a library card!)

Identifying and growing native plants (try the free Seek app)

Bird watching (try Cornell’s free Merlin ID app)

Identifying other local wildlife like exploring tide pools (try the iNaturalist app)

Growing herbs on your windowsill

Hiking your local parks and greenspaces

Macrame (I swear to god it’s easy and soothing)

Fostering an animal, like a dog or kittens

Volunteering at a pet shelter, or an old folk’s home, or a community garden



And yes, sourdough bread making. No, it’s ultimately not for me but it IS fascinating that you can just take flour and water and then the specific germs in your air magically turn it into deliciousness. One sack of flour provides endless entertainment! For about a month before you forget to feed it and it turns into something disgusting.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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