We all know people who pursue their passions single-mindedly, whether they’re mad for mahjong or dedicated to dance. And those pastimes tend to be more than just pleasant diversions. Research shows that finding a hobby — a task outside of your regular occupation that’s done primarily for pleasure — can also have significant health benefits.

By choosing to learn and develop an unfamiliar skill, hobbyists encourage their marbles to form new neural connections. They’re managing stress, improving mood, and exerting autonomy, that is a key component in psychological health.

“The play mind is different from the work mind,” explains Joe Robinson, a work–life trainer and the author of Don’t Miss Your lifetime. “It’s not about results but the experience for its own sake. What we should get out of play is no under who we really are.”

Researchers have found that hobbies also offer an uncommon opportunity to experience flow, that sense of being so absorbed within an activity that you lose track of time.

“Flow may come from purely physical activities, like when you are skiing down a slope and each move is what you were hoping to do and the results are clear,” says Claremont Graduate University psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. “We have hundreds of different ways of trying to be outstanding. It could be physical, artistic, scientific.” (For additional on flow, read Go With the Flow.)

Hobbies are not about pleasing others, nor are they really about self-improvement; they’re simply a source of joy. They give us space to see ourselves differently — to be spontaneous, take a risk, deepen our resilience, and even perhaps find a new sense of purpose.

Ready to locate a hobby that’s right for you? Consider these tips.

Cast a Wide Net

Start by listing all of the activities that pique your interest. If you’re scared of looking foolish or trying a physically risky activity, don’t shy away from it. Add it to the list anyway.

Mendal Hyde, a 48-year-old mother of two in Thousand Oaks, Calif., received a Valentine’s Day gift of synchronized-swimming lessons. She’d always aspired to try it but feared holding her breath underwater would aggravate her mild asthma. After each class, though, she felt stronger and much more confident, and her fear gradually dissipated. Eventually, she joined a troupe as well as started teaching a synchronized-swimming class to seniors.

“If you’re being somewhat challenged, the adrenaline prompts your brain to pay attention,” says Minneapolis-based executive coach Kate Larsen. “The sweet spot of flow is where you’re stretched, but not beyond your capabilities.”

Think about what you love most: exploring the outdoors, creating arts and crafts, playing sports, studying science, or serving others. Whether it relates to your day job, that’s OK although not necessary. Are there skills you’d like to learn, talents you want to develop, or experiences you crave? Write it all down.

Start by Dabbling

Think of the hobby quest as a brainstorming session. Talk to friends, search your community for opportunities, and check out out a new activity out of your list. Pay attention to how you feel throughout the experience. Csikszentmihalyi advises trying a minimum of three or four sessions to get over that beginner’s hurdle.

Turning 40 prompted Brad Rourke, a basis executive in Rockville, Md., to consider stock of his life and revive his long-held curiosity about rock music. “As I reflected, I realized that what had been stopping me was fear of looking bad while I learned, and that the lessons I had taken as a kid were boring,” he recalls. “After which I had this epiphany — I was old enough not to care how I looked, and old enough to approach the learning in a way that suited me.”

He bought a guitar and a lesson book and taught himself three chords, sufficient to manage a few simple songs. A musician friend invited him to jam together, and in a short time, they’d formed a garage band. Rourke even started writing music for the group.

“This experience provided the pattern for what I've now done for over a decade. I’m a spare time activity collector,” he explains. “Every couple of years I add a new hobby into my entire life. Some of them I get tired of and let go. My life shifts and the amount of time and energy I have for things shifts.”

Make the Time

The most common objection to taking up a spare time activity is the time commitment. Yet many of us cede our unscheduled moments to mindless distractions, like binge-watching TV or scrolling through our social-media feeds. Consider reclaiming those hours for yourself by pursuing an activity that would actually make you feel engaged, creative, and alive.

Laura Vanderkam, author of From the Clock: Feel Less Busy Whilst getting More Done, encourages hobbyists to consider their free time for an entire week, rather than day to day. “It’s the rare individual who cannot find two hours in the course of 168 hours for something enjoyable,” she says.

It’s generally simpler to stay committed to something on a consistent schedule, like hockey practice on Thursday evenings or supper club around the first Friday of each month. A group of people counting on your participation can hold you accountable.

Of course, for the truly time-crunched, making space in life for a new activity may need some sacrifice. Just realize that any amount of time you can put aside is better than nothing. For some people, it might be more realistic to adopt a solo hobby — running or knitting, for instance — that can easily fit around other commitments.

Be Available to Evolving

As you delve deeper right into a new hobby, consider whether it’s likely to align with your long-term plans. Take note of your natural ability, how you’re progressing, and whether the learning process is providing you with joy.

“You have to deal with the reality of what works for you,” Vanderkam says. “You won’t stick with something you don’t like.”

Sometimes, we just aren’t able to achieve the level of skill needed to make a hobby enjoyable. Or maybe your stage of life won’t accommodate the time commitment needed to, say, join a roller-derby league or prepare Location for the dog-show circuit. Keep that activity on your list for the future, when you might have fewer obligations.

You may need to go back to step one with a new activity, even as you deepen your pursuit of an earlier one. The key is to remain curious and open-minded. You’ll know when you’ve found the right fit, as Shilpa Jindia did with jazz-dance lessons.

“There have been moments when I’ve danced when everything comes together — my body, the music, the movements — into one fluid motion, and my thoughts lets go. It’s a feeling of tranquility and vitality at the same time,” says Jindia, 33, a Washington, D.C., writer and researcher. “The studio is becoming my sanctuary. I love nothing more than arriving Friday night and shaking from the week. Hands down, I’d prefer to be there than at happy hour.”