How to pick a zero-stress pasttime like Meghan Markle
Feeling the pressure to compete when you should be unwinding? Try a slow hobby, writes Claire O'Mahony
You don't have to look very hard to see how the cult of busyness has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives. No matter how many items are ticked off the 'to do' list, there's still an underlying unease that you could always be achieving more - and not just in the work environment. Witness the Iron Man bragging and the Insta-pressure of producing Bake Off-worthy cakes, and it's clear that our 'free time' has become another arena in which we feel we have to compete and excel. Countless studies have indicated that hobbies boost well-being but arguably our approach to them has become skewed.
Clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune of Solamh (solamh.com) says hobbies are essential for well-being and that they should be fun. They should also offer a break from whatever else you do in life and, crucially, they should bring you joy and pleasure. "Simply getting out there and joining in should be enough," she says. "When it crosses into something else, you're bringing the manic busyness of 9-5 to it: 'I want outcomes, I want results'. That attitude is fine in work but it tends to contaminate the hobby."
Fortune suggests that anyone who wants to get off the treadmill of competitive hobbyism should think back to what they loved to do as a child. "That could be drawing, and that doesn't mean you have to enter it into an art competition. It could be going to dance class, and not competitively but just because you want to move. One of the things that I would emphasise for everybody is embracing boredom. We do not have to micromanage every moment of our free time. Out of boredom comes desire and you will find what you organically, authentically want to do by giving yourself time to do nothing first."
January is often a month where we make grandiose plans, but as an alternative consider going back to basics and trying one of these four slow activities instead. They'll boost your sense of self and wellbeing without stressing you out.
The write stuff
Take a leaf out of the Duchess of Sussex's book and discover the joys of beautiful handwriting. There was a reported surge in sales of calligraphy sets in the UK last year after Meghan Markle revealed her love of the hobby. And Noeleen Frain - tutor and secretary of Peannairí, the association of Irish calligraphers - says that there has been a revival of interest in this art form here too. "It's so relaxing to just sit down and be able to write beautiful writing," she says. "You can just lose yourself in it."
It's not expensive as setting yourself up with equipment - pen, nib, layout pad and ink - costs in the region of €25-€30. Peannairí run classes (calligraphy.ie) and there are myriad tutorials available online. Frain says that you don't have to be especially artistic to take up calligraphy but that a love of writing, books and words is required. "You can make your own cards and write out people's favourite poems as presents and a lot of young people do it so that they can do their wedding invitations. There's just so much to it."
Surveying the night sky can be both relaxing and rewarding. According to David Moore, chairperson of Astronomy Ireland (astronomy.ie), stargazing can be as involved a hobby as you want it to be. "You don't even need a telescope because a lot of people are armchair astronomers and just like reading about the subject," he says. If you're starting out, you don't need to spend a huge amount on equipment: a pair of €20 binoculars will do the job just fine.
Moore points out that astronomy is a vast subject and that there are many levels that you can be interested in. "I like doing bits of photography; other people like drawing what they see. Some of the pictures that come back from space are, I think, far more exciting than most works of modern art and they're real objects as well - gas clouds spinning, galaxies colliding, and black holes. Then of course we're wondering is there anybody else out there and we know only recently, in the last decade, that there's about 10 billion earth-like planets that could support life in our own galaxy, and there's about a trillion galaxies in the universe."
The therapeutic aspects of craftwork have been well-documented. Lisa Sisk, the co-owner of Dublin yarn shop This is Knit (thisisknit.ie) says that interest in knitting just keeps growing. "It's quite a meditative thing," she says. "You're getting into a rhythm of doing something over and over and it has similar effects on breathing and heart rate as meditation. People are looking for something that's an antidote to screens. To create even a simple scarf out of chunky yarn and to stand back and go 'I made that with my hands' is a way that you can easily access a sense of achievement."
Cross stitcher Nathaniel Walsh from Cork was introduced to the craft by his wife and says he would love if more people took up needlework - especially men. "I think it's a very mindful activity," he says. "You very much have to focus and stay in the moment while stitching so you don't have much time to think about anything that might be stressing you out. If you're looking for a fun and relaxing hobby that you can do anywhere, buy a beginner's kit and give it a go. There are also multiple tutorials on YouTube."
Brought to book
If you're not a regular reader, there are many reasons why you're missing out. An inexpensive and vocabulary-expanding hobby, its proven health benefits include stress reduction, a lower risk of dementia and even improved empathy levels. Susan Walsh of Dublin's Dubray Books maintains that reading is the ultimate slow pastime. "It's a super way to relax and unwind at the end of the day. You can escape into this new reality and just switch off your brain and your worries," she says.
Walsh highlights the recent growth in readable light fiction, like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and A Man Called Ove as being responsible for a new cohort of readers suddenly discovering books for the first time since childhood. "These are not taxing but entertaining and uplifting, with this genre of fiction coined 'Up Lit'," she says. "They seem to have attracted a lot of what you'd almost classify as the reluctant reader."
Reading is often regarded as a solitary pursuit that lacks social benefits. One way of circumventing this is joining a book club. If time constraints prevent you from doing this in real life, you can always go online.
Slow your downtime
Aoife McElwain, author of Slow at Work, on how to bring a little slow magic into your life.
1.Think about your downtime as part of your job - you can't be at your best at work and life if you don't allow yourself to rest. Prioritise your time off in the same way you would a deadline or helping others.
2. Introduce small changes gradually to your life. Over time, these small changes will add up to really impactful change. Things like cutting down on caffeine if you think you drink too much of it, or turning off your notifications on your phone outside of work hours, can add up to creating space in your life.
3. Accept that the cult of busyness will probably be around you forever. Your strength can be in choosing when to engage in that busyness, and when to take the time out, whether it's alone or with your family and friends, to rejuvenate and refresh, so that you can get back in the boxing ring fighting fit. It's a great skill to know when to go fast and when to go slow.