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Diversion Of Mind Hobbies

There are two classes for whom diversion is of the utmost value. The
first are over-occupied with themselves; and the second group are so
occupied with some one interest in life, or with one narrow set of
interests, that it becomes an obsession, never leaving them. Constancy
of mental occupation with one set of thoughts proves seriously
disturbing after a time, especially if the only amusements available
are so superficial that they do not really act as a diversion. Many of
the so-called neurasthenic or psychasthenic states (I would prefer to
call them conditions of nervous weakness and of psychic impotency,
because the simpler names carry with them no suggestion of a definite
ailment) are really the consequence of this lack of any true
diversion. The patients do not get any genuine rest.

The typical example of such lack of diversion is the business man who,
contrary to the wisdom of the ages, takes his business home with him.
If we accept Ramon y Cajal's theory of attention, by which whenever a
particular portion of the brain is occupied with a subject the
capillary blood vessels in that particular part are pulled wide open
by the contraction of the neuroglia cells, certain of the brain
tissues in these cases are constantly in a state of congestion. It is
not surprising that such men suffer from insomnia. It is scarcely less
to be wondered at if their digestion suffers, since that function is
so important that it requires most of the nervous energy that a man
can provide at certain times. Besides his brain cells are never really
resting. If a man goes to sleep with a thought and wakes with it, even
though he may not be quite conscious of the fact, his mind has been
occupied with it. Brain cells need definite periods of rest. These
cells are not getting such rest--hence the development of many
pathological conditions.

I have described the extreme case, but it is not exaggerated. Writers,
editors, scientific investigators and generally those whose work does
not bring them much in contact with others, are likely to thus suffer.
Contact with others, even on business matters, seems to have a
relaxing effect. Social amenities and personal interests prevent
absolute concentration of mind over long periods. In some people even
milder degrees of preoccupation with a single subject may work
harm. Some people are able to stand concentration of mind for many
hours a day for years. Others cannot. We have come to recognize that
more than eight hours a day is a mistake, but there are many people
who cannot work more than a four-hour day. The sooner this is
recognized and diversion of mind provided, the better for them. This
is one of the most important benefits that psychotherapy can confer on
many of the so-called neurasthenics.

Possibility of Diversion of Attention from Ills.--The necessity for
diversion of attention from one's ills is best realized by considering
what happens in the opposite direction. Headache, toothache, and many
other uncomfortable feelings, especially discomfort associated with
abdominal disturbances, can be entirely banished from the mind by
pleasant association with friends, by an interesting play, by a game
of cards, or, indeed, by almost anything that takes up the attention
completely. It is well understood that the severer forms of pains can
not be thus banished, but discomforts that make life miserable for the
patient may be entirely relieved for the time being. If this power of
mind to divert attention from the ills of the body means so much, it
is not hard to understand that if this mental influence be directed in
the other way, that is, to emphasize the ailment by attention to it,
it will not be long before symptoms become quite unbearable.

Hobbies.--A hobby is the physical salvation for a man who wants to
work hard, yet not become so absorbed in his work that it becomes an
obsession. Unfortunately, it is not possible to create a hobby for a
man or a woman in a short time. It must be a growth for many years
until it has become a portion of one's life. It must, as far as
possible, be something to which one turns with as much interest as to
one's regular occupation, so that the time taken from it, even for the
necessary vocation of life, is more or less resented. If a man has two
occupations that are intensely interesting, then he gets the best
possible rest. Otherwise it will be necessary in many cases for the
physician to help him in the choice of another interest in life. It is
not enough that there should be a vacation once a year, or a
conventional day off on Sunday. There must be much more than this,
deliberately planned and faithfully carried out.

Gladstone.--Men with hobbies have done some of the best of the
world's work; busy for many hours every day, they have yet lived to be
eighty and even ninety years of age, and have been industrious to the
end. A typical example in our generation was Gladstone, the great
English statesman. Few men had their minds occupied with more serious
problems than he for nearly forty years of a busy existence. In spite
of this, he found time to make a study of Greek literature and of
ecclesiastical writers; He acquired even more authority perhaps in
these subjects than in political science, doing the work of several
men, yet he lived to be an extremely old man. He welcomed the
opportunity to get away from one kind of work in order to devote
himself to another, but this occupation of an entirely different set
of brain cells gave those that had been previously at work opportunity
for complete rest. Very probably, except at times of special crisis or
stress of anxiety, his political problems did not disturb his studies
of Greek literature, not because he insisted on keeping them away, but
because this other interest was so absorbing that it required no
special effort to occupy his mind completely with it.

Virchow.--For more than a year I lived close to the great German
pathologist, Virchow, and found that his varied interests were
probably the secret of his power to devote himself to work for many
hours a day, take only a small amount of sleep and yet live healthily
and happily for over eighty years. Frequently he did not leave the
Prussian legislature until 1 a. m., or even later, and yet he seldom
failed to be at his laboratory before 7:30 o'clock in the morning,
though it was several miles from his home and took over half an hour
to get there. Besides pathology, he was deeply interested in
anthropology and in most of the biological sciences, and his favorite
hobby was the practical care of the health of the city of Berlin. From
the time when Berlin, just after the Franco-Prussian war, began to
grow out of the half-million provincial town that it was, into the
great world capital that it became, a transformation that took less
than twenty years, Virchow had charge of the health of the men engaged
on the sewer farms of the city. Berlin, unlike other great capitals,
is not situated on a large stream that will carry off its excreta, and
consequently a new problem in sewage disposal had to be met. The
sewage was spread over fields outside the city and proved, as might be
expected, a magnificent fertilizer. The whole cost of sewage disposal
was recouped from the sale of the farm products.

Prophecies of dire disaster of many kinds were made when this system
was first proposed. It was said that the men engaged on the farms
would suffer from all sorts of disease, especially respiratory and
intestinal diseases, that the farm products would be insanitary, and
the whole plant would be such a disease producer for the city as to
become a nuisance. Virchow was put in charge of the sanitary side of
the project, and how well he fulfilled his obligations is shown by the
statistics. The people who worked on the farms were healthier than the
average inhabitants of Berlin, and were especially free from
intestinal disease. Every phase of disease that occurred among the
workers on the farms, and there were many thousands of them with their
families, was reported to Virchow. Every night, the last thing before
he went to bed, he looked over this report and if there were any
suspicious cases, made arrangements for the prevention of the spread
of disease.

This of itself might seem work enough for one man, but it was only a
diversion for Virchow, turning his mind away from his other
intellectual work completely during certain hours of the day. His
visits to the farms, his planning for the prevention of the spread of
disease, his deep interest in the reports and the constant improvement
of conditions, instead of hampering his other intellectual activity by
wasting brain force, probably proved restful by diverting the blood
stream away to the cells that occupied themselves with this other and
very different problem, and so proved a benefit, not an evil. Perhaps
other men might not have had the store of nervous energy to enable
them to carry on work in this way, but for those who have, this is the
ideal arrangement. There are many others whose names might be
mentioned here. John Bigelow and Pope Leo XIII are typical recent
examples. Great workers are usually long livers, barring accident, and
all of them have had variety of occupation.

Necessity for Diversity of Occupation.--Even for those of lesser
intellectual capacity, it is advisable to have, in a lower order of
intellectual occupation, two very different things in which there is
intense interest. The blase attitude in which the individual
finds no interest in anything and nothing worth doing, makes it
impossible to secure such relaxation as will give relief from worry.
So long as nothing happens to call for special resistive vitality,
such people may go on nursing their unhappiness. It is from this
class, however, that the suicides come. The mind becomes occupied with
the worries that it cannot get away from, sleep is interfered with;
the worries become an obsession, and brain exhaustion results. It is
usually said that suicides are insane, and to this extent certainly
the expression is true. Certain brain cells have so long been occupied
with a particular subject, because the mind has no other interest to
divert attention and blood supply to other portions, that these cells
are overborne and become utterly beyond the control of reason and

Intervals in Work.--The old university rule of long ago was that no
one should do more than two hours of intellectual work continuously at
the same subject. Certain of the monastic orders required scholars and
students to take a break from an intellectual occupation for a
measured interval at least every two hours. The modern business man,
and even the literary man or reporter, would think this preposterous.
The rule is, however, founded on good common sense, for it relieves
the tension and keeps conditions of strain from inveterating
themselves in such a way as to do harm.

As a matter of fact, better work is accomplished if it is done in
two-hour intervals, with a break of fifteen minutes to a half-hour
between, than if the attempt is made to work longer. This may not be
true for certain forms of creative literary work, where, when the mood
is on, it is easier to finish things than if a break occurs, but these
are exceptional cases, and even here there may be serious abuse. Many
of the men who work late at night eventually get into habits that
seriously impair their sleep. This system of rest prevents such a
strain from being put upon the physical organs underlying attention as
will prevent them from promptly relaxing when the call upon them has

There are, of course, men for whom no such rules as these seem to be
needed, because they apparently thrive on work. These are exceptions,
however, that prove the rule. They will usually be found on
investigation to have been men who lived very simply and permitted
themselves very little excitement. There is great danger in imitating
them because most of them had a superabundant vitality which expressed
itself in longevity as well as in a noteworthy capacity for work. They
had superabundant brain power to run their business (even though it
was deeply intellectual), but then, too, these men were careful not to
throw extra burdens upon their digestive organs, nor to abuse
stimulants, nor to permit a regular routine of work to be disturbed.
When symptoms of nerve weakness begin to show themselves, even the
exceptional men must be warned of the danger. The causes of the
exhaustion of nervous vitality should be pointed out, and an
improvement of habits insisted upon.

Amusement and the Mind.--The theater, as it is at the present time,
affords very little opportunity for mental relaxation. Most of our
theatricals are mere show that occupies the eye but does not seriously
catch the attention, especially after a certain number of types of
these performances have been attended. The humor of the comedians of
our musical comedy may, for a certain number of people, mean
something as a diversion of mind, but it does not last. Unfortunately,
practically all their humor runs along the same line, most of it is
extremely superficial, much of it is borrowed and wears signs of its
origin, not a little of it is mere horse-play, which may divert
children but not grown men, and so the theater as a mental relaxation
has lost nearly all of its effect. Other diversions are sometimes more
hopeful. For baseball enthusiasts, attendance at a game may be such a
complete occupation of mind as to furnish thorough relaxation.

The kind of work that provides mental relaxation for others often
proves exhausting to those who do it. Humorists, especially those who
have to grind out paragraphs or columns of humor every day or every
week, are usually melancholy men. The story of Grimaldi illustrates
how serious may be the effect of work that seems mere play if pursued
too singly. This humorist on one occasion consulted a specialist in
mental diseases, for certain symptoms of nervous breakdown and
depression that were causing him much annoyance and even more
solicitude. The specialist believed in diversion of mind, and, having
been to see Grimaldi the night before and enjoyed him hugely, though
he did not recognize him off the stage, counseled him to go and see
that humorist and have his "blue devils" banished for good. "If
Grimaldi won't cure you of your depression," he added, "I don't know
anything that will." "My God!" the humorist said, "then don't leave
me in despair. Man, I am Grimaldi!"

Sports.--Unfortunately in our modern life we have to a great extent
lost the idea of sport. The conventional make-shifts of life in a camp
that is really a luxurious country house, or on a luxurious yacht, do
not replace the complete diversions that came with real camping,
hunting, fishing, sailing and the like. People now go to the country,
but take the city with them. They live in country hotels and make five
changes of clothing in the day, if not more. If men are interested in
hunting and fishing and can go into the forest (unfortunately even the
Adirondacks can scarcely be so designated now and we have to go into
the Canadian wilderness to get away from the pall of regular life and
civilization), complete recreation is secured. This makes a real
vacation which does not mean absolute freedom of mind, but freedom
from other cares so that one may with complete absorption apply
himself to something different. During the year sports for grown-ups
are difficult to obtain. Some men continue well on in middle life to
play tennis, hand-ball, and certain other games, O fortunati nimium,
that make the best kind of diversion. Fortunately, in recent years
golf has become a favorite and for many makes a genuine diversion.

Children's Diversions.--In recent years we have so interfered with the
normal natural development of the child that there is need to
emphasize certain details in this matter. The modern child is apt to
be precociously occupied with books and adult interests, because he is
brought so much into the foreground of family interests. True play for
some city-bred children is almost an anomaly. Exercise and air they
get. They are conducted solemnly to the park by a nursemaid, who is
instructed to see that they do not play with other children unless
quite as well dressed as they are themselves, and their dress is often
so elaborate that it is quite impossible for them to think of any real
play. There is absolutely no recreation for the child in this
procedure: on the contrary, a new effort of will is required to
walk with the stately propriety that is expected of it. Then the child
is preoccupied with the thought of its clothes. Relaxation of mind is
often quite out of the question, and yet we wonder why children are
nervous and do not sleep well, why they have night terrors and do not
digest their food properly, while all the time they are living
unnatural lives that give no proper outlet for their energies and
little diversion for their mind.

Games are important, but their true spirit has gone out in recent
years. There are still a few young people who play for the sake of the
sport, but everything now seems to be a preparation for some sort of
contest. Only those are engaged in these contests and the preparation
for them whose muscular development is such as to suggest that they
will help to win. Winning, and not sport, has become the purpose of
our games. This makes the participants worry about the games and
associate them with dread of errors and ill chances. It is true that
the interest for the contestants during the game is sufficient to make
up for this and make the game valuable as relaxation; but those who
need such relaxation most--the boys and girls who are underdeveloped
muscularly--must sit and watch the contests, and this, after one has
become accustomed to it, like newspaper reading and the theater,
constitutes a poor apology for the complete relaxation of mind and
diversion of brain-cell energy that used to come with sports when they
were freely indulged, for the sake of the sport and not for the sake
of winning.

Next: Habit

Previous: Occupation Of Mind

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