Older people who have a hobby feel healthier, happier and show fewer depressive symptoms than those who do not have a regular leisure activity. This emerges from a meta-analysis of five large studies with participants from 16 countries, which is presented in the specialist magazine “Nature Medicine”.

A total of more than 93,000 people with an average age between 71.7 and 75.9 years in the USA, China, Japan and European countries, including Germany, were surveyed about leisure activities and well-being. The result: those who have hobbies do better. The authors report that the connection is consistent, regardless of other factors such as relationship or employment status and household income.

These activities were considered hobbies

Activities that people do in their free time alone or with others for pleasure were considered “hobbies” – for example, creating arts and crafts, reading, sports, gardening, volunteer work and membership in clubs. There were sometimes big differences in distribution from country to country. More than 90 percent of the senior citizens surveyed in Germany said they had a hobby. In Italy, however, it was only 54 percent and in Spain 51 percent. Denmark was the front runner with 96 percent.

Different living conditions made no significant difference to the outcome. “Countries with high World Happiness Index rankings and high life expectancy, such as Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland, also had high hobby activity, but the association between hobby activity and psychological well-being was relatively consistent across countries,” the authors explained.

Study only shows a correlation

The study shows a correlation; it does not establish a causal connection between taking up a leisure activity and better well-being. This means that it is not possible to conclude with certainty whether hobbies make people happier and healthier, or whether happier and healthier people are more likely to pursue a hobby.

The results are convincing due to the robustness of the analysis, explains researcher Sophie Wickham from the University of Liverpool, who was not involved in the analysis, in a comment. A causal connection can be assumed. The findings are “particularly important given that global mental health is in crisis.”

Researcher: Decision-makers should draw conclusions

Depression is one of the most common reasons for restrictions with estimated economic costs of 2.5 trillion US dollars in 2010 (around 2.33 trillion euros), and the trend is rising sharply. Cost-effective solutions would be a priority. “It is imperative that decision-makers around the world reflect on the findings of this study, which strengthens evidence that leisure activity benefits mental health.”

The research team led by Daisy Fancourt from University College London believes that their findings could have implications for the development of programs that make it easier for older people to access hobbies. This is likely to be particularly important in aging societies.