When a Hobby is a Means to an End, it’s Probably Not a Hobby

If you’re like the millions of Americans who believe in New Year’s resolutions, you woke up today ready to tackle that new hobby. You know the hobby I’m talking about. The hobby you’ve sworn to master over the next 12 months. The one you developed as a child, only to abandon by adolescence. Or the hobby your dad tried to teach you, but that never quite stuck. Or the hobby your acquaintances, the ones with the aspirational lifestyles, are into, according to Instagram.

Today, your brain crackles with ideas on how you will master this new talent, which will transport you to a place far more interesting than where you are now. A place where you’ll find the thing that finally makes you happy. Or, at the very least, the thing that makes you seem happy, which, according to social media, is a kind of happiness.

Lucky for us, websites like YouTube exist to be Mr. Miyagi to our Daniel Son. To make it easy for even the laziest among us to perfect the knitter’s garter stitch or the gardener’s green thumb. Last year, after I took a one-off local art class, I spent days gobbling up YouTube instructional videos about how to paint with pastels before I realized I didn’t want to master the art of painting with pastels. 

The question then becomes: What hobby is worthy of such time-consuming self-discovery? Maybe it’s brewing beer or blowing glass? Or perhaps it’s playing the piano or mastering chess? According to the online marketing database Statista, the most popular hobbies for Americans in 2022 were cooking, baking, reading, and pets. I didn’t realize that reading and pets could even be considered hobbies until I looked up the word hobby in the dictionary, which defines a hobby as ​“an activity that you do for pleasure when you are not working.” 

And here is the problem: Pursuing something purely for pleasure seems at odds with who we are as Americans. Americans are taught that the activities we pursue must result in personal gain. For example: Did you read about the suburban cupcake maker who became a multi-millionaire after Oprah featured her cupcakes? Or about the artsy high school doodler-turned-animator who works for Disney? Or about the Sephora employee who turned her passion for make-up into a TikTok empire? According to marketers, journalists, and Hollywood filmmakers, hobbies are something to professionalize—a means to a lucrative end.

If I sound cynical about taking up hobbies as a New Year’s Resolution, it’s because I am. But it’s not because I don’t think hobbies aren’t important. Psychology research tells us that hobbies can make us happier because they can produce “flow,” which is when a person is engaged in a challenging task while fully absorbed in the activity. The act of doing, it seems, is the very thing that alights our synapses and makes us happy.

And before you think I’m writing with the notion I’m better than you as someone who rejects hobbies because of what we’ve made of them as Americans, I’m here to tell you that I’ve tried to be a hobbyist. I’ve tried so many hobbies it’s hard to count. Pottery, improv, and singing are among the ones I’ve tried in the last 10 years. And before that, I tried karate but quit after a few months because I hated how the dojo smelled like sweaty feet. The trial and error phase of my hobbies has been fun, and in the case of karate, extremely funny, but I’ve never wanted to stick with something for long enough that I got good at it, which gets to my point– why do we–or, rather, I– need to be good at something to stick with it?

Before I started thinking about hobbies for this blog post, I would have said writing is my main hobby. But if I’m being honest, my dream is to make a living as a full-time writer, which means writing is more of a side hustle.

This leads me to pickleball, which I took up at the outset of the pandemic with my husband because we wanted something to do that would get us out of the house. It’s since become a joy–a thing that lights me up. It’s even led me to new friends. Last night, one of the women I play pickleball with texted how happy she was to have a pickleball group—our own little pickleball family.

I am cautious, however, to commit to pickleball as my main hobby insofar as it’s being marketed and commercialized so that winning becomes the goal. I can feel the competitiveness on the court. People’s desire to win seems at odds with their enjoyment. When I see other players post photos of themselves on Facebook with their pickleball medals, it feels like a public relations ploy. A way for them to prove to the world that they’re the people who win. I, too, want to be a person who wins.

I guess this leaves me as someone who likes the idea of hobbies but is not ready to commit to doing something unless a goal is attached, whether the goal is winning on the pickleball court or writing a best-selling novel. In the end, what could be more American than that?

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  1. rounding30

    The barrier to entry to so many hobbies for me is the time it would take for me to even approach mediocrity. I’m not sure it would help me reach “flow” to produce a lot of crappy-looking watercolor paintings or spend hours practicing guitar so I could play Jingle Bells like a six-year-old who is also learning the instrument. I agree with you that hobbies are important by their own merit, but I am still looking for the one that I am willing to commit to. Great piece! Happy new year!


    1. Nikki Gamer

      Totally agree! I have to admit I’ve gone through more than my fair share of trial hobbies (karate being one of them!!!) and didn’t want to do all the work to just be OK! Good luck hobby-ing! And thanks for reading!