Studies have found a link between participating in activities for pleasure and cognitive ability. But whether having a hobby can lead to greater happiness has been harder to prove. One expert, Carol A. Bernstein, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, explains why happiness is a complicated emotion to study and why even for other reasons hobbies are a good idea.

Just for Fun

A hobby is an activity done on a regular basis outside of one’s job strictly for pleasure and relaxation, says Dr. Bernstein, a past president of the American Psychiatric Association. “That can mean stamp collecting, wood carving or golfing,” she says. “It doesn’t even matter if you’re bad at it. As long as you enjoy it.” Participating in activities that are meaningful to you will help you feel more energized and connected to the world at large, and less likely to burn out in your other responsibilities. “Hobbies may help act as recovery time” from stress, she says.

The Causation Problem

Scientists have tried to research happiness. One study in South Korea showed that engaging in physical leisure activities at a sports club made participants happier and age better. Another study found that pleasurable leisure activities done regularly were related to higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression. The trouble with those studies, says Dr. Bernstein, is that participants were self-reporting their activity engagement and their happiness levels, so the resulting data aren’t necessarily scientific.

“It does make intuitive sense that finding something that you enjoy to do that isn’t dependent on the external world might make people feel better and healthier,” she says. But it’s very hard to tell if people with hobbies are any happier than people without them, she says.

Not All Hobbies Are Equal

People can take hobbies and other leisure activities that seem healthy to an extreme, Dr. Bernstein says. Exercising to the point of injury or binge-watching television may lead to guilt and feelings of discontent. Still, people’s responses to leisure pursuits are very individualized. “For some people with highly stressful jobs, playing videogames or watching a few movies in a row may be very therapeutic,” she says. However, those same activities, when done on a regular basis by other people, can be harmful or addictive, she says.

Who’s the Happiest?

Dr. Bernstein likes to travel and take photographs in her leisure time. “There are so many levels of expectations [in everyday life], that to find something that is just for you to enjoy—one can imagine that that would be useful,” she says.

Anything that can divert people’s attention from everyday tasks is probably good for them in many ways, says Dr. Bernstein. Although there are too many factors involved to be able to attribute happiness specifically to having a hobby, finding meaning in whatever it is you’re doing “certainly increases resilience and decreases burnout,” she says.

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