Hobbies to relax you on rough days — and how to get into them

We ask musicians, artists, and more how to access activities that reduce stress and bring joy.

We ask musicians, artists, and more how to access activities that reduce stress and bring joy

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

It's been a long day — the 6 a.m. alarm start, the back-to-back virtual meetings, the looming deadline of a project not yet complete, picking up the kids from school, getting dinner on the table, the tantrums before their bedtime, cleaning up the bits of food off the kitchen floor, answering work emails, watching the news, worrying about the pandemic, worrying about finances. Then tomorrow, it's rinse and repeat.

It's no wonder that when we finally get some downtime, all we want to do is numb out in front of the TV or scroll mindlessly through Instagram. 

Yet studies have shown that additional screen time for entertainment can contribute to emotional stress and may affect psychological well-being.

Instead of tuning into tech, give yourself a real break from the everyday and try your hand at one or more of these relaxing activities. These hobbies can promote mindfulness and help stimulate joy and personal fulfilment — plus there are ways to get started even if you're on a tight budget.

Make art — with childlike curiosity

Whether it's putting pencil to paper or playing with material found in nature, art-making can be a stress-reducing activity that can be rewarding, and takes little time to carve out. Researchers have found that creative activities predict significant increases in next day well being, and promote feelings of calm and contentment.

Too often as adults, however, making art can seem intimidating, even though as children it comes naturally. "We all have a child within and as we've grown up, we lose that child — [our] child within is important because it let's go of some of the ideas of what art is and isn't," says Kathryn Cooke, a Canmore-based artist and art instructor at Blue Eyes Studio. She recommends, firstly, to step away from how-to books and how-to videos, letting go of self judgment, and simply to get curious and observe — how fallen, trampled-on berries on a sidewalk can look like an abstract painting, or how observing the lines, shapes, and patterns that are all around us can be a source of inspiration.

"One can simply collect berries, either use a mortar and pestle or a spoon in a cup, push them down and you've now got a pigment that you can apply to a scrap of cloth or an old envelope," says Cooke. Flowers can also be used for pigment and leftover items can be repurposed into junk art, she says.

Of course, one could purchase a sketchpad and drawing tools — "I always encourage no erasing because such interesting forms arise from our 'mistakes' — but for those on a tighter budget looking for something different, Cooke recommends visiting the arts section of thrift stores to source leftover yarns and other textures, ceramic ware and glassware to make mosaics, and for paint, one could source acrylic-based house paint — "often [at paint stores] there might be some off-pigments that they've mixed that aren't quite right" — which is particularly useful for large formats.

"It's actually really fun to source out those materials, whether they're from nature [or] human-made materials... you can make some really beautiful pieces [from what you find]," says Cooke.

Learn to play an instrument — like the ukulele or the piano

Have you always dreamed of emulating your favourite musicians and being able to jam out to a rock song or play a beautiful ballad? It's an excellent hobby to pursue that may improve cognitive functioning long-term, even with minimal training. According to a study by McMaster University musical training can enhance attention, memory, and multisensory processing.   

Musical instruments are generally a more expensive commitment, and while choosing an instrument comes down to personal preference, there are two more affordable instruments worth trying: the ukulele and the piano.

"If you've seen any of the monster players like James Hill or Jake Shimabukuro, you know that the [ukulele] is literally the sky's the limit," says Scarborough Uke Jam teacher Paul Butters. For new students, he recommends starting with a $50 to $60 instrument because the cheaper $30 options don't stay in tune as well, sound as good, and the paint tends to chip. With the help of an experienced buyer, you could also find second-hand instruments from Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Kijiji, or Reverb, an online musical instrument marketplace, he says.

While there are music tutorials aplenty on YouTube to help you get started — "a lot of people start off learning 'I'm Yours' by Jason Mraz [and] 'Girls Like You' by Maroon 5 and Cardi B" — Butters advises eventually seeking out lessons. "It's very important to learn the proper technique otherwise you hit a wall," he says. 

Music lessons have become more accessible despite the pandemic, with virtual lessons being commonplace. Physically distanced individual and group lessons have also become available, says Perfect Pitch piano teacher Susan Guo in Toronto, who touts the relaxing benefits of piano playing as a good way to stimulate the brain — and, when possible, connect with others.

"Each person has their own keyboard… spaced far away from each other [wearing] masks,  and [together] we do… different songs… learn about music theory [and] develop the ear," says Guo. "I find they really enjoy taking piano lessons in groups because it's a great way to make friends and develop self-esteem and confidence."

Research has found that piano playing, specifically, is significantly more effective at lowering cortisol levels compared to other activities such as calligraphy, clay molding, reading magazines, and solving puzzles.

For those on a budget, Guo recommends getting in touch with local music stores to see if they have a monthly rental program for keyboards or looking into bigger libraries, like the Toronto Public Library, that have piano practice rooms available for free.

Take up knitting — and gain community

With the cold weather upon us and the holiday season not far away, now is the perfect time to get into the hobby of knitting. And the countless YouTube tutorials and affordable person-to-person online classes makes it an easy activity to get involved in — and one that can be stress-relieving, promote happiness, and has social benefits.

"It's a solitary activity, but it's part of a larger community," says Knit Social co-founder Fiona McLean, who hosts intimate and large-scale knitting events in Vancouver and Montreal, and more recently virtually. "The more you get into knitting the more you'll realize there's a huge community out there and people who are willing to support you," she says.

Needle sets, such as by KnitPicks, can be purchased online or from local stores, and while acrylic yarn is cheaper, you can find affordable 100 per cent wool as well. McLean recommends the brands Cascade, Patons, and Canadian wool companies like Briggs & Little and Custom Woolen Mills. For those on a tighter budget, she suggests visiting thrift stores — "there's often wool for sale in bags that have been donated [and] if you find a 100 per cent wool sweater, you can undo the whole sweater and knit with that."

From little baskets to scarves and simple macrame, there are a number of beginner's projects to choose from, and for more complex tasks, it may be worth taking a course such as on yarn substitutions, says McLean, and seeking advice from Ravelry, a free community forum of knitters posting about designer patterns, their own project results, and advice.

Dance — like you've always wanted

Remember when you were young and danced like no one was watching? It's a natural human expression to want to move to music as a form of enjoyment and to release tension.

"Some things you can't express in words, and sometimes you're just going through a specific time in your life... it can be easy to get in your head and just overthink everything" and that's where dance can be a great distraction and feel really good, says Halifax-based dance instructor Dejhani Allen who teaches from House of Eights and Haliente's Creative Studio.

Research has found that certain movements like jumping, rhythmic movements, and free flow can elicit happiness. As well, dancing may help decrease depression, and improve brain health and cognitive flexibility in older adults.

Before getting started, Allen recommends first researching different genres and finding the dance style that resonates most with you. She says YouTube videos are a great starting point and the playback speed can be adjusted to a slower setting to dance along with or find videos that break down the moves step-by-step. If going to a dance studio is not accessible, she recommends joining a dance society online or through Facebook, which could connect new dancers with others and gain a sense of community.

"Dance puts me in the best mood ever," says Allen who shares a quote by Maya Angelou: "You can't use up creativity because the more you use, the more you have."

Cook from scratch — and savour the finished results

Getting dinner on the table fast on busy weeknights is no one's idea of a relaxing hobby. Cooking for necessity, however, is a very different experience than making food for pleasure. Researchers have found that people who endeavour in self-sufficiency projects like cooking and baking experience mindfulness and well-being as a result.

"I love being able to do something that's so hands-on and tangible," says Academy of Culinary Nutrition founder and head instructor Meghan Telpner. "You can think of it as a sensual experience, using all of your senses — you're touching foods, you're seeing it, you're smelling it, you're tasting it, you're hearing it cooking, and that in of itself helps ground you in the present moment, and can become a meditative practice," she says.

If you're a novice in the kitchen, Telpner recommends starting with recipes that have eight ingredients or less, and five steps or less. "A good practice is to look at [what you] have in the fridge… and find a recipe [that has] most of the ingredients so that you're not having to go out, make a special trip, spend extra money, and potentially waste it if it doesn't turn out," she says.

Making food from scratch is a great way to experiment with seasonal and new ingredients as well — "maybe it's a kohlrabi or a rutabaga or a cabbage or a certain cut of meat, or a certain type of fish, something you don't normally have" — while becoming more skilled and potentially saving money in the long run

"That's the biggest transformation we see with students coming in… they gain confidence and find themselves looking forward to and love being in the kitchen," Telpner says.

Janet Ho is a writer and hobby artist. You can follow her at @janetonpaper.

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