For most of her childhood, Allison Entrekin was enrolled in after-school art classes: making pottery, drawing cartoons. But her favorite class was painting, and she kept it up all the way through her teens.
“I didn’t have any aspirations of becoming a professional, but I loved it,” says Entrekin, 39. “I remember breaking up with my high school boyfriend and going out in my garage to paint. It helped me process my feelings. It was like therapy.”
Then life happened. Entrekin went off to college and joined a sorority. She spent a lot more time studying. A few years later, she had a full-time job, a husband and two kids.
“It wasn’t like I thought about it and decided to stop painting; it just sort of happened that my focus shifted away. Then, once the kids were born, there was just no time. My old art supplies were sitting in the garage, and they got swallowed up by high chairs and strollers,” she says.
Still, she missed the creative outlet, the calming nature of it, the sense of accomplishment she got from a finished painting. Last year, she made a promise to herself to take it up again and enrolled in a once-a-week class at a local arts center.
“My kids are 7 and 9, so this is finally becoming more possible for me now,” she says. “Yes, it sometimes feels like an indulgence. But if not now, when?”
Howard E. Tinsley, a professor emeritus of psychology at Southern Illinois University, has spent his entire career studying leisure activities. He says these kinds of hobbies are key to well-being — so much so that we shouldn’t think of them as an indulgence.
“It’s almost similar to the ant and the grasshopper fable: People think that we should be engaged in moneymaking or industrious activities all the time, and when you take time off you’re just wasting it,” he says. “You feel like you have to have earned the right. But the benefits are really much greater than most of us think.”
For many people, rediscovering a hobby that they loved as a child can offer a deep sense of fulfillment. It also can be less intimidating to jump in if you’re already familiar with the activity — even if it’s been 20 years since you picked up a paintbrush or laced up your soccer cleats. Here are a few reasons you might want to hop back in the saddle.
It’s a form of self-care
“Reconnecting with activities that you enjoyed as a kid can help you remember a time in which you felt carefree, open and full of wonder — all of which can boost your mood and sense of enjoyment,” says Natalie Dattilo, director of psychology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Hobbies provide freedom of choice and freedom from obligation, Tinsley adds. You’re not doing it because you have to; you’re doing it because you enjoy it — you want to. It’s something that’s just for you, and that’s mentally restorative.
It can give you purpose and self-confidence
Over time, hobbies provide an opportunity to hone a talent or skill — maybe one you thought you’d left behind for good. “Mastering an activity is satisfying,” Tinsley says. “You feel good about yourself when you get good at something.”
Those feelings of self-esteem and self-respect may even carry over into other areas of your life, Dattilo says. “Similar to exercise, the positive benefits outlast the experience itself. And the more often you participate in the activity, the longer the aftereffects will last,” she says.
It puts you “in the zone.” Have you ever been so focused on what you’re doing that you don’t even notice time passing? The best activities are those that offer what psychologists call a state of flow, or a sense of total mental immersion.
“My painting class is three hours long, which seems like a huge block of time, but those three hours feel like 30 minutes,” Entrekin says. “I go to this place of deep relaxation. I’m not thinking about what I have to do for work, where I need to drive the kids. For me, it’s better than yoga.”
It can be a relationship booster
How did you make friends as a kid? You found people who liked to do the same fun stuff as you did, whether that was riding bikes around the neighborhood, learning the dances from music videos or playing on the same basketball team. And doing something you love can be a great way to make friends as an adult, too.
A hobby might even bring you closer to your own kids if the activity is something you can occasionally do together. On her last family vacation, Entrekin brought her oil paints — and some inexpensive acrylics for her kids so that they could all paint on the front porch of their rented beach house.
It sends a critical message
When we take time to do an activity that we enjoy, we send important “messages” to ourselves, Dattilo says, such as: “I am worthy of this enjoyment” or “My happiness is important to me.”
“This self-talk encourages feelings of motivation, contentment and confidence, which influences the choices we make and how positive the experience is,” she says.
It also sends an important message to her family, Entrekin adds. “I like that my kids see that I have interests outside of just the absolute necessities. They see that I enjoy this, they see the paintings I come home with, and it shows them that I think this is important.”