My brother George is a man of wide-ranging interests. In his 36 years he has pursued ambidexterity and seven minutes under water without a breath; he has learnt to whistle through cupped hands and, in a separate feat, his rolled-up tongue; he has learnt to gleak1 at predetermined targets; he can fart using his underarms, knee joints and eye sockets. And he has always loved fishing, whether or not catching actual fish was involved (such as when my parents, worried about the dangers of hooks, tied a rock to his line instead of bait).
When we were young, George and his hobbies2 did not seem unusual. But back then, in the early 1980s, one of the most anticipated events of the year was a bird-calling competition, the sole point of which was to be the kid in our primary school that sounded most like a pigeon or crow or kookaburra. My friends and I spent our time learning to lip-synch Aunty Jack songs, inventing secret languages and attempting to turn our eyelids inside out with an ear cleaner. If you’d asked us why we wanted to turn our eyelids inside out, we would have thought you were crazy. You didn’t need a reason to flip eyelids. It was a joy unto itself.
But at some point, circa 1987, we stopped trying to invent new languages and gave up speaking in the ones we already had. We stopped trying to trick the whipbird or kookaburra into replying to our calls—and being delighted when they did. And now, in 2012, George and his hobbies seem strange.
This shift in perception didn’t strike me until quite recently. I was laughing at a friend who, so the story goes, once hid evidence of his hobby (model plane construction) in brown paper packages under his bed, which eventually led to a confrontation with his alarmed flatmate. For this particular friend, model plane construction has since given way to after-dark airplane photography, slot car racing and building a ‘scalextric’ track (something to do with slot cars). All of this is according to the ex-flatmate with whom I was laughing at said friend’s expense because, obviously, I find the story about the model airplane under the bed and the slot cars etc all extremely funny.
But why do I find it funny? And why in 2012 and not in 1987? In one sense, it would have been less surprising to learn my friend was hiding porn magazines under his bed than the components of a model airplane. Which is strange. Could it be that one reason his hobby is so surprising is that people just don’t do stuff like build model airplanes anymore, or not, anyway, in anywhere near the numbers they once did. For example, according to a 2008 report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians spent just 10 minutes a day on ‘games, hobbies, arts and crafts’ in 2006, which was seven minutes less than in 1997. Even counting the time we engaged in hobbies as ‘secondary activities’ (i.e.: when we did them half-arsed in front of the TV) it still only added up to 17 minutes per day. The total percentage of Australians who actually did ‘games, hobbies, arts and crafts’, half-arsed or not, was 17 per cent. And while these hard-core participants did spend a more respectable average of 100 minutes per day on hobbies, a big chunk of the time allegedly allocated to such activities was actually going towards gambling and arcade games. The Bureau did a separate survey in 2007 counting only arty-type hobbies and that found just 2.1 million Australians over the age of 15 had a cultural hobby, which was down from 2.5 million people in 2004. Even worse, there were only 356,900 people in Australia who said they wrote as a hobby and only 265,000 involved in music. And this was an improvement on 2004.3
I don’t even need two hands to count the number of people I know with genuine hobbies. There is model-airplane friend and George; and the rest are retired. Activities with long and prestigious histories are facing extinction. The only thing keeping stamp-collecting alive for example, is a collecting boom over in China, according to the NSW Philatelic Development Council’s Ed Wolf.
‘We don’t like it,’ says Wolf, whose job is to get people interested in stamp collecting again. ‘But it’s fair to say … (collecting is) endangered. There’s a general feeling in the population that stamp collectors are nerds.’
Actually, things have gotten so bad for hobbies that in 2010, no less an authority than the British Army Cadet Force declared that nerds and anoraks were pretty much the only people left who were still interested in jigsaws, marbles and model train construction. After surveying 2000 British teenagers and adults, the Force reported that half of all teens saw traditional hobbies as ‘boring or just weird’. Most of the respondents said TV was their main interest; three in ten nominated shopping as their number one hobby.
Even George gave up on his pointless pursuits and hobbies. He got a proper and prestigious job as a corporate lawyer and worked long hours. He enrolled in a Masters in corporate law to boost his credentials and earning capacity.
Back in the 1970s, a psychologist called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ to describe that state of being in which you’re so caught up in an activity that you become unaware of anything else—time, space, food and even your very existence. He compares the feeling to religious ecstasy.
Over the past few decades, Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues have spent a lot of time attaching electronic pagers to people, then paging them to find out what they’re doing at different times of the day and how those activities make them feel (he calls this the Experience Sampling Method). This sampling shows that flow only happens when you’re involved in an activity for its own sake and not because it promises some other payoff like fame or money or happiness—or even flow itself. The key to flow, Csikszentmihalyi tells me, is ‘to focus your attention on the thing that you’re doing and try to do it as well as possible’. If you’re constantly checking to see if you’re in flow, then you’re not concentrating on what you’re doing and the flow is interrupted. So really, Csikszentmihalyi says, it’s only in retrospect that you realise you’ve been in flow. ‘You look back and think, ‘oh …that was how life should be.’
In an ideal world, Csikszentmihalyi says, ‘a person should get to the point eventually of finding intrinsic rewards even in things they have to do, like taking care of the house or working.’ But as a first step, the best way to get flow is to ‘find things that you want to do … (like) scuba diving or mountain climbing or poetry or cooking—anything you enjoy.’ The humble hobby then, is a perfect flow activity.
And yet, we seem to be giving up the very activities that promise to make us feel so good. Csikszentmihalyi’s own research has shown that American teens spend at least four times the amount of free time watching TV than doing sport or hobbies. And this is despite experiencing flow just 13 per cent of the time they’re in front of the TV compared to 34 per cent of the time they’re doing hobbies and 44 per cent of the time they’re playing sport.
John Underwood, past president and current honorary secretary of The Historical Re-enactment Society of Australia Inc., is 66, works in sales and is in a very good position to make observations about the way hobbies and other pointless activities are going. Underwood has been re-enacting for decades and was part of the original group that, 34 years ago, broke from the civil war re-enactment scene4 to start the HRSA. Since then, he has had to watch his beloved Society shrink from 66 members at its peak (around the time of the Australian bicentenary and Victorian sesquicentenary) to just 17 members today. Actually, I suspect the active membership is even smaller than this because of the way Underwood says ’17 members on our books‘, but I don’t have the heart to probe further.
The way Underwood paints it, the HRSA has fallen victim to a perfect storm of consumerism, ‘IT games’, ‘more and more TV’ and the passing of the major historical anniversaries that had served it so well.
To illustrate his point about consumerism: the HRSA used to put on free performances at one particular historical theme park and ‘when we started doing re-enactments they would last 35 to 40 minutes,’ Underwood says. ‘But after three odd years, the store owners complained that the re-enactments were going too long and keeping people out of their stores. So (the re-enactments) were cut back down to 15 minutes then eventually 10 minutes.’ And then the park employed its own actors.
And to illustrate the point about TV as well as the one about consumerism, consider the following. The HRSA has performed its vignettes (which include Victorian-era sea battles, Eureka Stockades and Ned Kelly type dramatisations) at Sovereign Hill and Flagstaff Hill and at fairs and anniversaries and schools. But now, even with all the smoke and noise the Society’s two authentic muzzle-loading canons can muster, if a re-enactment ‘goes for longer than six minutes, forget about it’. And that’s for audiences under the age of 13. Older than that, says Underwood, and ‘they’re just not interested in fuddy duddies running around and firing muskets. They seem far more interested in watching modern action on television and or playing IT games.’ Even Underwood’s own children, introduced to the re-enactment scene as ‘newborn babies” aren’t “the slightest bit interested’, he says.
‘Everyone now wants two of everything,’ Underwood muses, still on the decline of re-enactment etc. ‘You tell me of a household with the one TV … There’s the two cars, the two to three TV sets, one computer and usually a laptop … so both the husband and wife have to work to meet mortgage repayments … and there is minimal time for hobbies.’
An even scarier fact is that, as far as re-enactment societies go, the HRSA is one of the lucky ones. Most societies have so few members and can drum up so little public support that, according to Underwood, they can’t even re-enact anymore, but are reduced to producing ‘historical displays’.
Leaving aside IT games, I think Underwood might well have put his finger on two big reasons why I laugh at my friend and his model airplane habit and think that George is weird.
First: consumerism. I’m pretty sure that Underwood sees consumerism as the enemy of hobbies mainly because it convinces us that we need to earn, buy and pay off, which all takes up a lot of potential hobby time. Nonetheless, he probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that consumerism’s culpability goes deeper than this. He probably would be surprised to learn he is a subversive—a point I’ll come to in a moment.
The British intellectual Terry Eagleton believes that as consumer capitalism has become more and more ubiquitous, its ‘ruthless’ instrumentalism has seeped into every area of our lives. Every object and every minute has to have a function or a purpose, which then feeds into this achievement ethos we have, that humans excel only when they’re ticking boxes and getting big things done (I am paraphrasing quite a lot). But the general point is that, by Eagleton’s reckoning, pointless activities and just-for-their own sake hobbies get weirder and weirder the more consumerist our society becomes. Actually, in his book After Theory, he goes so far as to claim that capitalism has a horror of ‘the idea of doing something purely for the delight of it’. And here we get back to my earlier point about Underwood’s subversiveness: pointlessness, according to Eagleton, ‘is a deeply subversive affair’.
I’m not a Marxist or anything, but I don’t think Eagleton is stretching the point. Take kids, who, by rights, shouldn’t have anything much they have to do. And yet these days, I couldn’t name you a kid who even tries turning their eyelids inside out. But I do know of a pre-teen with an eye to the Olympics who spends several hours a week in gymnastic training, a two-year-old who took art-and-movement classes to foster his creativity, and several toddlers enrolled in physio-designed kinda-gyms. Plus there are Baby Einstein CDs and educational DVDs and crack reading courses to give toddlers the edge at school and no one seems to think how freakish it would be if your baby actually was an Einstein. The need to achieve starts in the cot and everything has an ulterior motive. Kids don’t even have stuffing around anymore, it’s called, according to the social commentator Hugh Mackay, ‘unstructured play’ and it’s probably only allowed because some expert said it contributes to a child’s development. ‘Which is really weird,’ Mackay tells me. ‘And it’s all part of this drive to more structure and more purpose.’
And yet, the whole point of human nature is its pointlessness. ‘We need to take the idea of flourishing out of the gym,’ Eagleton writes in After Theory. ‘We live well when we fulfill our nature as an enjoyable end in itself.’ According to Eagleton, human nature is a bit like giraffe nature. ‘Being a giraffe does not get you anywhere, it is just a matter of doing your giraffe-like things for the sake of it.’
The second reason for the disappearance of the hobby is, as Underwood suspected, TV. There is of course the obvious point that TV is poison to hobbies and pointless activities because its promise of feet up on the couch and minimal effort draws us away from historical re-enactment and gleak practice (though you could do this in the ads).
But TV is at fault in another way. In a 1990 essay, David Foster Wallace argued that because we watch so much TV we have been conditioned to think that our very value as a human being is bound up with being watchable. And this in turn makes us so self-conscious that we are constantly anticipating how what we say and do will be perceived by our audience, such that we change what we say and do—before they’re said and done—to make them audience-palatable. It’s like, as critic A. O. Scott has pointed out in a review of Foster Wallace’s work, a feedback loop. All this, of course, is not unrelated to the consumer-instrumentalism argument because hobbies then get judged on how they’ll affect our watchability. And then even if you decide to go ahead with a particular hobby, it’s only because you think it will add to your street cred, which then cancels it out as a hobby, because hobbies are something that you do for their own sake. Foster Wallace’s friend Jonathan Franzen was sort of talking about this idea when he admitted having tried to suppress a love of birds because it was ‘very uncool’ to be a birdwatcher because ‘anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool’. Passion according to the Macquarie Dictionary means ‘any kind of feeling or emotion … especially when of compelling force’. That kind of emotion is anathema to the self-consciousness required for trying to please an audience. As Franzen suggests, it’s just not cool to get so involved in something that you forget yourself. And the British Cadet survey shows he is not just being paranoid. It found that one quarter of school kids were worried they’d be seen as a ‘loner’ if they took up an obscure hobby. It is quite fitting then that planking is the hobby of 2011/12. It’s an ironic, look-at-me-aren’t-I-crazy? hobby, which of course, isn’t a hobby at all.
According to a devil called Screwtape, quoted lengthily in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, one of the easiest ways to damn a person is by keeping them from doing stuff they actually like doing. That way, they never discover all the things ‘Society’ tells them are pleasures—’vanity, bustle, irony and expensive tedium’—are not the real deal.
‘The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake and without caring twopence what other people say about it is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack,’ Screwtape says. ‘I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambitions by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.’
If you don’t believe in devils, try replacing Screwtape with, say, the global CEO of the Ever Youthful Cosmetic Surgery Company, or the boss of the ‘prestige’ law firm you’re working overtime for, who are just as opposed to you doing a thing simply for pleasure, since it carries the risk that you’ll realise the boob job you’ve been working two jobs to afford, or the promotion you’re staying back late to get, do not actually hold the key to happiness. You might even spend more time being actually happy, which wouldn’t do at all since the whole consumer set up depends on us being vaguely dissatisfied or at least feeling that life could be better if only we could …get famous, get a promotion or get a Lexus.
Whether Screwtape (who interestingly, dislikes hobbies because they involve a ‘self-forgetfulness’ he mistrusts) or the CEOs or the invisible hand of consumer capitalism is to blame is sort of beside the point. What really matters is this: they’re winning. We’re not spending enough time doing the things we love because we’ve bought the lie about happiness being related to winning the rat race and because we’re kept so busy on that little Sisyphean rat wheel that that we don’t have time to smell the roses and thereby break the new-boobs-equals-happiness spell.
Csikszentmihalyi, Screwtape, Underwood and George all agree that the power of pointless activities lies in their ability to make you forget yourself. Paradoxically, it’s precisely when our egos take flight that we become truly happy. Which is where the disappearance of the pointless activity starts to look quite sinister because, of course, if we all went around ditching our egos and their hang-ups and ambitions we probably wouldn’t be the super-consumers we are now.
Maybe if we all stopped a moment to lie on our car bonnets and watch the 747s take off, there would be a few more anthropologists and a few less merchant bankers. A few more books sold, a few less anti-wrinkle creams. Really, the whole world could change.
A little over three years ago, George remembered how much he loved to fish. He packed in his job as a corporate lawyer, switched his Masters from corporate to environmental law and got a job with the agriculture department looking after pelagic fish (they’re the ones that swim near the top). In his spare time, he rides bikes and checks out secret fishing locations with his work buddies. And last year he bought my one-year-old son a toy fish tank.
Come the revolution.
- Gleaking, according to the Urban Dictionary is: “to emit a long shot of spit from underneath your tongue.” Also according to the Urban Dictionary: “gleaking can range from a distance of a few inches to a few feet (usually 7 feet).”
- The Bureau of Statistics describes a hobby as something “undertaken only for oneself or for family or friends, that is, the output (is) not for general consumption.” I define it as an activity pursued just for its own sake. Here’s the test: if you can say, “I do (x activity) because …(say, it will give me buns of steel)” then x activity is not a hobby. If you can’t say why you do x, then it is a hobby.
- The writing statistic does seem a bit dodgy, since I feel like every second person I meet is writing or wanting to write or planning to write when they get a moment. So maybe the Bureau stuffed up by putting the word “hobby” into that question; ask someone if they write as a hobby and you’ll see my point. But even if the Bureau did get that one wrong, the fact that people don’t like the word hobby still supports my central thesis, which is: hobbies are out.
- That’s the US civil war.