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How finding joy and calm in a busy world can improve your mental health

Insights

If you found a new hobby during lockdown, here’s why sustaining it can help you lead a more connected, purposeful life.

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When Jason Sparrow hit a crossroad in his life, the upheaval was exacerbated by chronic pain and mental anguish.

“I had got to the point where I was fairly worn down … I struggled,” the former football player said.

Help came in an unexpected new hobby — painting furniture.

At the time, Sparrow, who was not the “type of person that likes to get his hands dirty”, did not even own a paintbrush.

“I’ve never really done that type of stuff at all.

“I was at home and I got a bit bored and found an old piece of furniture and I thought, ‘I’m going to paint that just for the sake of painting it’.

“I remember sitting in the garage … there was no noise, it was just me and this paintbrush and it felt very serene and a very calm place to be.

“It just became a very therapeutic thing for me to do and I found that I loved it.”

Why it’s good to find your ‘thing’

Dr Areana Eivers, a QUT researcher and clinical psychologist, said connecting with something that brought joy was important for anyone facing a crisis or upheaval.

She said with so much of our lives spent “outside of the present”, participating in activities with purpose and passion enabled us to connect to the here and now.

“It’s about connecting to the thread of ourselves, our sense of self … that allows us to connect to a dimension of ourselves that is beyond the hustle and bustle of everyday life.”

Eivers said finding the thing that brought joy — gardening, knitting, dancing, drawing, volunteering — was valuable at any age, and might be different to what you enjoyed in your youth.

Tapping into what made us feel engaged and joyous could even lead to a less “disjointed or fragmented” life, she said.

“So much of the way our lives are measured these days are very non-tangible.

“When you do a painting, drawing, knitting, gardening or you create some furniture … it’s not a coincidence that often we find things in which we can say, ‘I did this, this came out of me’.

“There’s great power in being able to find that creative force within you, and sometimes that might be doing volunteering work, so it’s not, ‘I’m creating a thing’, but it’s like, ‘I’m contributing in some way that gives me meaning’.”

‘I’m not anxious when I’m drawing’

That sense of accomplishment and pride has made a tremendous difference to busy mother of three Holly Caldarone.

Having time for herself, let alone time to sit and draw, is not something she usually gets, but making it a priority has changed her life.

While on the way home from a doctor’s appointment, she purchased an art box for herself as a Mother’s Day gift.

The 30-year-old’s first drawing of a Formula 1 car attracted a mild response on a Facebook community page, so the outpouring of support online after her second and third drawings, of two of her children, was a surprise.

“It went wild … I just decided to put it there and see what people thought.”

Caldarone said she quickly discovered that drawing provided an escape from debilitating anxiety.

“I’m not anxious when I’m drawing but I am anxious when I’m out in public.

“If I can take the things that I’m happy doing and not be anxious all of the time and turn it into something I could do in the future, that is really my dream.”

Despite offers for commissioned works, Caldarone said “mum guilt” had determined the subject of her fourth drawing.

“I couldn’t do one child and not all three of them.”

A stillness to ‘sit and be me’

For Sparrow, painting brought stillness to a busy lifestyle that he was not able to find anywhere else — even on the sporting field.

After retiring from semi-professional football, he had the opportunity to coach a female team at Monash University.

“I wanted to stay in the game, I missed all of the camaraderie in the club rooms and I didn’t know what to do.”

He has dedicated more than 15 years to improving opportunities for female players including Girls Kicking Goals — a free, all-abilities football training program — to combat inequality for women in the sport.

But that was balanced by the time he spent every day in the garage working on his furniture, he said.

“What it does is allow me to calm my mind … it’s not always racing, it’s not always worrying or thinking.

“It allows that time just to sit and be me.”

– ABC / Kylie Bartholomew

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