The Science of Quarantine Hobbies

Well, here we are again… another few weeks under a quarantine that stretches on unpredictably into the future.

If you’re like me, being forced to spend so much time at home has put you into a state of such boredom that you’ve kind of realized how it feels to be a goldfish: swimming around in your bowl day in and day out, eating at random times, not remembering whether that cat you saw passed by on Thursday or Wednesday. But usually, the most creative thoughts come to you when you’re bored; as the brazilian saying goes, “an empty mind is the devil’s workplace”, so hopefully you’re putting your brain to good use with some hobbies! There’s definitely been some quarantine hobby crazes going around; for example, did anyone else’s mom suddenly get really into baking? I, for one, have tried knitting an endless scarf, taking pictures of wildlife (aka squirrels and birds because there’s nothing more exotic), sketching said wildlife, baking tons of cakes and cookies (which all end up either raw or burnt), starting five new books and finishing none of them, and marathoning movie after movie – all that just in the past month. 

Whether it’s playing video games or sports, gardening or cleaning, reading or writing, It’s undeniable that hobbies help us relieve stress – stress and boredom have been going hand in hand for me lately – but how and why do they make us feel better? 

According to psychologist Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi, hobbies help us get into the state of flow – the experience of losing track of time and silencing those nagging thoughts as you concentrate on an activity. Many hobbies themselves have specific ways of relieving stress; for example, repetitive motions like knitting or making friendship bracelets can soothe anxiety by letting you set aside intrusive thoughts, meditate on the present, and feel the satisfaction of creating something. Also, gardening helps with stress relief because being in the presence of plants literally lowers your blood pressure, allowing you to relax. And next time you find yourself staring at the bottom of a pack of cookies, know that your brain made you do it – eating or drinking something sweet decreases the production of stress hormones. If you’ve been going on walks – maybe with a friend or two because it’s not necessarily against quarantine restrictions! – you might find that you’re feeling better because you’ve reduced rumination (the process of thinking about what’s bothering you over and over without being able to break the cycle). Speaking of friends, laughing with them – even if it’s not in person – “enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain”. Actually, laughter first triggers your stress response and then deactivates it, making you feel relaxed.

Another nice thing to do is spend time with pets, which studies suggest lowers blood pressure and releases endorphins, hormones that “suppress pain” (in other words, that make you happy). [Speaking of pets – did you know that there’s real psychological reason for why people find baby animals cute? It’s because we’re instinctually conditioned to take care of infants, even if they’re not from our own species (and that’s probably because “the caregiving response … may have evolved very early in the evolutionary past we share with animals as disparate as birds and reptiles”). And cute aggression is when you feel something is so adorable you want to squish it – that’s got some scientific basis too; according to some studies, it’s because that overwhelming feeling of cuteness needs to be adjusted with something negative like aggression because “if you find yourself incapacitated by how cute a baby is … that baby is going to starve”. Weird, huh?]

Here’s another rabbit hole I went down: apparently there’s a good reason why we love rewatching movies or shows we’ve seen countless times. On the one hand, the feeling of nostalgia from remembering the first time we watched the show or heard the song is a positive emotional response because it reminds us of how good that felt and that we’re likely to experience that happiness again in the future. And on the other hand, “human beings love predictability” – it’s easy to process something you’ve already experienced lots of times, and it gives us a sense of comfort in uncertain times to know what’s going to happen and that everything will turn out okay. Even if it’s fiction.

The moral of the story is, some good does come out of quarantine, aside from the obvious fact that it keeps the virus from spreading. Embrace your hobbies, your pets, and your loved ones (though maybe not physically), and make sure to take care of yourself. 

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