The beginning of a new year is often incredibly stressful. Finishing projects, getting through holiday activities, and planning for what’s ahead may feel overwhelming. Too much pressure and not enough time to get it all done can create a sense of time poverty. And this year, the usual rigmarole is happening against a backdrop of layoffs and economic challenges.
As stress increases, calls for self-care do as well. What you need, according to some self-care narratives, is a lovely bath or a walk in the woods. With enough time for yourself, all will be well. But traditional definitions of self-care aren’t enough, and bath bombs alone won’t solve burnout. In fact, the call for self-care can create additional pressure and become a source of negativity.
Fortunately, there are alternatives. Here’s how you can redefine self-care so that it actually enhances your life:
If you’re stressed out, you are not alone. According to a study by Clarify Capital, 45% of people feel stressed, 36% feel scared or depressed, and 25% feel demotivated. And according to a study by Muse, between 38% and 44% of people feel overworked, burned out, unappreciated, lack satisfaction, or lack joy.
Younger generations are especially impacted by these negative feelings. Research by Cigna suggests that 84% of all employees are stressed, but among workers between the ages of 18 and 24, 91% are stressed, 98% are burned out, and 71% are more overwhelmed than usual.
Unfortunately, self-care may not be the panacea that’s promised. Self-care alone isn’t enough because it doesn’t help reduce the factors that cause stress. What’s more, some self-care advice can be its own source of stress when it requires you to add to your list of things to do. Now, while getting the end-of-the-year report done and buying gifts, you also need to take time for a massage.
The emphasis on self-care often can be tone deaf: failing to recognize the lack of control people have over their schedules. Some self-care narratives blame people who are busy. If you would just manage yourself better, the mantra goes, you wouldn’t be so stressed.
But life ebbs and flows. During some periods, you may have plenty of time for a lovely stroll through the park; yet, during other times, you just may need to buckle down and get things done in order to feel more in charge of your day. By realizing this, and by giving yourself permission to be busy during demanding times, you can actually address and reduce the pressures in your life.
Some may define self-care as time for yourself and appointments for pampering. But at its core, true self-care is considering what you need, what energizes you, and how you can expand your well-being physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Based on this definition, it’s possible to reimagine self-care with new considerations for how it can truly nurture, rather than detract from, your experience.
Here are several things to consider when defining what self-care means to you:
Consider speeding up versus slowing down
One assumption about self-care is that it’s always about relaxing or slowing down. But it’s worth reflecting on what works best for you. As you’re planning your day, you might take five minutes to meditate in the morning, or you might realize that for you, activity is more helpful in rebuilding your capacities.
If more is best for you, self-care could include a quick walk between meetings or multitasking by ordering gifts online while watching TV. If your self-care includes action, don’t judge yourself. Instead, embrace your full schedule—fit everything into the crevices of the calendar. If you need to speed up, go for it.
Consider spending time with others versus alone
Self-care is often defined as time by yourself, and getting away can be a great way to feel centered again. But for some, stress may be best reduced by sharing time with others instead. Invite a colleague to help you solve a tough problem at work, or have a shopping trip with your daughter and your mom, or meet with your book group.
Whatever works best for you, be intentional about whom you spend time with. Research by The Harris Poll found that 57% of people say their social networks have become smaller but also more connected over the past couple of years. And 31% say they have learned whom they can count on and trust most.
Interestingly, 33% of respondents realized they didn’t want to spend time with friends who didn’t add value to their life, and 48% dropped friendships that were no longer serving them. These are all healthy parts of true self-care: spending time with people you value, and reducing the time you invest with those who may sap your energy.
If being with others energizes you, then be selective about how you connect and with whom.
Consider saying Yes versus No
Another common assumption about self-care is that it’s usually best when you say No more often than Yes—to socializing, to volunteering, or to new opportunities at work. You’ll have more time for yourself if you say No—according to the prevailing wisdom.
But this too is an oversimplification. In fact, taking on new challenges and empowering yourself to do things that stretch your skills and provide the opportunity to build your network can be energizing. Extending outside of your comfort zone and learning new things is often linked with happiness.
So, if something sounds interesting, consider taking it on. Manage your time so you don’t overextend, but also reflect on which activities could actually provide self-care through new pursuits.
Consider excellence versus perfection
Another way to redefine self-care is by recalibrating your standards and reducing perfectionism. Of course, you want to do your best and invest effort in things that matter, but perfectionism can undermine your well-being. Obsessing about making mistakes or holding yourself to impossibly high requirements can be damaging.
A study featured in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that perfectionism has increased over recent years, and research from York St John University, in York, England, has found that when people are more perfectionistic, they tend to be more likely to experience depression, burnout, anxiety, and even death
Strive to be your best, not the best. Resist the urge to compare yourself with others, and know that your strengths aren’t the same as the strengths of others.
Be flexible in your standards. Sometimes, you may have time for perfectly healthy farm-to-table meals, and other times you may need to spin through the drive-through on the way to soccer practice. You may have some of the most creative ideas for a particular initiative at work—and you may need help on a project requiring a skill set you don’t possess.
Know that your capacity to meet the demands of work and life will shift. Be patient with yourself and with others.
Consider investing in high-quality experiences versus things
Some companies try to sell products under the guise of self-care. However, research has demonstrated that people are happier when they spend money on experiences rather than things, and that people have a greater sense of joy when they invest time in others rather than only themselves.
Still, there may never be enough time to do all that you want. There will always be another fun activity to enjoy, vacation to plan, or opportunity at work. But by realizing you can’t do everything, you can be more present and focused on what you choose to spend time on.
Enjoy your staycation, take pleasure in the weekend away, and appreciate the job you’re in now, rather than always pining for the next big thing. Reduce your bucket list. And when you make choices to spend time with your people or on certain activities, put away your device, reduce distractions, and be fully present.
True self-care empowers you to reflect on how you spend your time and where you get your energy—and to make the choices that work best for you. You can find the right amount of stretch, and build your capabilities to respond—so you can enjoy this season for its busyness and all the next periods that will ebb and flow.
Social media’s biggest draw is that it allows us to connect with each other, so why does it make us ... [+] getty
Many people come to therapy when they are struggling with loneliness. They ask questions like:
“Why do I feel lonelier now than ever before, despite being more connected online?”
“How can I make meaningful connections with others when everything is done online?”
“Why do I feel like social media is causing me to tunnel into a dark, lonely hole?”
If you think about questions like these, you’ll be relieved to know that it’s not just you.
What you are experiencing is an increasingly common phenomenon that is well-documented in scientific research. For instance, one study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that today’s teenagers spend approximately an hour less per day socializing with their peers compared to teenagers who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, according to the study, adolescents who reported fewer in-person social interactions and more online interactions felt most lonely and isolated.
Social media can create a false sense of connection and belonging. Online interactions lack the nonverbal cues, physical presence, and emotional intimacy that are crucial to building and maintaining meaningful relationships.
Social media can also lead to feelings of social comparison and inadequacy, as well as feelings of isolation due to constant FOMO (fear of missing out).
But there is hope. Here are some science-backed strategies to help you address and overcome feelings of loneliness stemming from too much social media.
#1. Limit your social media use
Yes, it’s easier said than done. But the benefits of timing and restricting your social media usage can be huge. Research published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that limiting people’s time on social apps like Facebook and Snapchat to 10 minutes per day significantly reduced feelings of loneliness and depression. The sweet spot, according to the researchers, may be about 30 minutes or less per day.
By setting boundaries with technology, we can focus on developing face-to-face interactions and building real connections. Social media is designed to be addictive, so there is no shame in seeking the help of a mental health practitioner to reduce your dependence on it.
A therapist might suggest creating a schedule to limit social media usage, setting specific times of the day to check and engage with social media, and finding alternative activities to fill the time that you would have spent on social media.
While this can seem challenging at first, with the right mindset and strategies, you can develop a healthy relationship with social media and reduce your feelings of loneliness.
#2. Choose authenticity over social validation
The constant need to present a perfect image on social media can lead to a phenomenon known as ‘social surveillance,’ where users not only carefully curate their own posts, but also closely monitor the content posted by others on their profiles and pages. This can be detrimental to one’s mental health, as it encourages individuals to chase after societal norms and popularity rather than being true to themselves.
A recent study published in the Journal of Psychology found that this dynamic can lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, as users often find themselves questioning whether their actions will be accepted or rejected by their peers before posting something on social media.
It’s also important to realize that any validation you may receive on an inauthentic version of yourself will ultimately feel hollow and fake. If true human connection is what you value, try to attract people who like you for you by showing the world what you truly care about.
Remember, social media is just a tool to connect you with others. It is not the endgame. Focus on building real-world connections through your online presence and your loneliness will improve.
Loneliness is a difficult and painful experience. But, if you can trace its cause to social media, you’re already halfway to fixing the problem.
By limiting your social media use, being authentic online, and seeking out face-to-face interactions, you can learn to address the causes of your social-media-induced loneliness and build the real connections you need to feel less alone.
In the early days of the pandemic, many of us got used to solitude. It’s a habit we need to break.“How to Build a Life” is a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Communities can be amazingly resilient after traumas. Londoners banded together during the German Blitz bombings of World War II, and rebuilt the city afterward. When I visited the Thai island of Phuket six months after the 2004 tsunami killed thousands in the region and displaced even more, I found a miraculous recovery in progress, and in many places, little remaining evidence of the tragedy. It was inspirational.
Going from surviving to thriving is crucial for healing and growth after a disaster, and scholars have shown that it can be a common experience. Often, the worst conditions bring out the best in people as they work together for their own recovery and that of their neighbors.
COVID-19 appears to be resistant to this phenomenon, unfortunately. The most salient social feature of the pandemic was how it forced people into isolation; for those fortunate enough not to lose a loved one, the major trauma it created was loneliness. Instead of coming together, emerging evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a long-term crisis of habitual loneliness, in which relationships were severed and never reestablished.
Many people—perhaps including you—are still wandering alone, without the company of friends and loved ones to help rebuild their life. If your life has not yet gone back to its 2019-era “normal,” you are not alone. In a poll conducted in March 2022 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 59 percent of respondents said they had not fully returned to their pre-pandemic activities.
One of the routines that remains disrupted is work, which for millions of Americans went from a social experience to one of isolation: sitting behind a computer screen, miles away from others. And it probably won’t return to “normal,” especially for office jobs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of people working from home more than tripled from 2019 to 2021.
Universal remote work is no longer necessary from a public-health standpoint, yet in 2022, 59 percent of those who say their jobs can mainly be done from home are still working at home all or most of the time. Most are doing this by choice, despite the fact that 60 percent say they feel less connected to their co-workers than they had before the pandemic.
More serious for happiness is that many people now prioritize socializing for fun less than they used to in the “before times.” Friends whom I’ve recently seen for the first time since 2020 tell me they still almost never go to parties or to others’ homes, even though they used to go out frequently before the pandemic. In a poll that the Pew Research Center conducted in May 2022, 21 percent of respondents said that socializing had become more important to them since the coronavirus outbreak, but 35 percent said it had become less important.
Some people are probably seeing their loved ones less because of continued fear of disease. But when I’ve pressed friends for an explanation, the typical response has been, “I just got out of the habit.” This anecdotal evidence is backed up by data: Most respondents in a spring 2022 survey of American adults said they found it harder to form relationships now, and a quarter felt anxious about socializing. Only 9 percent were worried about being physically near others; the biggest source of anxiety (shared by 29 percent) was “not knowing what to say or how to interact.” Many of us have simply forgotten how to be friends.
This growing habitual loneliness is a public-health crisis. Research has consistently shown that isolation is linked to depression and anxiety. It has also been shown to lead to premature mortality, worsen cardiovascular health, increase inflammation, and disrupt hormones and sleep.
This harm is not equally distributed. Researchers at the Institute for Family Studies have found that in America, rates of unhappiness rose from before the pandemic (2012–18) to after the worst phase (2021). However, of those studied, two groups saw their rate of unhappiness rise more significantly than the others: single people and those who did not regularly attend a religious service. People in these groups likely have less automatically programmed social interaction than others.
Children, too, may be especially vulnerable. Kids born during the pandemic missed a crucial window of socialization, and a study of babies in Dublin published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found that they are, on average, exhibiting deficits in communication. Compared with those born from 2008 to 2011, they are less likely to say one definite or meaningful word, to point, or to wave bye-bye by 12 months of age.
Most of these babies enjoyed less interaction with a variety of people than they would have in the absence of a pandemic. We have no idea what the long-term implications will be. If habitual loneliness is causing so much misery, why aren’t the habitually lonely taking greater steps to fight it? Why aren’t they insisting on working in person and reconnecting with friends? One possible answer is that, as research has shown, loneliness likely inhibits our executive function, which we need in order to deal with our distress appropriately.
Think of a time when you felt very lonely, and instead of doing what you really needed to do—call people, get outside, and be social—you cocooned on the sofa by yourself. Loneliness, like homelessness or poverty, tends to be self-perpetuating: Much as it is harder to get on your feet once you no longer have a place to sleep and shower, an address, or a phone, social isolation leads to behavior that leads to even more isolation.
If you’ve been seeking remote work instead of in-person work for convenience, choosing solitary activities over group ones because of awkwardness, or electing not to reestablish old friendships because of sheer torpor, you may be stuck in a pattern of learned loneliness. To break out of the cycle, you might need to try an “opposite signal” strategy. Your inertia probably tells you that getting dressed and going to work will be a hassle, and that inviting someone over for dinner will be uncomfortable. You should do these things anyway.
Think of it like starting a workout routine after a long sedentary period (another common COVID problem). At first, your system complains bitterly, but if you push through the complaints, you soon find that you can exercise (or socialize) easily, because it has become routine and because you can feel how it improves your life.
There is no law of nature saying that if you wait long enough, you will be happy again. You must proactively manage your own environment. Insist on working in person with others; become a hub for physical gatherings of friends. If your circumstances make COVID a continuing threat—say, if you are immunocompromised—taking the initiative in forming plans that fit your needs is particularly important. I have friends who are very social in their home, for example, but who test all their guests because of their particular health status.
In doing so, they are accepting what is really just a minor inconvenience in order to maintain their “friendship chops.” COVID-19 may well have cut a groove of loneliness into your life. Going with what is easy and convenient in work and friendship cuts that groove deeper, making your isolation harder to escape. But if you can remember the warmth and happiness of your old social self and make a few changes, 2023 can be a year of renewal.
The Covid-19 pandemic has strained global supply chains, causing freight backlogs that have driven up costs. Now some companies are looking for longer-term solutions to prepare for future supply-chain crises, even if those strategies come at a high cost. Americans responded to the pandemic with a dramatic shift in spending to goods from services. That now appears to be reversing and should gather steam as the Omicron wave of Covid-19 ebbs, economists say.
Goods—including nondurable goods such as food and clothing, and durable goods such as cars and appliances—averaged 31% of total personal consumption in the two years before the pandemic. That soared to 36% in March and April 2021, shortly before Covid-19 vaccines became widely available. The share has been dropping since, to 34% in December. Consumer spending on goods fell that month for the second month in a row, according to the Commerce Department, while spending on services increased slightly.
James Knightley, chief international economist at ING, said consumers are starting this year with “a combination of general fatigue of buying physical things and Omicron reducing the ability to spend on services.”
After bingeing on goods earlier in the pandemic, consumers are taking a breather. What’s more, spending on goods has been hit by supply-chain constraints, rising prices and dwindling government stimulus funds. As warmer springtime weather comes to much of the country and falling infection rates help people feel more comfortable socializing in-person, pent-up demand for services such as travel and dining should recover, said Robert Frick, corporate economist with Navy Federal Credit Union.
“If the Omicron wave continues to decline and there’s no follow-up strain, I do think we’re going to see a shift to a more normal breakdown in spending on goods and services,” he said.
That could be important for the inflation outlook. Strong demand for goods coupled with disruptions to their supply have fueled inflation, sending it to a 39-year high of 7% in December. Prices for goods such as furniture and appliances rose 10.7% in December from a year earlier, while services inflation for costs such as rent and airline fares was up a more moderate 3.7%. If consumer spending rotates back to services from goods, some of that upward pressure on goods prices should dissipate.
Economists caution that 2022 is off to a weak start. The Omicron wave hurt consumer spending and job growth in December, trends that likely continued through January as cases of the Covid-19 variant peaked. Real-time data show that restaurant bookings and travel remained depressed in January, suggesting the shift toward services away from goods may have paused in January.
But looking ahead, a strong labor market and rising wages mean many U.S. consumers are starting 2022 with robust income prospects that are likely to help fuel the services recovery this year. “All the indications are that it will be a big year for travel,” said Visa Inc. Chief Financial Officer Vasant Prabhu. “We see the shift to services continuing to gather momentum.”
Travel, restaurants and entertainment services all stand to benefit, he said, adding the economic impact of Omicron is more short-lived than earlier Covid-19 waves as people learn to live with the variant.
Airlines were hit hard by the Omicron variant, with travelers scrapping holiday trips and staff absenteeism prompting flight cancellations over the holidays. Still, executives are optimistic about a speedy recovery.
“The GDP growth we’re seeing now, the excess customer savings, customer spend in other categories and even things like New York City rents snapping back pretty quickly, all seem to indicate real strength for the customer and pent-up demand that wasn’t there in the past,” David Fintzen, an executive at New York-based JetBlue Airways Corp. said during an earnings call last week.
One potential roadblock to higher spending in 2022 is inflation, as shortages of supplies and workers are pushing up prices and wages at levels that may become unaffordable to some households. Some consumers are forgoing purchases because of sticker shock. “We will not buy a used car at the prices we’re seeing now, it’s ridiculous,” said Cory Randall, controller at a cattle company in Amarillo, Texas, who had been considering a secondhand compact car purchase as his son recently turned 16.
Mr. Randall isn’t alone. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s most recent Survey of Consumer Expectations found the share of households that made a large purchase over the past four months decreased to 58% in December from 63% in August. Households reported that they were less likely to make a large purchase over the next four months—like on a vacation, home repairs, home appliances, furniture and vehicles—than in the prior survey.
I didn’t love my old therapist, but she did give me one crucial piece of advice: Get a hobby. I was writing about food for work, so cooking didn’t really count as a hobby anymore — I’d already monetized that one — nor did reading, nor socializing, especially since all of my friends worked in my industry. I needed something in my life that existed apart from all that. I was stressed and, of course, also on my phone too much (and still am).
Maybe something you can do with your hands. The suggestion felt like an escape hatch: Maybe a hobby could free me from toil. Cooking had once been the thing I did to relax when I got home from work, the thing I was curious about, the thing that distracted my brain from its standard litany of complaints. Puttering in the kitchen had once been a release, but now it was part of my professional life. It needed a replacement. A few months later, I dutifully signed up for a ceramics class at a studio nearish my Brooklyn apartment.
This was March 2016. One of my roommates was an artist who had taken a class at that same studio, and I always envied the little pots she made. One of them was shaped like the face of a woman, with a ponytail for a handle. She gave it to me, and I put a small succulent in it that would soon die. I hoped that taking a class could make me more like her, or at the very least, happier — and if not that, well, maybe I’d make myself a bowl to put pasta in.
Learning to make ceramics on the wheel — this is what you picture when you think of that scene from Ghost — feels initially impossible, pointless, tantrum-inducing. In class, our teacher showed us how to take a blob of clay and slam it onto the machine’s surface, strong-arm it into symmetry as the wheel whirred around, dig a hole in its center with our fingers, make the hole wider, and then raise up the walls that would make it a vessel.
Doing it on my own was another thing entirely: a reminder of the unkind presence of physics, an asymmetrical lump thwapping around like an off-balance tornado, just some really ugly shit that would occasionally collapse in on itself.
This is par for the course. Most of us suck at first. The stuff you made in second-grade art class was objectively better. Clay shrinks when fired in a kiln, so the first mugs I made that weren’t ugly came out more like handled thimbles. Glazing each piece — decorating it with the often-colorful vitrified coating that makes it water-tight and food-safe, and glossy or matte — was its own messy challenge. My goal became not to make art or even craft, so much as to make things I didn’t hate.
Of course, failing at something new doesn’t feel good; it feels like banging your head against a wall in front of an invisible audience of your own making. Turning off the desire to excel once you leave work is often impossible, if not difficult.
That said, the pace of my failure was different at the studio. Making ceramics requires patience and is an exercise in delayed gratification (or dissatisfaction). There are so many ways to fuck something up, so many stages to the process, and entering that cycle of hope, expectation, and either failure and trying again or ecstatic satisfaction added a new dimension to the rhythms of my life. Entering that cycle of hope, expectation, and failure and trying again added a new dimension to the rhythms of my life
Through this mild and harmless struggle, I acquired a hobby. “How agitated I am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so agitated,” Jamaica Kincaid writes in My Garden (Book). “Nothing works just the way I thought it would, nothing looks just the way I had imagined it, and when sometimes it does look like what I had imagined (and this, thank God, is rare) I am startled that my imagination is so ordinary.”
Powerlessness, for an amateur, can be its own draw. At the studio, I started as a lazy learner, but in a few months became obsessed, signing up for more classes when my session ended. My classes netted out to about $40 a week, plus materials and the cost of firing. I was spending maybe $200 a month, which required an increased vigilance in my other spending but also meant I had something to care about.
I had a place to go in my free time that was not my office, or my apartment, or a friend’s apartment, or a restaurant, or a bar. I had something to be curious about, and my goals were unrelated to exterior forces: a boss, a job, a market, a reader. Unlike with writing, my progress was quantifiable: Now I can make a vase this tall. Now I have made a planter. Now my handles are beautiful. Now I have made two things that more or less look like a pair.
I also relished having something to do that didn’t involve a screen and therefore felt far from the style of work to which I was most accustomed. Hands covered in clay cannot swipe very well. Hobbies have always been defined by their tenuous relationship to work: After industrialization bifurcated life into the realms of work and leisure, hobbies appeared as something “productive” for workers to do with their newly minted chunks of free time.
“Leisure came to represent freedom because it took place in time separate from work, and time in an industrial world could be used for either work or leisure,” writes Steven Gelber in his book Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. “For this reason, industrial capitalism sharpened the West’s ambivalent feelings about leisure.” Leisure does not exist without work and is therefore defined by it.
Even as hobbies gained popularity among the 19th-century middle class, they mimicked the capitalist attitudes of the workplaces from which they were meant to provide relief. “Since the hobby was done at home in free time, it was under the complete control of the hobbyist. It was, in other words, a re-embracing of preindustrial labor, a recreation of the world of the yeoman, artisan, and independent merchant,” Gelber writes. “Hobbies were a Trojan horse that brought the ideology of the factory and office into the parlor.”
The capitalist value of a “work ethic” has always been present in the world of the hobbyist. We love hobbies because they are something to do that isn’t work, something that we choose to do. But they still so often require toil; we are still proud of ourselves when we perform our hobbies efficiently, competently. Pursuit of mastery is implied, if not always present. For me, few things match the thrill of pulling something beautiful out of the kiln. It always feels like a surprise I have magically given myself.
Once I had made a few things that I didn’t hate — and because I have a smartphone and a need for validation — I began posting photos of my work on Instagram. I loved making mugs, loved their practicality and the way they fit into a home. A mug can look like anything. I had newfound opinions on what mine should look like, and that felt good.
By the winter, people were asking to buy them. I was freelancing at the time, and my studio cost about $200 a month, plus more for materials. If I could regularly sell a few mugs, I’d break even. The baseline price for these things, according to a brief survey of other potters, was around $40 — I started selling mine for $35 or $40, depending on size.
From the beginning I felt like I was doing everything wrong. Like maybe I should wait until I got a little better, or until I could make a nice shiny website, or until I had, I don’t know, SKUs. But it felt irresponsible to turn down a few people who would help cover my expenses and who wanted my work in their hands. Once you start making things, you have to put them somewhere. You begin to understand why people collect stamps.
Certain hobbies are difficult to monetize — say, bird-watching. Coin collecting, unless you sell it all. Gardening. Many things can only be monetized by becoming a teacher, or maybe now an influencer. Once demand appeared, selling felt like an inevitability. I wanted to keep making things but didn’t have space to keep it all; people love mugs; selling something feels like a pat on the head followed by a treat. (To be clear, the treat is money.)
People began commissioning mugs, and they’d tell me what color they wanted, send me a photo of something I’d made and ask for something similar. It was slapdash but it worked, and it covered my expenses. I was having fun and only mildly stressed by the process, always behind schedule. I look back now at some of the things that people paid for and feel a bit embarrassed, but I’m always wishing my work were a little uglier, so maybe I should be proud.
Once demand appeared, selling felt like an inevitability Somewhere along the line I made a website and started selling things more formally, claiming the revenue on my taxes, finding a person with a real camera to take photos of my work. I’d leave my day job at a magazine and go to the studio, often until 1 or 2 in the morning. It made me late for work, but I didn’t care; I ended up getting laid off with one foot out the door, and was given the gift of time — more daytime hours, at least — to spend at the studio. I had lost my hobby and gained a revenue stream.
My ceramic work, now, is caught up in the question of selling. Mugs sell, so I make more of them. I take a sick pleasure in the exhausting production line of throwing, trimming, attaching handles, smoothing everything down, painting, glazing, firing, staring at rows of cups lined up like synchronized swimmers, ready to jump. It’s the same sick pleasure I get in staying up until 2 am working on a jigsaw puzzle: maniacally focused on my goal at the expense of my posture. Untangling the question of what I want to make from what will sell feels like crawling out of a very deep well.
The swiftness with which modern craftspeople can and do monetize their hobbies is, of course, not a surprise. Traditional careers are crumbling, and side hustles are fetishized; Instagram has turned marketing into a basic skill we’re all expected to have. It’s easier to sell the crap you make in your spare time, and you’re more likely to need the money than you might have been a few decades ago, when you could have just foisted it all on your friends. This all risks turning hobbies into even more of an illusion, a mirage of leisure that quickly turns to obligation.
Some people, though, have fought the seduction of commerce and won. RC, an artist who makes work under the name marinatedclouds, began her first sculptural project with the express intention not to sell it. She was burned out from working a full-time job in graphic design, where in order for an idea to succeed, it needed to be marketable. “So many interesting concepts got dismissed because they couldn’t fit into a business context,” she remembers. “It became a situation where I started feeling really empty — I didn’t know how to have fun anymore.”
She had long toyed with the idea of creating a book about chicken and rice, with 35 different dishes from around the world. But she’d never gotten around to it; the work was too similar to her job as a graphic designer. So she decided to turn it into a sculptural project, quitting her job in April 2018 and giving herself the summer to focus on ceramic chicken and rice. Once she was done, she just kept making things.
Her work is influenced by early 2000s nostalgia and her Taiwanese American upbringing; her pieces look like something made by a child from a different dimension, playful and mind-blowing in one. Pencils are sliced like bananas; crayons threaten to crawl out of their box. She once made an entire aughts-era desktop computer.
“Nurturing ideas was and is something I’m still extremely steadfast about,” RC says. “I want to pursue every idea, whether it lacks concept or not. Sometimes just making crayons is literally what I want. There’s no additional background to it, I just like the rainbow.” Refusing to sell her work — something she did for two years, despite enthusiastic interest from people on Instagram — allowed her to create the world of marinatedclouds without tainting it with outside influence. “For me, it’s just pursuing any and every idea that I have. That’s my form of self-expression.”
Quickly, her pieces began to pile up in her one-bedroom apartment. She was tripping over things. She got rid of her living room and turned it into a studio; she has no couch. But last winter, after a financially challenging 2020, she decided to sell some of her older pieces, both to make money and to clear space for new work. She learned that donuts sell really well. “That’s feedback that I didn’t actually need, but it does stay in the back of my head, and that’s something I do really want to avoid,” she says. She doesn’t want to cater to demand — only her own whims.
This is, for many of us, the dream: unfettered commitment to externalizing our innards without concern for any gaze but our own. Reclaiming one’s time, you could say. But it requires nothing short of a battle. “Society puts so much pressure on success as in status or monetization,” RC says, “but success to me now is being true to myself.”
I can no longer call ceramics my hobby, and I doubt I ever will. I assume I will sell my work until people stop buying it, both out of necessity and because it does bring me joy to make a silly little thing that someone will incorporate into the tableau of their home. The struggle, for me, is between what I want to make and what I assume people will buy; the struggle of wishing I could log off forever but knowing that Instagram is the most direct marketing tool I have. The only solution I have come up with is to have a segment of my work I make just for myself, without concern for the market — or at least with an attempted lack of concern.
But making time for that also means carving out time, both for creation and inspiration, for the rest that is required for my brain to think thoughts. This is something I crave more than a new hobby; this is peace.