Understanding the Therapeutic Appeal of Domestic Hobbies

Why have cooking, gardening, etc. become the go-to pandemic coping mechanisms?

Posted Aug 19, 2020

It has been interesting to see the particular trends that have evolved during the pandemic, and to reflect on how they have come about. With many people largely staying in their homes, activities emphasizing domesticity have become a huge coping mechanism. Cooking, baking, gardening, all essential survival skills from time immemorial, are now serving dual duty as both a practical and psychological endeavor. By turning to the skills that Western settlers on the prairie used to maintain their isolated homesteads, we have also reverted to a kind of pioneer survivalist mentality, as we worry about outside food and paper supply chains and exposure to the virus. But because reliance on our homestead is not an absolute actual necessity, given all the other modern creature comforts we still have now in comparison, like the electrical grid, mail delivery (hopefully), and the internet, etc., these survival activities also have an added new dimension of feeling soothing in their essentialism. What is it about these domestic activities that are therapeutic?

There are some analogies to recent movements in our modern society reflecting worries about overreliance on technology and environmental destruction, and a capitalist focus on overwork and material gains. Even before the pandemic, some people have willingly chosen to live in “tiny houses” in nature to minimize their carbon footprint, to start foraging for edible roots in nature, or turn to artisanal hipster hobbies like pickling, raising chickens, fermenting beer. There was a growing desire to feel reconnected and grounded in our coexistence with this planet, as opposed to the increasingly abstract sensations of virtual reality and self-driving cars and avatar roleplay, to the dissolution of literal brick and mortar corporeality as even physical shopping became superfluous. And to turn to a greater sense of human balance and harmony with nature before the intensity of the industrial revolution and our subsequent societal focus on money, machines, and material convenience in the name of heightened work, profit, and productivity.  

Now with our necessary domestic lockdowns, on the one hand we are more reliant on technology than ever to sustain parts of our economy and work-at-home jobs when available. But on another, we have taken pause to look at how to cope with our isolation and our seemingly smaller existence, sans travel or large social events and more.

By focusing on small fundamental activities that provide multiple purposes—that fulfill the practical needs of feeding ourselves and our families and sustenance when dining out is less available, of deriving pleasure from the immediate deliciousness of food, of appreciating the calming beauty of flowers and gardening—we can assuage our intense anxiety from this disturbing centennial worldwide event. Even before the pandemic, these were popular hobbies from the standpoint of recent therapeutic, mindfulness-based lifestyle movements like the hygge movement in Denmark, which emphasized modest joys (like scented candles and cuddly blankets) to enhance coziness at home during long cold winters (and a similar sense of imposed isolation). The idea is to provide a basic sense of accomplishment and mastery via something that provides constructive and authentic gratification, without a sense of demand or urgency or external validation. To enjoy living simply, on its own terms.

Several studies (as noted in a review article by Farmer, Touchton-Leonard, and Ross, 2018 for cooking, and by Sogar M, Gaston KJ, and Yamaura Y, 2017 for gardening) have shown these types of activities provide the right combination of cognitive, physical, and emotional engagement to enhance mood, creativity, and well-being. This focus on gentle balance and unassuming joys ties into other meditative hobbies like the recently popular therapeutic coloring books, knitting, drawing, and more. The act of kneading and baking a loaf of bread is a craft from the earliest days of human civilization; ingredients that are readily available and still produce something filling and permeate the senses with the comforts of a warm hearth are a great distraction from the dark news around us. Nurturing and watering plants and receiving produce and herbs from your efforts is a soothing way to feel you are both giving and receiving in the most fundamental, optimistic way.

The idea behind turning to these activities isn’t to deny or ignore the very real socioeconomic, health-related, and psychological stressors induced by this tragic pandemic, or to retreat into solipsistic escapism. But with the valid and major worries of a secondary mental health pandemic induced by the intense psychological toll of COVID-19, if there are helpful, positive methods to which we can turn to reduce our growing depression and anxiety, in addition to social and political activism to address the larger problems of financial and medical devastation happening, and in addition to seeking professional help if your mood or anxiety issues become seriously debilitating, I think turning to these humble methods of self-fulfillment may root us towards a greater appreciation for life. 

Copyright 2020 Jean Kim.

References

Farmer N, Touchton-Leonard K, Ross A. Psychosocial benefits of cooking interventions: A systematic review. Health Educ Behav. 2018 Apr:45(2):167-180.

Soga M, Gaston KJ, Yamura Y. Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Preventive Med Reports. 2017 Mar (5): 92-99.