Last year, I took up knitting. I had never knitted before, and I figured it would be good for me to learn a new thing. I also figured that it was an opportunity for me to engage socially, in a new area. After I had been in the group a couple of weeks, I arrived home with the beginnings of a new project (needles, yarn and a pattern of sorts). When that happened, my son saw me and joked to the effect that I needed to take up a new hobby every few months. Actually, what he said was, “Do you really NEED another hobby???”
The short answer to that question is yes. The truth is that while he was joking, there are advantages to crafting type activities in general-on many levels. In this context, I am not just talking about artsy type craft. I‘m referring to what my daughter the occupational therapist would all a “cognitively demanding activity”. These might include knitting and quilting-or learning computer skills, intensive home repair skills, photography or any one of a host of activities. The important thing about these kinds of activities is that they are mentally engaging (often to the exclusion of anything else). while at the same time generally requiring physical skill, concentration, and for lack of a better word, manual dexterity (using all those large and small muscle groups the child development experts always used to talk about).
We all know about the advantages of puzzles or brain games, but these kinds of activities in retirement can affect us in many more ways for a variety of reasons. As hobbyists, we generally are both looking to take on a different project that requires different and sometimes more difficult skills, or new skills in different areas. In other words, we are always raising the bar. If we become bored with a specific hobby, we generally feel the need to search out a new one-which increases the level all over again. I love to read, and I do both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times Sunday puzzle each week. But at this point I generally read at the same level (unless I am involved in a difficult college course), and while some weekends I want to turn the newspaper into confetti, the general difficulty of that puzzle remains the same.
It can be easy to “lose oneself” in a hobby. When that happens, the rest of the brain is at rest. People can forget pain, stress and worries simply from the intense concentration on the single activity. My previously mentioned family member says that the current phraseology is “flow”, where some of us might perhaps refer to that state as the “Zen”. I remember thinking when I first began to knit that probably would do that exclusively at my social group, but could not imagine knitting alone. Not only do I now knit alone, but I knit without television or music and am never bored. The concentration and effort allow me to lose myself, and in effect clear my brain.
The final advantage of hands on hobbies has to do with anti-aging and cognition. A 2011 study in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry showed a direct correlation between crafting and improved cognitive function-even among those who were already experiencing mild impairment. The study showed these kinds of activities had an very large effect, while other activities (socialization, travel, even music) often had no noticeable effect. This is not to say those other life activities don’t have value, and are not desirable, just that they had less effect as “brain food” for lack of a better description.
A more recent, 2014 study is more specific. This group showed that engaging in and learning new skills that activated working memory, episodic memory, and reasoning over a period of 3 months would enhance cognitive function in older adults. The specific participants in this study did learned quilting and digital photography (or both).
Many of us enter retirement with a single hobby or passion, or with our minds on a specific hobby. The truth is the more hobbies you try, the happier you will probably be (and your brain will be). Remember, this research is not about the end result, it’s about the doing, engaging, and enjoying. So if you’re interested in learning how to cook (sculpt, play an instrument, build a model rocket), as the ad says, just do it. Don’t stop because you’re less than perfect or will never be an expert. Stop if you are bored-and then move on to the next thing.
As for me, I’ve made a commitment to myself to try a new hands-on skill every three months. So far my list includes metalworking, digital photography (I’m amazed by the photos some bloggers take and aspire to those heights), bread making, and beginning woodworking. I’ll let you know how it goes!
Now go forth and play!!
Now go forth and play!!