You Don’t Have to Be Good at Art to Benefit from an Artistic Hobby

Sunday Painter, 2017.
Charlie Roberts
Galleri Magnus Karlsson

Girls and Clothes, 2015.
Charlie Roberts
Galleri Magnus Karlsson

Growing up, I had the hobbies of an aspiring arts-and-crafts maven. As a wee kid, I devoted my free time to gleefully drawing cats, cutting up catalogs for collages, and sewing felt finger puppets. Later, I took to sculpting tiny clay figurines and stringing miniscule beads to make necklaces and bracelets. In high school, I was the president of the Watercolor Society (I swear it was real), and as a senior in college, where I majored in Spanish, the ceramics studio became my sanctuary—an escape from my thesis, grad school applications, and my roommate.

While I still have hobbies now (on occasion I bake fanciful sugar cookies and make ceramics pots and sculptures), I do them less, and they’re no longer entirely joy-fueled pursuits. Instead, the things I do for fun seem to more overtly define who I am as a person, and as a result, there’s more pressure to do them well.

Author and Columbia University law professor Tim Wu described this sensation in a September 2018 op-ed in the New York Times, where he noted that he was surprised by how few people he meets have hobbies. “We’re afraid of being bad at them,” he wrote. “Our ‘hobbies,’ if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.”

Wu pointed to the way joggers are now apt to be training for a future marathon, and amateur painters are compelled to show in exhibitions or build a large social media following. “Lost here is the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it,” he explained, adding that people who avoid the now-daunting concept of hobbies are more likely to sink their free time into screens, such as watching Netflix, or scrolling through Instagram. As a result, we’re missing out on the benefits that leisure activities can deliver—like making us more creative, happy, calm, and empathetic. Even more benefits emerge when it comes to hobbies that involve the arts.

A plethora of research studies have shown that expressing ourselves through art can help to ease a wide range of illnesses and afflictions, from anxiety and depression to dementia and cancer. More broadly, making art—be that sketching, writing poetry, dancing, or playing with clay—can make us feel happier and more relaxed, and can also help to improve our observation, motor, and problem-solving skills, as well as memory retention and hand-eye coordination. But how do we get over the hurdles of finding time for hobbies and feeling comfortable about making mediocre art?

In terms of time, as Wu pointed out, many among us manage to find hours each day for leisurely digital content consumption. So what if we set aside a small portion of that time for doodling or knitting or wood-carving? Ultimately, there are no hard-and-fast rules for how long you need to spend on a hobby.

Take, for example, husband-and-wife writers and professors Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein—a historian and scholar of creativity, and a professor of physiology at Michigan State University, respectively—who have conducted research on hobbies. Michele writes haiku poems on a daily basis, while Robert creates his art (cut-out collages inspired by gestalt theory and M.C. Escher) more sporadically, setting small goals for himself like crafting cards for his family members’ birthdays and holidays. “There are different styles of pursuing something,” Michele explained. “Some people think you have to sit down at the desk every day because if you want to be inspired, you have to be where the muse will know to find you,” while others, she added, “wait for the inspiration or a time when it seems right.” How and when you do your hobby is a matter of personal preference and motivation.

Feeling comfortable making art is similarly personal, but it’s also a matter of rethinking the act itself. “We tend to put very high standards on ourselves, and I think and it might be a product of modern times, when we’ve made the artist into a kind of celebrity,” said art therapist Dr. Girija Kaimal.

Additionally, with the rise of Instagram and other social media platforms, it’s certainly easier to share your penchant for embroidery or pottery with the world, but it’s also easier to feel inferior or embarrassed by your work, when you can so easily compare yourself to your peers (many of whom are professionals). It may feel like it’s no longer enough, or a waste of time, to just relish in the meditative act of doodling or knitting a wonky scarf.

Through her work, Dr. Kaimal, whose research focuses on the physiological and psychological health outcomes of self-expression, often encounters people who are quick to say they aren’t an artist. In response, she tells them: “Well, you don’t stop exercising or playing something for fun just because you’re not an expert at it. You don’t stop talking or writing because you’re not a great poet or writer.”

In a 2016 study where Dr. Kaimal and a colleague asked participants to draw freely, they found that even for those who were not confident in their skills, some low-stakes doodling quickly led to positive feelings. “That perception of not having good ideas or not being creative changed within 20 minutes of just doodling and coloring and doing a few drawings—with no expectations, no judgment,” she said.

The lack of expectations and judgement is key. By letting your mind wander freely, or in other words, letting yourself play, you can reap the positive benefits of hobbies, like enhanced creativity and mood regulation.

Play can even lead to personal growth and improved skills, as the Root-Bernsteins have experienced. Michele recalls that she started writing haiku some 20 years ago, “just playing with my my kids, and that’s how I sort of got into it,” she said. And when she started to improve her skills and get her poems published by literary journals, it was because she’d followed a peer’s advice to not take it too seriously. “I relaxed into it, and I said, ‘It’s just a game, it’s just for me and my pleasure,’” she recalled.

For his part, Robert notes that he makes art because it takes his mind off other things. “Some of it actually I do because it lets me think about my work in a different way,” he said, noting that at times his art relates to his work, but it remains an independent practice, and a way to relax.

Together, the Root-Bernsteins have researched the lives of polymaths and Nobel Prize winners, and have found that these highly successful people often have hobbies. “When you look at groups of elite scientists or engineers or artists, you find people who have many interests, but that said, they’re not all serious or on the same level,” Michele explained. “But even with the ones who have pursued art simply for fun, that can have a big profound impact on their creative work.” Albert Einstein, for example, famously played the piano. “When he couldn’t get ideas, he would sit down at the piano and literally play around, and saw whatever problem he was having resolved itself,” Robert said.

Hobbies can also be crucial to gaining greater cultural awareness and appreciation. “In so many areas of our lives now, we become passive consumers,” Michele explained. “That, to my mind, gives up some of our birthright, where we’re no longer participating in culture in an active way.” Robert added: “I would emphasize that a person who’s never painted cannot look at a painting and see what’s in [it]; a person who’s never played music doesn’t really appreciate a really phenomenal performance…so even if you’re not good at it, just trying something gives you this understanding and appreciation for what it really does take to be good.”

The Root-Bernsteins point to school as a potential source of the anxiety many people feel about making art. From a young age, we’re graded on our art and music—our creative expressions. We’ve been led to associate making art with extrinsic rewards, rather than understanding it as something to enjoy and improve upon. And while extreme goal-setting in a major factor in the decline of hobbies, finding something that you love doing, and that you want to get better at, may be the key to landing on the right pastime. Then, setting incremental goals for your own improvement can make it all the more fulfilling. Say, for example, you’ve been using knitting patterns you find online, but then one day, you decide to create a pattern of your own. Maybe you do and it doesn’t go well—that’s okay.

“You can have do-overs—it’s low risk,” Robert said. “That’s what’s wonderful about hobbies.” It may seem obvious, but nonetheless, it’s comforting to remember that the next time you pick up a paintbrush or a set of knitting needles, unlike most parts of life, you can always try again.