Taking on a hobby that makes you happy can help you reduce stress, get more focused, and unleash creative brainpower. Permission to play, granted!

By Kathleen Harris
Updated February 01, 2018
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Illustration: Person playing stand up bass
Credit: Sam Kalda

Illustration: Person playing stand up bass

The Skill: Stay calm in stressful situations
The Hobby: Practice music

Engaging in an ongoing creative activity, like learning to play an instrument, helps people manage negative feelings like stress, according to the American Journal of Public Health. Warren Buffett regularly plays the ukulele, Steve Martin plays the banjo, and Steven Spielberg jumped in with his clarinet on the Jaws soundtrack. Even better news: Cognitive research says that adults can learn to play a new instrument at any age. Just pick one with a sound you love and find a teacher who works with adults—ask for recommendations from your town’s Facebook group, a music school (even if it’s geared toward children), or local colleges. Or join a choir. Study after study shows the benefits of singing—from releasing endorphins to strengthening the immune system—and in a choir, you can also attain the feeling of harmony. “You have to learn to work in complete cooperation,” says Stacy Horn, author of Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others. Join in at your church or search for a community choir at choirplace.com.


The Skill: Improve your public speaking
The Hobby: Creative writing

The best public speakers tell the best stories. Finesse your storytelling skills by taking a creative writing class, where you’ll learn the art of crafting narratives. Classes often require you to read your story aloud to the group, so you’ll practice presenting as well. “If you’re feeling bold, share a story at a local open mic event,” says Vanessa Valenti, a partner at Fresh Speakers. Or, if you want to start smaller, prepare a toast for a special family dinner or a friend’s bridal shower. “Speaking in front of people—especially those who may make you nervous, like your old high school rival or a judgmental cousin—is a great way to practice and can help you rid yourself of those public-speaking jitters,” says Valenti.


The Skill: Leadership skills
The Hobby: Team sports

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi played cricket in college; former HP CEO Meg Whitman played squash and lacrosse at Princeton. In fact, an incredible 94 percent of women in the C-suite played sports, according to research from Ernst & Young. Being on a sports team helps you develop key leadership skills, says Patti Fletcher, PhD, a leadership expert and the author of Disrupters: Success Strategies From Women Who Break the Mold. The obvious reason: You’re working together toward a goal (literally). You don’t need to have been a high school all-star to reap the rewards—anyone can benefit from getting active and having fun with a team. To find one, check your local YMCA. Most have adult programs for every level.


The Skill: Be more productive
The Hobby: Start a recipe club

Even if you love experimenting with your Instant Pot or finding a new way to sneak veggies into dinner, planning a big meal can feel overwhelming and not worth the time suck. But cooking for a dinner party or a recipe club, in which you meet monthly to swap recipes and taste one another’s creations, can improve your time management skills, says career coach Laura Garnett. “You have to create a menu, do the shopping, and time the cooking of each course to meet a deadline,” she says. “It gives you an opportunity to practice getting a lot done in a short period of time.” Cooking and baking for pleasure (not just for hungry mouths) can also put you in a state of flow, says Michelle Gielan, author of Broadcasting Happiness and cofounder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research. When you consciously set aside time for a hobby like cooking, you are investing in yourself. “Even the simple act of scheduling hobbies can make us feel more focused and in control of our time,” says Gielan.


The Skill: Be more strategic
The Hobby: Play video games

That’s right—we told you to play video games. Doing so can help you solve problems more quickly and efficiently, says clinical psychologist Richard Shuster, PsyD, host of the podcast The Daily Helping. Playing puzzle games (think sudoku, 2048, Match Dots) and role-playing or simulator games (like Reigns: Her Majesty or Through the Ages) activates our frontal lobe and executive function. “Any game that promotes complex thinking, where you need to map out your next few moves, can help you develop thinking and reasoning skills,” says Shuster. But not all games and apps are the same. So-called button mashers—games, like Space Invaders, in which you simply react instead of strategize—don’t offer the same brain boost. In the end, choose a game you enjoy. “People don’t play computer games because they are irritating; they do it because they’re fun,” says Shuster. “That can counter the daily stressors of the workplace.”