"Hobby" seems like a word from another time.
The dictionary defines it as "An activity done regularly in one's leisure time for pleasure," but the concept of hobbies and leisure time seem like foreign concepts once you pass a certain age. You know, it's that time you have free when you're not working. If you spend that time helping your kids with homework, binge-watching TV shows or doing laundry, those don't count as hobbies.
If you just realized you don't have a hobby, you might want to rethink that, especially if you find yourself regularly stressed out. Hobbies — things that occupy your mind and/or body — are a great way to forget about work. In fact, a lot of research has looked at the stress-reducing properties of hobbies. More specifically, studies have looked at how hobbies improve well-being, how they can expand your social circle and even how they can make you better at your job.
So the stuff you do outside your money-making ventures is important. You'll have fun doing them, and they'll likely ease your daily stress. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Bird watching. If you enjoy being outside but aren't sure what to do when you get there, bird watching could be a great hobby for you. (We have an easy how to get started in bird watching guide.) The activity combines several senses, including listening for bird calls, and finding and identifying birds by sight. In most areas, birds migrate, so there are likely to be different birds to see from season to season. There are bird-watching clubs if you want to make it a social activity, but it's great for going solo, too. (Look up your local Audubon Society chapter to get involved.) If you have kids, it's an ideal hobby to share with them, because children enjoy being able to spot birds and can learn names and identifications quickly.
Knitting or crocheting. If you find yourself folding paper absentmindedly or twisting random threads when you're watching TV or waiting in a doctor's office, you may find that occupying your hands is relaxing. Once you get the basics down, you can carry on conversations while you knit, and a knitting circle might be ideal to socialize or to learn new techniques. For many, knitting can provide a boost to mental health and it can be a form of solo meditation; some have even equated knitting with yoga). The beauty of knitting and crocheting is that you can start with the basics and still be able to make something you can wear relatively quickly. As the level of complexity goes up, the activity can become more challenging (if you're into that) or simply remain a relaxing, repetitive activity.
Gardening. Working in the soil can be a particularly rewarding hobby because you get some great side benefits from it, like improving the value of your home, making your living environment more pleasant and attractive, and growing food you can eat. Again, you can start with the basics, growing some lettuce or basics from seeds. Then, as you learn more about plants, you can add to that knowledge. It's empowering to grow flowers and veggies and will get you in rhythm with the seasons and get you outdoors more often, too. (When you're ready to learn more, MNN's Tom Oder offers a wealth of good gardening advice.)
Home brewing. This isn't just about drinking beer but about crafting it. Making beer is complex and variable enough to be interesting, but not so hard that you can't jump into it and give it a good shot with minimal training. The basic reward of a good bottle of beer is easy to enjoy — not to mention good for you — and from there you can create your own personal variety. If you're someone who likes to tinker and experiment (or who enjoyed high school chemistry), this could be a fun hobby for you. Plus, you'll always have a great, homemade gift to give friends and family.
Mushroom hunting. This hobby has grown in popularity in recent years, and many parks and nature centers offer classes in finding fungus. This is one pastime where you want to start with taking an in-person primer in the subject because mushrooms are pretty complex (and you shouldn't just eat any mushrooms you find, even after identifying them in a guidebook). Of course, you can go mushroom hunting without the intent to eat them. All you need is a good pair of walking shoes, a guidebook and maybe a magnifying glass if you want to get up close and personal.
Painting. You don't need as many materials to start painting as you might think. Starting with watercolors means you simply need a couple brushes, a set of watercolor paints and some good-quality watercolor paper, which you should be able to find at any art supply or crafts store. You can start right away. Practice some still lifes made from kitchen fruit, or your cat while she's sleeping. It's easy to find a class, or you can check out one of the many YouTube videos that give instruction on specific techniques. Hike out to a beautiful vista (watercolors are lightweight), or stay at home. Of course, you could also experiment with pastels or oil paints, though they are messier to work with.
Photography. This is an easier hobby to get into than during previous eras, where developing film was time-consuming (if you did it yourself) and expensive (if someone else did it for you). Now, of course, a good digital camera means you can get into photography with low cost and low risk. Starting with the camera on your phone will get you knowledgeable about the basics of how light works. You can take 150 pictures and delete 148 of them, and you'll be learning the whole time. The trick is to pick one subject and take the time to photograph it from every angle.You can also learn about more complex camera features from how-to videos. And practice. (MNN's Jaymi Heimbuch is a professional photographer who has offered many helpful how to files, like this one about how to take photos in low light situations.)
Dancing. If you're itching for a new way to get some exercise and can't stomach more time at the gym, there's a huge variety of dance to try, from individual modern dancing to group ecstatic dance (popular in large metro areas through groups like TransDance and Soul Motion), as well as traditional ballroom and salsa dancing. While the former might mean you need to take paid lessons to begin, most cities have salsa clubs with free lessons to get people started. Dance is a way to get out of your head, into your body, and to move in a completely different way than you typically do.
Of course there are plenty of other hobbies, from taking part in historical reenactments (especially popular on the East Coast and South), to pottery, baking and embroidery. You may need to try a few of them until you find one that's a great fit for you, but once you do, any and all of these ideas can be lifelong pursuits.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was published in November 2014.