Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

There's nothing trivial about hobbies

Pupils in Dubai will now get to indulge in their favourite pastimes while at school – a step that will help to build the creative and adaptable minds of the future

The Indian High School in Dubai announced in January that starting from April, 1,200 Grade 11-12 pupils will get a day and a half off every week to pursue hobbies.. Chris Whiteoak / The National
The Indian High School in Dubai announced in January that starting from April, 1,200 Grade 11-12 pupils will get a day and a half off every week to pursue hobbies.. Chris Whiteoak / The National

In April this year around 1,200 pupils at the Indian High School in Dubai are to be given a day and a half per week to pursue “flexible learning interests”. Under this new curriculum, those in grades 11 and 12 will be able to learn a musical instrument, practice martial arts, take part in sports, or indulge a variety of other interests during school hours.

Piloted by Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), this innovative alternative to traditional “chalk and talk” education has already attracted the attention of a number of other schools, keen to offer a similar experience.

You may be tempted to think that playing the guitar, karate and ice hockey are hobbies, not “real school work”. However, as Hind Al Mualla, chief of creativity, happiness, and innovation at the KHDA, told The National: “Learning does not have to happen in a classroom.”

This idea is backed up by the Indian educationalist Sugata Mitra, whose “Hole in The Wall” experiments began in 1999. They have generally involved providing access to computers for children in rural and urban India, and simply letting them get on with it. Yielding results including increased English skills and a deeper understanding of science, this research has, according to Mr Mitra, proven that “in the absence of supervision and formal teaching, children can teach themselves”.

Learning, at a young age, to do what we love, and being encouraged to follow our interests would seem to fit perfectly with the direction the world is moving in

Taking part in leisure activities also appears to affect our physical and psychological wellbeing. For example, a 2016 study of 17,000 Japanese adults, published in the scientific journal PLOS one, found that engaging in hobbies such as reading, crafts and gardening was related to better mental health in both women and men. Pursuits that involved other people appeared to be especially beneficial.

Another study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology in 2016, followed for a five-year period 1,853 people over the age of 65. Involvement in hobbies not only predicted lower mortality, but was also associated with better physical health. A fulfilling recreational life seems to help us age successfully and, for all ages, leisure activities appear to promote wellbeing. But how?

A variety of research has found that having a hobby reduces the stress levels of participants, lowers resting heart rate and improves general mood. The social nature of many hobbies is also important, providing a sense of belonging and helping people to build friendships.

Research published in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology in 2014 found that, compared to employees without hobbies, those with them were more creative in their approach to job-related problem-solving. They were also rated as being more helpful and co-operative towards their fellow employees. The authors of this study suggest that having a hobby can help people recover more rapidly from workday stress, resulting in employees who are less tightly wound, more engaged, and capable of thinking creatively.

That’s why companies such as the US online shoe retailer Zappos encourage their employees to paint, draw or sculpt, and then decorate their offices with their art works. Similarly, Google implemented the 20 per cent rule, meaning that employees are encouraged to spend at least that proportion of in-work time engaged in a creative hobby or side project.

If employers really want their employees to be well-rounded, happy and productive individuals, maybe they could take the simple step of ensuring that workplace wellbeing programmes offer art classes, creative writing workshops and access to musical instruments, alongside the more traditional gym memberships.

Hobbies involving art and music are apparently particularly advantageous for those in data-driven professions. A 2008 paper, published in the Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, found that scientists engaged in creative pursuits tended to be more successful – meaning that their published research received more citations – than their non-hobbyist counterparts. Blending colours in a painting class might be very different from mixing chemicals in a laboratory, but experiential learning can be transferable, and inspire us to take fresh and innovative approaches to our work.

In light of all that, “flexible learning interests” look less like an indulgence and more like a necessary step towards building the creative and independent minds that will be vital to survive in an increasingly digital future. We have more leisure time than we once did, and this trend looks set to continue. As greater proportions of many jobs are given over to automation, some companies are even suggesting the introduction of a four-day working week. Learning, at a young age, to do what we love, and being encouraged to follow our interests would seem to fit perfectly with the direction the world is moving in. Perhaps we should shift hobbies and interests to the top of our CVs now, rather than leaving them languishing at the bottom.

Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Updated: February 17, 2019 02:51 PM

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