Stroke-Sponge Hobbies

May 7, 2007

The Freakonomics guys have an article in The New York Times Magazine about the economics of leisure.

So what’s with all the knitting, gardening and “cooking for fun”? Why do some forms of menial labor survive as hobbies while others have been killed off? (For instance, we can’t think of a single person who, since the invention of the washing machine, practices “laundry for fun.”)

Good question. Gardening, yard work, and photography are big black holes for me. I think there are a bunch of reasons why we engage in hobbies that don’t make economic sense. Some of it is discovery, that is, we are hard-wired to discover and perfect skills. Some of it is due to the challenge of a task or the sense of accomplishment (think cross-word puzzle).

When it comes to the menial work that we can easily pay someone else to do (e.g. cutting grass or shovelling snow) I think a lot of it comes down to the nature of imperfect markets for work negotiated between individuals. “Am I getting ripped off”, “will they do a good job”, “how do I complain”, “do I tip for exceptional work”, “will the work occur at inappropriate times”, “am I giving up some of my privacy”, are all questions that we face in these situations. Paying a neighbourhood kid to do the job is easier since it feels less like a negotiated contract and more like a “youth development project”.

The information available for other menial jobs, like changing the oil in your car, is more perfect. I am capable of changing the oil in my car but the fast oil change places address a couple of key pain points for me, especially crawling under the car and disposing of the waste oil. Ultimately, its not worth my time to change the oil myself.

So what about things like cooking, gardening, and photography? I think a great deal of it is social. The work itself does not have to be social but the outcomes often are. These are the stroke-sponge hobbies. There are many contributing factors like discovery but what ultimately drives these pursuits is the feeling of social belonging and the compliments we receive that reinforce our own self-image. We are all stroke-sponges in one way or another.

OTHERS: Wow. You change the oil in your car?

ME: Yup. Its easy. The hard part is refining my own oil to get just the right viscosity for the type of driving that I do.