A year ago I chose to defer an offer to a New Zealand university. I gambled on an acceptance to Harvard but seeing that this was something of a pipe dream, I expected to end up with a gap-year and the opportunity to travel. Back then I couldn’t have guessed how drastically things would change, or how New Zealand would be one of few countries operating normally. While my friends were at university, long after my country’s lockdown had finished, I was still living in my house as if in quarantine.
Everything on my screen was part of a different reality. Zoom meetings and assignments sapped all my time and energy and the thought of doing something unrelated to schoolwork, something just for my personal benefit, never even crossed my mind. It was too easy for my time to be divided between studying and sitting around feeling defeated.
The result was a lost year. Some people might be lucky enough to say they didn’t lose a year — some people will pretend they didn’t — but I think for the majority of people they feel like they have lost a year of their lives. For me, it was my 18th, and if crappy teen movies have taught me anything, it’s that this past year was meant to be a good one.
Instead, I spent much of 2020 feeling pretty low, hardly leaving the house and rarely sleeping. It took me a while to realize my advisor, my proctor, the student leaders who I had met, actually cared. But with few classes accommodating students in distant time zones, it felt as though they were the only people who did. The only other person I knew who was studying from New Zealand had to flip her whole sleep schedule to adjust for classes happening in the middle of the night, which I can’t imagine is positive for a person’s mental health.
Mental health. How can a person be mentally healthy in a time like this? What sort of steps can we take as individuals to improve our psychological and emotional wellbeing?
After conducting some research, I have discovered that strangely, lying in bed is not the answer, and neither is filling time by keeping track of your favorite indie artist’s latest garbage-dump of new music, nor looking through family trees in an effort to connect your lineage to Jason Momoa (there’s a resemblance, I swear).
What has actually been an effective strategy for me so far, to cope with these challenges, was picking up a proper hobby.
It had to be something new, because my previous hobbies all involved morning headaches, or getting better at something, and both those kinds of hobbies are terrible. It couldn’t be Netflix, because binging on TV is the same as binging on anything else: It only bottles things up and delays your feelings. This kind of hobby is not intended to be an interlude between gloomy instrumentals, but rather a switch from one playlist to another. It’s meant to divert your attention to something different, be it a goal, an optimistic thought, or something to look forward to.
For me, this involved grabbing an old, perforated tent, starting the engine of a ‘’96’ Toyota Corolla that has no business running, and spending two weeks in the South Island camping on my own, going to beaches, spotting seals and dolphins, checking out some of New Zealand’s landmarks.
It was a great experience; it taught me the value of having an activity in your life with no purpose other than to be something for yourself. I wrote a review of every place in the South Island I visited and ended up with what would form the most bogan tourist brochure New Zealand has ever seen. This is obviously a luxury not everyone has, nor would it make a good hobby for everyone, but fortunately there are heaps of these hobbies to choose from: Options include casual table tennis, cooking for fun, or joining a bridge club (whatever that is).
Because the semester has started, and because I am broke, I no longer have the ability to go on these trips. In the place of that distraction, I luckily now have this column on the topic of mental health, which I find to be cathartic for myself to write, and that will hopefully be nice to read.
Many people won’t feel they have the time to add something new to their schedule. But I promise this effort is worth it. When you find the right “hobby,” you add something to your life that isn’t about the relentless pursuit of improving yourself or achieving something, goals I think comprise a large portion of our time as Harvard students.
Although it won’t be the most productive use of your time, a new activity might help your mental health, which to me renders it infinitely valuable. What may initially appear to be a waste of time can end up being one of the best things you ever do — so consider giving this a try, and feel free to let me know how it goes.
James M. Heffernan '24's column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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