For many of us, our primary pastimes used to look something like this: patronizing restaurants, bars, and various “non-essential” businesses. That kind of leisure activity is, of course, all over for the time being. These days, the lucky among us are trapped inside, alternating between stressed, bored, and some kind of new stress-boredom hybrid. One way that many people are filling their at-home time is by exploring hobbies with a fervor once reserved for, well, all the other stuff they used to do.
This has led to a new trend in social media: the hobby humblebrag. Part nesting impulse, part distraction, and partially born out of a need for something to help define us, the hobby humblebrag is a well-intentioned, if sometimes oblivious advertisement of people’s newfound love for things like baking, floral arranging, and jigsaw puzzling. Take a look at your Stories if you don’t know what I’m talking about; you soon will.
All the excitement is understandable. For many of us, the last time we had a true hobby — as in “an activity done regularly in one's leisure time for pleasure” — was childhood. In fact, if the concept still sounds like something from another planet to you, then you’re not alone. “There has been a cultural shift in society about the importance and understanding of free time and leisure activity,” explains Haris Karim of the website Discover A Hobby. “Because of this, the idea of doing something casually, for pure, intrinsically rewarding reasons, has been somewhat devalued and replaced by the need to succeed and reach a goal.”
Over the past few years, the rise of the side-hustle — aka the practice of monetizing a hobby — has spawned plenty of tweets, think pieces, and memes, many of which lament the untimely death of leisure activities in favor of making everything into an opportunity to work. It’s also one explanation for why millennial burnout is rampant (and certainly not limited to millennials). Because, while some people do find solace in starting a side business or engaging in such faux-hobbies as organizing or exercising, they don’t exactly fall into the “fun for fun’s sake” category of activities; like so much else we do, they’re about self-improvement, the care and keeping of an enviable existence.
But suddenly, for many of the millennials who have been over-scheduled, overworked, and success-obsessed practically since birth, there’s now a chance to just try things out, and the impulse to share the end results of their efforts is strong. Obviously, not everyone has leisure time right now — essential workers on the front lines are risking their health and putting in longer hours than ever — but for lots of others, trapped inside with nothing but Netflix and maybe a roommate or two? It’s a revelation. One that leads to an increase in Instagram engagement, sure, but also, potentially, a much-needed diversion.
“I keep thinking ‘maybe at the end of quarantine I'll be a better painter,’” says Tatum, a 26-year-old who started painting right before quarantine and has since invested more time into the hobby. “It’s a distraction, at the end of the day, and a way to keep my eyes and thoughts away from the news. I mostly paint flowers and the plants in my apartment. I like having a definitive thing to do each day that I can track my progress with.”
Hobbies can be a way of getting in touch with parts of ourselves that we don’t get to exercise as much at work, school, or in social settings, whether that’s creativity, athleticism, or just a sense of natural curiosity that many of us have a hard time maintaining within the rubric of our adult lives. This can be a balm for a time when it feels like so much, including our sense of who we are as people, is in flux. For some, hobbies can even be a way of mitigating anxiety and depression, which many are struggling with right now. “I have a much better handle on my anxiety than I used to, but I have definitely used knitting as a way to calm my jitters,” says Sophie, 25, who paints and knits. “It's something to focus on and also something physically soft in your hands. It can be very repetitive and so is very soothing when my mind starts to run away with me.”
The impulse to share every lopsided loaf of sourdough bread or haphazardly assembled crochet project is understandable, if a bit annoying for those of us feeling less ambitious during this time. “Millennials and Gen Z are drawn to active hobbies with an extrinsic value that they can use to ‘define’ who they are and show it to the world via social media. It’s all about crafting an image,” explains Karim. And yet, it’s also putting our extreme privilege — as people who get to stay home during all of this, and have the financial and emotional resources to do whatever it is we are doing — on blast.
It also may be sucking some of the fun out of all the aforementioned “fun for fun’s sake.” The initial push towards productivity — whether in the form of 10-hour remote workdays or artfully assembled Alison Roman recipes — despite the fact that we’re all otherwise occupied surviving a global pandemic has been real, and it’s problematic. We’re all just trying to survive, it’s okay if you’re not feeling up to learning a new language or ramping up your yoga practice right now. Hopefully, when we’re able to return to a lifestyle that’s more “normal,” we can bring with us some of the flexibility that’s been offered to workers during this time. After all, it shouldn’t take something like coronavirus to afford us time to live a meaningful life outside work.
And while there’s something to be said for cultivating a hobby from a place of pure, unadulterated, anti-capitalist enthusiasm, there’s certainly nothing wrong with using newly developed skills and talents to support yourself. And as the economy continues to deteriorate — 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week — we may see an increasing number of people putting their hobbies to this kind of use. Not every hobby has to or should become a side hustle, but it’s understandable that some people want or need them to. And there are certainly ways to do that without sacrificing all of the freedom that a hobby allows.
For 21-year-old Graciela, transforming her ballroom dancing hobby — which sets her back between $300 to 500 a month — into a side-hustle has allowed her to continue with it. It’s also changed her relationship with it for the better: “I definitely appreciate my own lessons more because that’s when I’m learning and it’s more me time,” she says.
But if you are choosing to pursue a new hobby right now, make sure you’re doing it because it feels right, not because you’re feeling the pressure to have something to post on Instagram. These quaran-times may indeed be well-suited to engaging in a new hobby, side hustle, or amalgamation of the two, but it’s also okay if you just wanna play iPhone games, stare at Twitter all day, or just… sit with your feelings. Everything else will be right there when you’re ready.