Why hobbies are so important in retirement

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock


Having a passion—whether it’s making or collecting something or volunteering or traveling or whatever—can enhance a retiree’s mental and physical health

When Lynice Willis ended her 30-year career in college administration in 2020, she gave herself a precious gift: time.

“When I hear the word retirement, I think of the freedom of time," says Ms. Willis, a Cleveland resident and an avid quilt maker. “I have control over what I’m doing and how much time I spend on it. If I wanted to, if there’s a quilt project I want to get done, I could forgo most of the other things I’m doing and solely focus on that and take the time to get it done."

Through quilting, Ms. Willis has embraced one of the keys to a happy retirement. Engaging in a creative hobby enhances middle-aged and older adults’ cognitive and mental health, says Carolyn Adams-Price, a psychology professor at Mississippi State University. She co-wrote a 2020 study that showed how committed participation in leisure activities acts as a buffer against depression.

“Creating something makes you feel productive," says Dr. Adams-Price. “And in our culture, people want to feel productive."

Dr. Adams-Price was also part of a 2018 study which found that having a hobby led to improvements in older individuals’ cognitive performance and neural efficiency. And last year, Japanese researchers published a study showing that hobbies reduced the risks of cardiovascular disease—especially strokes—in participants ages 40 to 69.

In her research, Dr. Adams-Price has identified the benefits gained through hobbies. These include a sense of identity and recognition from others; mastery of a skill or topic; and a feeling of calming and spirituality.

Stamp collecting

Daniel Bridgers of Savannah, Ga., currently spends roughly 20 hours a week collecting stamps in albums that he will someday give his son and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Bridgers, who is 74 years old and semiretired, first took up stamp collecting when he was 10 years old, but he dropped it as he pursued college, a career and a family. In 2013, Mr. Bridgers sold his law firm, giving him the time to pursue his passion. “When I pulled out my stamp collection [again], my wife just rolled her eyes and said, ‘You’re getting old,’" Mr. Bridgers laughs.

He says that one of the things he likes best about his hobby is the regular meetings of the Sun City Bluffton Stamp Club in the Hilton Head, S.C., area. He makes the roughly 40-minute drive every month to catch up with fellow collectors and buy stamps to complete his collections.

Making things and collecting things are perhaps what many people imagine when they think of hobbies. But Dr. Adams-Price says the idea of hobbies is much broader than that. She defines serious hobbies as any activity that someone spends a lot of time on over a period of months or years. “If you took up pickleball and were really serious about it, that’s a hobby," she says. “There’s certainly evidence that people who take up a sport or bird-watching get a lot of benefits."

A yearlong odyssey

Bryan Desloge, who lives in Tallahassee, Fla., has an ambitious travel hobby, with a goal of eventually visiting 100 countries. Last month, he reached No. 85 on a backpacking trip with a childhood friend in the Republic of Georgia.

Mr. Desloge says traveling helped him through a difficult time in his life. Within a short period in 2020, he lost his longtime seat as county commissioner, his father died, and he ended a romantic relationship. To cope, Mr. Desloge embarked on a yearlong odyssey that included a month in the mountains of Mexico, a month in northwest Montana and a five-week trip to Europe, during which he made a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, a roughly 500-mile route that leads to a city in Galicia, Spain.

The sale of his medical-supplies business has given Mr. Deloge the financial freedom to pursue his travel hobby, along with outdoor activities like swimming, cycling and kayaking. Still, at 62 years old, he knows he has more to offer in this world. “Counting countries is a little self-indulgent," he says. “I’m looking at ways to give back at this point."

Last year, Mr. Desloge connected with the Halftime Institute, a faith-based nonprofit organization that helps people find purpose in their work and in serving others. Based on insights gained from his Halftime coaching, Mr. Desloge knows his strengths involve connecting and communicating effectively with people. To that end, he sits on the board of Village Square, a nonpartisan organization he founded that facilitates community discussions on hot topics, such as race relations, clean energy and healthcare. “I can bring disparate groups together," he says.

Benefits of volunteering

Volunteering and community service are viable options for retirees who don’t see themselves as makers or collectors. “Volunteering is at least equal to creative hobbies in that [participants] feel productive in their lives. It can be a little different in psychological benefit than creative hobbies, but it’s just as worthwhile," says Dr. Adams-Price.

That has certainly been the case for LaJoy Y. Mosby, who retired in 2018 from a 23-year career serving the Baltimore area through Maryland’s Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities. Ms. Mosby now volunteers for a group called the Bronze Villagers, which coaches parents on preparing their young children for school. And once a month she helps others through her church’s food-distribution ministry.

In addition to volunteering, Ms. Mosby is passionate about her genealogy hobby. “I rejoice when I discover things about my family," says Ms. Mosby, who is 67 and lives in Columbia, Md. “I have a glimpse of their lives. I have a sense of pride and connection when I find those records." Ms. Mosby recently wrote an article about ancestors who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The article was published in the Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

Ms. Mosby, who is president of the genealogical society, says the group keeps her on her toes. “Going to workshops, chapter meetings and the national conference—it does help keep you sharp. It keeps you focused," she says. “There’s always new technology that you have to learn, and that keeps you sharp, too. It forces you to push yourself to learn how some of these records were created."

In search of a hobby

Finding a hobby, social group or community effort to support may be a challenge for some retirees, especially those who were so focused on their work that they didn’t develop outside interests.

“When people retire, if they don’t have these connections in place, it’s hard, and the pandemic made it even harder," Ms. Mosby says. “If you live in a community with a lot of seniors, you have to be brave and venture out. There are all kinds of things to do—community colleges have classes, college alumni associations, neighborhood groups, friends of the library. There are opportunities there. You don’t have to be lonely, even if you’re alone."

Dr. Adams-Price says Facebook is a great way to find a hobby to suit any interest. “Find out what kinds of clubs and groups are available in your area. Try a few things," she says. “Crafts are a good place to start. Even if you don’t think you’re creative or artistic, you may surprise yourself. Things that you can’t do can be taught, like drawing and painting."

Most important, Dr. Adams-Price tells people to develop an enjoyable hobby long before ending their careers so they don’t feel bored or “lost" in retirement.

“I make wire jewelry and have done so over 20 years," she says. “At an annual craft fair, some people call me ‘the ring lady.’ Even if you’re working, it’s always better to have more than one identity. It reduces the likelihood of burnout. Your self-esteem isn’t entirely defined by your job."


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