In praise of the humble hobby

Boy on hobbyhorse, illustration from Little Songs, 1889 (public domain)

Boy riding a hobbyhorse


bootcamp2015-small 2(This article is adapted from the original record of my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years.) In which I consider certain peripheral amusements and reject a paradoxical call to regard them all as significant vocations.


The fifth item on the agenda of my Boot Camp for the Bonus years was “Commit to hobbies.” Thus commanded my inner Sergeant Major. How strange, I thought, as I wrote it on the list of 12 tasks. Wasn’t that a contradiction in terms?

I struggled to perceive any logical reason for this task, but eventually conceded that the following might be true. As we gear up for the final decades of life, it seems sensible to have hobbies that demand our very best, because hobbies can provide so many of the essentials for a good (older) life. For example, a social life—endless learning—a sense of mastery—inner or outer travel—a weekly schedule—aesthetic or physical or mental satisfaction—self expression—a purpose in life, even. I could carry on all day about the theoretical benefits of hobbies.

Also, while spying on other retirees, I could see that the lack of hobbies could be a handicap. After leaving paid employment, your days and weeks can seem shapeless, lonely or bleak if you have to construct a schedule from scratch. A hobby is often much wider than a personal pursuit: it may involve regular meetings or rehearsals every week, and a role to replace the old one.

Mind you, starting a hobby after retirement is a bit on the late side for some people. Best have at least some hobby-habits set up in advance, I thought.

Hobby: the etymology belittles the passion

I have been rather puzzled about hobbies all my life. Stamp collecting was the archetypal hobby of the 1940s, and as a child I couldn’t see the appeal, not at all. I had no idea about the many pleasures of philately, including a potential income. One person’s hobby is another person’s job.



Le Philateliste, Francois Barraud, public domain

Hobby is a peculiar word. It looks kind of silly on the page. This noun does not invite us to take it seriously. Two dictionary definitions:

  1. An activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure. Synonyms: pastime, amateur interest, sideline…
  2. Short for hobby horse.

Now, what’s a hobby horse?

  1. A child’s toy consisting of a stick with a model of a horse’s head at one end.
  2. A preoccupation or favourite topic.

With such a heritage, no wonder hobbies have a bad name. A crude toy, a cheap imitation, a childish, pointless substitute for a real occupation, an autodidact’s boring obsession… No wonder I was shocked to see this item on my own agenda: did I even have hobbies, and if so, why was I supposed to take them seriously?

Whenever I think I’ve got it sussed, I am so wrong.

For a retired person, which are leisure time activities?

I am still trying to figure this out. What is my work, now that I’ve stopped running a business, and what are my hobbies? Surely writing is still my job. Wait, I decided that keeping fit is my job. Then again, being the body corporate chair is certainly not something I do for pleasure, so is that an unpaid part-time job?

What’s a job, after retirement? Is it something you have to do whether you like it or not? Is it your top priority, something you were born to do? Is it simply work that you’re paid to do?

As for my own hobbies, should I include reading, watching TV, walking, socialising, Tai Chi, cooking,  travel — the list is endless, the list is life!

My two designated hobbies: singing and dancing

It took me until November of my boot camp year to even consider this particular challenge, but then suddenly, it became easy peasy. I was home and hosed, I’d passed before I even started examining my so-called (sarcastic quote marks) “hobbies”.

That’s because I cheated: I decided arbitrarily that dancing and singing should be my designated hobbies, because I was already fully committed to both.

By November 2015 I had been dancing in the Crows Feet Dance Collective for 9 years and singing in Wellington’s Capital Choir for 12 years. As for commitment — that year we danced a major new work The Armed Man five times in three venues, and the choir premiered a brilliant new work that I’d been heavily involved in creating: Shaky Places: a song cycle of New Zealand poems for mixed voices. Whew, what a year.

So you’d think I would just need to tick the boxes, wouldn’t you? Commit to hobbies?Pass!

The boot camp was a serious short-term hobby

However, my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years was never about ticking boxes. I undertook the boot camp in my leisure time, from choice, but it never felt like a hobby. It felt like a serious commitment that might cause me some pain, and would end after my year of being old.

Which is a bit like what my inner Sergeant Major was calling for. I think she wants me to give my best to every activity that I choose to do for my own amusement. To do each one to the best of my ability, or not at all. It’s about a professional commitment to do my best at leisure activities that I love, even though they are not my life work, and may seem trivial to others.

Tough titties, Sergeant Major! I’m not going overboard just because you say so. I’m not a perfectionist: I’m a very very-goodist, which is better. I’m right, you’re wrong, suck it up!

Aiming for perfection is counterproductive

As I said, commitment is natural for me with dancing and singing. But how about my other possibly-hobbies, like reading and gardening and Tai Chi? To heck with it— I’m letting myself off the hook.

  • I love reading, and I do it all the time; but I don’t write reviews or join book groups or read scholarly journals.
  • I like gardening, and I like to do this about four times a year.
  • I love Tai Chi, and I do it for 7 minutes every morning.

Enough. If I gave the same level of dedication to every hobby, what a mess my life would be. First to suffer would be dancing and choir.

A modified version of the boot camp task

Commit to one or two leisure activities, and enjoy others without commitment or guilt. And blob out whenever you need to, OK?

What are your thoughts? I’ve got a lot to learn and I hope you’ll help me!

Please feel free to share this article and any others! 

21 thoughts on “In praise of the humble hobby

  1. cedar51 says:

    I would immediately change “hobbies” to “activities” – this then means you can either get really involved or just dabble in it occasionally. Or you could move your activity into a more upwards mode or use the activity as gentle unwinding from a busy life.

    My activities have been varied but earlier this year, I gave away one that I had really been involved in for 16 years and I do not miss it at all. I’m finding that having had nearly a year away from that activity that it’s time to do different activities.

    One might say that being a student at The Learning Connexion which is based at Taita (Wellington) but I’m a distance delivery student is an activity – I’m on a continuous learning curve in a varied activated kind of way.

    So if anyone asks you “now you’ve retired, have you got any hobby/ies?” you reply “I’m involved in a variety of activities…” and leave it open ended as you want.

    1. Yes, hobby is an old fashioned word that is meaningless now. You have a good solution.

  2. LooneyB says:

    Yes I agree – hobbies is another word for activities and I feel so long as we are active – everything else falls into shape. Active mind and body of course. Doing what you want – feeds your inner self and gives you terrific satisfaction and if it only take your 7 minutes ( Tai Chi – are you sure there is benefit to only doing it for 7 mins..?) then why not. I really think as we get older its simply doing what we want but at least doing something. I work with someone who is 74 and she is fit and active and doesn’t want to stop working because she says she enjoys it. Who is to stop her …. She sparkles with wit and fun things to say and constantly socialises ( I tell her she has too many friends) and travels. Hobbies; Interests; Activities – call it what you will, its just part of the ” feeling good” giving something back to yourself… and the secret, I think, to a long life.

    1. Yes, the rewards are many and they are real. Thank you for commenting!

      1. And you bet, 5-7 minutes of Tai Chi is worth it. I am inclined to give tai chi and dancing the credit for my fitness and flexibility 🙂

    2. Oh and LooneyB, yes! 5-7 minutes of tai chi is worth it if you do it every day for twenty years! I give credit to tai chi and dancing for my good balance, flexibility and ache-free body 🙂

      1. LooneyB says:

        I will try it then. Nothing ages anyone so quickly as a poor walker

  3. Dan Antion says:

    I’m fine with hobbies. I have several and I look forward to exploring them more after I retire.

    1. That’s cool. I wonder if the distinction is clearer while you are employed…

  4. Are cats considered a hobby? Sometimes a joy, sometimes a burden but always a commitment.

    1. Hard one. Aren’t they more like little people?

      1. Yes but you don’t need to send them to college.

  5. Val says:

    I’m lukewarm on the word ‘hobbies’. I was never able (or willing) to fit in with other people’s ideas of hobbies when I was a child (which was simply something to keep me out of parents’ and other elders hair, usually, or to make them feel like I wasn’t just wasting my time: “you need a hobby” they’d say when they’d see me sitting and seemingly doing nothing. Except I was doing something: I was sitting still and thinking, or sitting still and daydreaming), and as – due to ill-health all my life – I’ve never had a regular job from which I needed to retire, I’ve always looked on the interests and activities I have and have had as continuing until I lose interest and then move on to something else.

    Stamps – as I understand it – are a way of collecting miniature images and sharing them with others. Most hobbies can be shared with other people.

    You already do have a ‘hobby’ that you’ve not mentioned (possibly not thought of it as such?) and that is blogging. This blog is a kind of hobby – blogging is a kind of hobby for many of us.

    1. What a perceptive child you were—not surprisingly, being a clever child with enforced time on your hands, Val. How irritating to be told you need a hobby when you were just being you. As a fellow daydreamer I get it. Oh yes, blogging … that’s writing and thinking and then sharing, right?

  6. Wendy says:

    I like the word hobby. For me, it distinguishes what I have to do, like housework (yuck) or going to work from what I want to do. Everything we do is an activity, not everything is a hobby. Blogging is a great hobby, if you want to do it well you have to commit. Fits the criteria!

    1. Spot on, Wendy. And I can learn to like it too. Am thinkinf of hobbits…

  7. toutparmoi says:

    Interesting word, “hobby”. And a very homely one. The kettle on the hob, Hob as a stock name for a rustic fellow…

    When I was a kid, hobbies were nigh on compulsory, and stamp collecting was right up there. I think I still have my collection somewhere. Well, I learnt some geography from it.

    “Hobbies and interests” was a stock phrase, a hobby being something you actively engaged in (though I don’t think playing sport counted as a hobby), and an interest being something you read about, or passively observed.

    I suspect both were a way of making sure children were never idle, but also “out from underfoot”. The daydreamers just had to pretend to be doing something else (like reading, or weeding the garden) for fear of being chivvied into activity.

    Do I still have hobbies and interests? Yes, of course, but they don’t stand categorisation any more. They’re just part of me. Which is maybe why we were expected to have them in the first place, as a means of learning how to educate ourselves outside the system.

    1. That’s a really good point, that childhood hobbies were an encouragement to self-education and even self-discovery. Nowadays I associate the word with hobbits, another cosy word, but more fashionable.

  8. As says Toutparmoi, you learn geography (and customs and culture and history) from stamp collecting. Trouble is, you end up with collections for which you can no longer spare space, and which few youngsters would care to be gifted. They’re too valuable, having taken so much time and care — even when only thematic. So my hobby is now playing other people’s organs: it’s their space, their upkeep, and my fun. To heck with stamps!

    1. What a great hobby! Go for it.

%d bloggers like this: