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“Singing in a choir takes me to a joyful place”
Steve Mulley, 38, is a dance movement psychotherapist who lives in south London. Six years ago, he joined the Some Voices choir.

There’s nothing quite like singing your heart out in a choir as an audience of a thousand people clap and cheer you on. It gives you an incredible rush. Even if you’re not the greatest singer or you forget the words and have to mouth along – which happens to me from time to time – singing is wonderful for boosting your mood. I absolutely love it.
It was my sister Sarah who encouraged me to join the Some Voices choir. She’d just had her second baby and wanted a hobby that would force her out of the house and to focus on something other than being a mum for a couple of hours. She’d read about the choir in a newspaper and asked if I’d go with her for the first few sessions. I didn’t need much persuading. I’d done some singing and amateur dramatics when I was younger and was happy to give her some emotional support. I really didn’t have any expectation about it and had no idea it would become such a huge part of my life.

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I’ll never forget our first rehearsal. It was in a large church in central London (the choir is not religious but churches make great rehearsal rooms) and our first song was The Chain by Fleetwood Mac. For anyone who is afraid that they can’t sing, you don’t need to worry. None of the teaching is too technical, there’s no sheet music and it’s all done by ear. Even if you think you can’t hold a note (and in my experience, most people can) you can simply blend in with the other voices. No one will put you on the spot and make you sing a solo – although there are opportunities if you want to show off! I remember thinking that our teacher, Laura, was incredible. In just 2 hours she taught a room of people how to sing three-part harmonies. I was hooked.

Although my sister had to quit to focus on her family, the choir has become a really important part of my life and the weekly Tuesday rehearsals are a highlight of my week. There are Some Voices choirs all over the UK now and we practise the same songs each week so we can perform together at gigs. We have three gigs each term and they’re so much fun. We sing all kinds of songs, from Britpop to Hollywood hits and soundtracks from films. For gigs we dress up in costumes. One particularly memorable time, I opened the Christmas show dressed completely in drag, pulling tinsel out of my knickers! My parents were in the audience and let’s just say they were quite surprised – but it was very funny.

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“Singing can help your emotional health in so many ways. From a social perspective, I’ve made lifelong friends and during lockdown we arranged several Zoom social activities such as quizzes and cookery lessons.”

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There’s something very intimate about standing next to someone and singing. It takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you feel rather vulnerable but that improves your confidence. Singing itself, and particularly singing with other people is known to boost mood and it definitely makes me feel better. Over lockdown, Laura had to be creative because we couldn’t get together as usual.   We tried singing together over Zoom but she came up with a better solution; once a week she would record a YouTube tutorial for choir members on how to sing a song. We would then record ourselves singing at home, and the organisers put our videos together for people to watch us as one group. When I watch us all together, I miss the group, but still get the feel-good factor and a lovely feeling of togetherness.

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Work can be very stressful and exhausting, so the joy that choir brings helps me manage that much more effectively. I can go into another zone when I’m there. Choir has been a constant for me over the past 6 years, and it’s given me strength and joy through the ups and downs of life. It’s hard to feel down when you’re belting out the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet or a song from Rage Against the Machine! The songs and the arrangements we do are so uplifting, and it’s easy to get lost in them. At the same time, when you’re learning and performing songs, you have to be very present and mindful, which adds to the joy and the positivity. Singing is really good for you on an emotional level too. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve cried during a rehearsal because the music has been so beautiful or the song is moving. Once, we had to learn a song in Icelandic and as we all hit the high notes, I burst into tears as it was so amazing. We’ve had a few choir marriages so far and we’ve just had our first choir baby, which is lovely. I absolutely adore being part of it and encourage anyone to give it a go.

Some Voices presents 'Social Distant Sing'
Some Voices presents Romeo + Juliet at Troxy
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“I can spend hours absorbed in a mindful calligraphy project”
Tivina Elliott-James, 32, is a picture editor who lives in London. She has turned her passion for calligraphy into a business called Nibs & Notes.

Ahandwritten letter is rare these days. There are people in the younger generation who will have never even received one through the post and that’s such a shame. There is something unique and special about handwriting. It shows that someone has taken the time and effort to create something personal, just for you and that’s one of the reasons I get so much pleasure out of my own hobby.

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My passion for calligraphy started out of curiosity five years ago. Someone at work had a beautiful place card from a wedding on their desk. It was written in modern calligraphy, quite fluid and flowing and not like the traditional calligraphy we’re used to seeing (solid old-fashioned calligraphy used on newspaper titles). I was fascinated by it. I’ve always loved art and studied fine art at London’s Central Saint Martins, so I Googled calligraphy courses and found a one-day taster course in London. Although my own handwriting in normal everyday life is nothing special, I was bowled over by how beautiful it could look with calligraphy. I loved learning the techniques but one day was not enough. So, I signed up for a six-week night school in Covent Garden, which involved unlearning so much about my own handwriting and learning new strokes.

There’s a real rhythmic flow to calligraphy and you can’t help but slow down while you’re doing it. Because I’m working with my hands, it means I can’t be distracted by other things such as my phone or social media. I’m just as guilty as anyone of trying to do too many things at once but with calligraphy, you have to focus on the movement and creativity of the moment. It really helps give you clarity of thought. It’s a very mindful hobby and I can spend hours absorbed in a project. But other times, usually on a Sunday morning, I will set aside 20 minutes to turn on the radio, listen to some relaxing music and practise some calligraphy drills or experiment with new scripts and styles with the nibs and inks. So much of calligraphy requires muscle memory so if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Sometimes I even record videos of myself drawing the designs and post them on Instagram. People tell me they find it watching it hypnotic.

Calligraphy is like no other art form I’ve done before, such as photography or painting, and I love everything about it. I can spend a whole day in a stationary shop choosing new nibs, inks and papers. I enjoy using my imagination when it comes to the materials and I’ve done calligraphy on leaves and perfume bottles as well as paper.
It’s a hobby that not only boosts my wellbeing while I’m doing it but also afterwards. I do a lot of calligraphy for weddings, such as invitations, envelopes and even the vows. I design artwork of quotes that mean something special to individuals. I’ve written letters to people on the birth of their child and recently did one for a friend that simply said, “Nice warm hugs” because that’s what her three-year-old son says all the time. Knowing that someone else will derive pleasure out of something I’ve done is such a nice feeling. My writing can make memories tangible and transport them back to that place in time – that’s half the pleasure for me.

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Before I started training in the martial art of Kuk Sool Won [a Korean martial arts system], or KSW, there was no way you could have dragged me from my restaurant during working hours. In 40 years I’d never taken time off for anything else because work was so important to me.
But every Friday night at 6.15pm (before lockdown) I’d say to my staff that I was heading off for training and off I’d go for a couple of hours. My new hobby has not only helped me on the physical front but it has helped me mentally detach from work and focus on something else entirely. My friends and family are amazed at what a difference it’s made. They say I’m less stressed but mentally sharper and happier. I can sense a definite boost to my wellbeing.

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I’ve always been a very restless sort of person. I start something new, get bored very easily and then move on – I’m typical Gemini. But I’ve always liked to challenge myself and so just before my 65th birthday, last year, I decided I needed a new hobby. I’ve never seen age as a barrier and can’t understand people who think they’re too old at 60 – or even 50 – to try new things. I go to the gym and go hiking so I’m reasonably fit but I wanted something that would make me work harder mentally as well as physically. There was a club close to me running classes in KSW so I signed up. My wife Yellena was rather apprehensive, worried I’d get injured. But my first challenge wasn’t even in the class – it was walking up the 84 steps to the third floor where the class was held. I soon discovered the lift. But from the word go, I found KSW completely different to anything I’d tried before.

It’s quite a complex martial art involving body contact, kickboxing and a form of karate. Obviously, it’s helped my physical strength. I’m more flexible and stronger in my thighs, shoulders and upper body in particular, areas in which I’ve always felt weak. But the mental challenge has been as enjoyable as the physical one. Not only do you have to memorise up to 25 moves per form, you have to keep to the correct timing and synchronise with other members. There’s a lot of camaraderie and teamwork, which is great for mental health too. As I’m older than the majority of the class, I’m always pushing myself not to be last.

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Every three months you take a grading to work up to a new coloured belt. I’m currently working towards my blue belt so I’m at an intermediate level but I plan to continue and gain my black belt. I really missed the training during lockdown and working in the restaurant trade was difficult because we were closed for months. But training online kept me positive and gave me my spark. I even organised some training for a group of customers and my wife and daughter, and they all loved it. My instructor says that most people who gain their blue belt never look back and he’s right – this is one hobby I’m not going to grow bored of.

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“Martial arts training has made me less stressed and more focused”
Together with his wife Yellena, Marco Giannasi, 66, owns the Battlefield Rest, a restaurant in Glasgow.
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1. Would you prefer to exert your…
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A
Body
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B
Mind
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C
on your own
2. What did you enjoy when you were a child?
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A
Sport
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B
Reading/computing
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C
The arts
3. Do you like being…
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A
Out and about
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B
At home
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C
Either
4. Do you enjoy being…
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A
With others
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B
On your own
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C
Don’t mind
5. How much time can you devote to your hobby each day?
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A
More than half an hour
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B
No more than half an hour
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C
As long as it takes
6. What do you want to get out of your hobby?
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A
To feel energised
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B
To feel positive/
focused
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C
To express myself
How did you score?
Mostly As
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Mostly Bs
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Mostly Cs
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Wellbeing
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bY Jill Foster
Read time: 12 min Watch time: 3 min
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It’s official: hobbies make us happier and healthier. Here’s how to find the right passion project for you and some inspiration from those who are already involved in activities that light their fire.

There’s no greater satisfaction than spending your free time doing something you really love, whether you enjoy getting competitive in a sport, immersing yourself in a craft or doing something that provides a mental escape for a couple of hours each week. Research shows that spending our free time doing things we enjoy is beneficial for our health and wellbeing. It gives us a chance to decompress, get active, or make positive social connections – and engaging in just one creative activity a day can lead to a more positive state of mind. Whether it was baking banana bread or working out with Joe Wicks, many people took up a pastime during lockdown. According to one survey*, the top five lockdown hobbies were cooking and baking, gardening, reading, DIY and home workouts. Nearly a fifth of people asked said that lockdown is the first time they’d ever learnt a new skill or tried a new hobby, with 15% saying they tried mindfulness for the first time.
*Association of Enjoyable Leisure Activities With Psychological and Physical Well-Being, Psychosom Med, May 2010

“Attitudes towards mental wellbeing have shifted in the last decade, and there’s a more general acceptance that taking care of your mental health should be a priority”

Sarah Romotsky
Director of Healthcare Partnerships at Headspace.

“There’s also our busy lifestyles, always-on culture, and the social and political uncertainty, all of which means Brits are increasingly looking for new ways to quiet the mind.”
Hobbies are a proactive way to help support mental health, says Romotsky. “Taking up a new hobby, or rediscovering an old one, can have a positive effect on our wellness and increase feelings of pleasure such as happiness, joy, excitement, and enthusiasm. Pastimes can also fuel creativity.” But it is important to evaluate how much spare time you have before committing your time to something new. “While it is true that pastimes can have a great impact on our mental and physical health, it’s crucial to find that balance to avoid burn out,” says Sarah.

positive pastimes

Could taking up a new hobby work for you? If so, what should you choose?

case studies

Positive pastimes
Sonal Thakrar
Vitality Member
I am undergoing treatment for breast cancer at the moment, so I started teaching myself sketching. With Covid-19 I can’t have a chemotherapy buddy and it helps to keep me occupied; I like the channels by the artists Shayda Campbell and Christine Mylinh on YouTube. It’s a nice little thing to do during chemotherapy sessions and I use it as an active form of meditation. I also sketch when I have free time to stop me from having negative thoughts and it’s given me a great sense of achievement.
Lauren RaE
27, London
I’m a copy editor by day but I wrote my own book, I'm Not A Writer. It had always been a dream of mine to write a book that is ‘me’. It was like a therapy session, that I ended up publishing. I felt at ease putting all of my life problems down on paper because as I did so, it felt they were no longer an issue for me. They faded into the page and became the reader’s experience instead. It was very therapeutic.
Simone Desborough
27, Hertfordshire
I started an ethical and sustainable clothing company called Wild Fin as a passion project. I’m passionate about protecting the ocean and seeing marine life only in the wild, so 10% of all sales proceeds are donated to ocean charities. It's been an amazing creative outlet, outside of my day job as a graphic designer. When I was furloughed this year, it helped to give me a clear focus.
Meet the Experts
Sarah Romotsky

Sarah Romotsky, RD, is the Director of Healthcare at Headspace where she works to integrate mindfulness meditation into the healthcare environment to help improve the health and happiness of the world. Headspace specialises in providing authentic expertise in meditation and studying the science of meditation.

Vitality Benefit
Playing a sport is a passion for many - it’s a great way to exercise, improve mental health, socialise and build a sense of community - whatever your level, which is why we’re passionate about supporting grassroots sport. We partner with England Netball’s Back to Netball and England Hockey’s Back to Hockey programmes to encourage people to get back into sport.

VitalityHealth and VitalityLife members can get access to 30% off an annual subscription to meditation and mindfulness app Headspace. More details on this are in the MemberZone.
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