I think one of the most predictive features for personal happiness is whether you have high-quality hobbies. My friends and acquaintances with hobbies seem consistently happier and more fulfilled than those without, independent of other factors like job satisfaction, financial success, and physical health.
“Hobby” here means an independently pursued activity, usually with some kind of skill progression. This definition is broad by design—I think almost anything can become a high-quality hobby. Hobbies have some kind of activity or production involved: passively consuming media is not a high-quality hobby, though consuming media to critique it can be. Some kind of skill progression is often important, like improving my deadlift by 50 pounds, or becoming a passable painter, or growing my blog’s readership by 10%.
Work can replicate the positive effects of a good hobby in specific circumstances. In particular, I think you need to be meaningfully invested in the success of the company. I see this amongst my founder friends—who are obviously more invested than most, both emotionally and financially, in their company’s success.
For those who are (un?)lucky enough to not be founders, hobbies are an important forcing function towards a healthy work-life balance. Why wouldn’t you work 12 hours a day if you don’t need your mental or physical energy for any other pursuits? Hobbies are also, I think, psychologically grounding. Most of us spend the majority of our time in service to others—bosses, friends, family. Only in pursuing hobbies do we have absolute freedom of choice, in both what we do and how we choose to do it. And what does it say about us if we freely choose to veg out and pursue nothing?
I sprint competitively to maximize my physical potential and see what my body can do. I read and write to satisfy my curiosity and synthesize ideas. I build side projects to have a sandbox to learn within. All of these have made me happier and more fulfilled on both short- and long-term timescales.
Most hobbies have communities of devoted practitioners. It’s a great way to meet people with similar interests—I’ve met lifelong friends across the various communities I’ve joined.
An objection I’ve heard is that with a whole world of possibilities to choose from, it’s impossible to elevate one or two above the rest. But most decisions are reversible—just pick something, anything, for a month, and see how it goes. You can always decide it’s not for you and try something else.
Having one or two well-developed hobbies is causally related with personal fulfillment and happiness. Spend time honing a craft or skill, and you’ll find yourself with better work-life balance and involved in a like-minded community.