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 superfi
ial 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.