Good Housekeeping (UK)


With GPS encouraged to prescribe activities and crafts to boost wellbeing, Anna Bonet shares how new pastimes have helped her own happiness

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Why starting a new pastime could be a life-changer

Not so long ago, I was having one of those days. Outside it was raining; inside it was so dark the lights needed turning on. Work was nonstop busy and deadlines felt overwhelmi­ng. Meanwhile, I was worried about a family member who was unwell. Life’s stresses were piling on top of me and, by early evening, I felt as though I was in free fall.

But then I opened a drawer in my coffee table and pulled out a set of watercolou­rs. Curling into the armchair by the window, with an A5 pad on my lap, I began to paint. Without giving it much thought at all, I started with some large horizontal brush strokes in a deep blue colour. It reminded me of the sea, so slowly I turned the picture into something that resembled a beach scene.

Make no mistake, I am not an artist. But as my paintbrush glided over the paper, the stress started to disperse. My anxieties began to lift. Soon, I felt calm and grounded once more. Nothing about my circumstan­ces had changed: I still had deadlines to meet and an ill loved one to think about. But the simple act of putting brush to paper had anchored me and made me feel more able to cope.

Like many of us, I’ve always known that having a hobby is good for you, but it’s only in the past year and a half that I’ve truly seen the benefit. It’s not just painting that I’ve picked up; I’ve also started doing embroidery (using kits for beginners), bike riding, pottery and gardening. At first, I thought that this was just a side-effect of the lockdowns and needing to fill the extra time. Now, I’ve realised that these activities have become much more to me: they’re a kind of toolkit that helps keep me stable on tough days.

‘Activities such as gardening, sewing and painting re-engage our human playfulnes­s and need to slow down,’ explains psychother­apist Anna Mathur. ‘Flow activities – ones where you lose all track of time – are brilliant for our mental health. You’re so engaged in the moment that the rest of the world melts away, often taking your stress and worry with it. It gives you respite from the busyness of your life.’

The research is there to back this up. One study* found that people with hobbies tend to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a lower blood pressure and even a smaller waist circumfere­nce. Meanwhile, other research** has shown that expressing yourself through creative activities such as drawing or crafting can help ease anxiety and depression.


It’s evidence like this that has galvanised social prescribin­g by the NHS in recent years. In October 2019, the National Academy for Social Prescribin­g (NASP) was set up to promote and execute social prescripti­ons. It allows GPS to refer patients who are suffering from anxiety, stress, depression or isolation

These activities have become a toolkit that helps keep me stable on tough days

to a range of activities within their community – from cookery classes to volunteeri­ng – in order to support their health and wellbeing.

‘Social prescribin­g is not about replacing vital healthcare, such as medication or therapy,’ says Dr Radha Modgil, a GP and ambassador for NASP. ‘Rather, it allows us to look at people in a more holistic way and to ask what else can be part of their recovery? It’s about using the opportunit­ies within someone’s local community to help them reconnect and rebuild.’

So how does it work exactly? A GP will refer a patient who they think is suitable for a social prescripti­on to a ‘link worker’. These link workers collaborat­e with patients to create a tailored plan that will see them getting involved with a range of new hobbies and activities. There are green prescripti­ons, which are all about connecting with nature, culture prescripti­ons, which include visits to museums, and creative prescripti­ons, such as attending drawing classes or learning a new craft. Results so far are promising; following one scheme, Arts on Prescripti­on Gloucester­shire, there was a 37% drop in GP consultati­on rates and a 27% reduction in hospital admissions***.

Social prescribin­g takes my own love for a healing hobby one step further because a big part of it is getting people involved with others by joining a class or a group, rather than doing it at home alone. ‘It’s not just about the activities themselves, many of which are certainly very relaxing and therapeuti­c,’ says Dr Radha. ‘But the connection and community element actually adds that extra layer of benefit.’ That’s because we’re social creatures. ‘Simply to feel part of something benefits our emotional wellbeing enormously,’ adds Dr Radha. ‘When that happens, we feel valued and recognised. Also, what has been really evident from social prescribin­g activities done in groups, such as a walking or woodworkin­g group, is that it gets people talking. They share things that they never would have spoken about before.’ Going forwards, social prescribin­g is set to play an important role in our healthcare system during the post-covid recovery, with NHS England rolling out a greater infrastruc­ture for the programme. At the moment, there are 1,300 link workers across the country, but there are plans to have more than 4,000 by 2023, allowing many more referrals.

It’s something we can all learn from, without going to the GP. ‘The idea that there are tools around us that we can use to help our own wellbeing, plus the importance of social

connection, those are universal messages that we can all apply to our own lives,’ says Dr Radha.

If you’re thinking that’s easier said than done, I understand. When you’re juggling children, ageing parents and a busy job, perhaps the last thing on your mind is taking up knitting. But Anna Mathur challenges us to ask ourselves: how many things do you do in your day that have no purpose other than for your own enjoyment? ‘Often, we are so focused on “doing” and being proactive, that to stop can trigger feelings of guilt,’ she says. ‘Our sense of worth can sometimes rely on output and productivi­ty, but this drives us to burnout.’

The irony, she adds, is that to do something purely for yourself, whether to bring joy or simply to decompress, is productive in itself. ‘That time is not wasted because these things enable us to recharge.’


Being a beginner can sometimes feel intimidati­ng, especially as an adult. I can attest to this. At school, I was below average in my art class, so never would have thought I’d spend so much time later in life with a paintbrush in my hand. But I think we can sometimes limit ourselves with our own thoughts; we tell ourselves ‘I’m not very arty’ or ‘I’m no good at sports’ and that stops us from even trying. In doing so, we miss out on the variety of benefits that developing a new skill can bring, such

Feeling yourself improve at a new skill boosts self-esteem

as improving memory, concentrat­ion and the ability to solve problems†. There’s also the sense of achievemen­t as you improve, and this boosts self-esteem. Over time, I’ve felt myself getting better at watercolou­rs and my confidence has grown. In fact, I’ve displayed my very first painting to remind me how far I’ve come. It’s of a peace lily (although you perhaps wouldn’t know it unless I told you) and I get a little surge of pride every time I see it. The same goes for the embroidery. My first was full of knotty mistakes, while the more recent ones look surprising­ly neat. That said, what’s most special is that these hobbies aren’t about being the best. It’s great to have something that no one is scoring or measuring. Although I’ve come a long way with my painting, I don’t produce works of art. But that doesn’t matter.

In fact, experts think that being mediocre at something can actually be good for you, as it teaches you to tolerate mistakes in all parts of your life. And as Dr Radha puts it: ‘It’s not about how good you are, it is about how it makes you feel.’

For me, that’s calm, grounded and anchored. Whatever type of day I’m having – good, bad, stressful or sad – these hobbies are something I can, and will, turn to again and again.

Know Your Worth (Piaktus) by Anna Mathur is out now. Visit socialpres­cribingaca­ for more on social prescribin­g. See over for how reader Jilly Storey did at her first pottery class.

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 ??  ?? Doing activities such as painting, where you can lose track of time, are great for mental health
Doing activities such as painting, where you can lose track of time, are great for mental health
 ??  ?? A beginner’s embroidery kit could offer the ideal pastime
A beginner’s embroidery kit could offer the ideal pastime

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