‘You’ve not been studying AGAIN, have you?’: Why ‘special interests’ are genuinely good for you

Studying at the weekend

‘You’ve not been studying again, have you?’

That’s a question I get asked a lot by friends. When they ask me what I’ve done at the weekend. I tell them: I’ve been writing essays, reading books, creating blog posts, and working on my positive psychology diploma.

They give me a look of despair and shake their heads, the implication being that the weekend is patently NOT for having your head in a book. I’m sure people aren’t being mean. I believe they’re genuinely perplexed by the idea of choosing to study in your free time. 

For some people I know, weekends are for gardening, painting, reading a novel, going for a long hike, or baking. Spending the weekend deliberately and actively learning sounds like hell on earth. I get it.

An image of a laptop with a positive psychology paper on the screen - Becci's notebook and pens are in front of the laptop

But I have spent a good chunk of my weekend studying, I tell them. I study every weekend. And this is why: my ‘special interests’ are good for me.

My special interests

As an autistic person, I have ‘special interests’ – topics that I always want and need to know more about. My current special interests are autistic burnout, positive psychology and theories of enthusiasm.

When I was a kid, my special interests were dinosaurs, Kylie Minogue, astronomy, horses, computer programming, the Spice Girls, foreign languages and the pop group Steps. (I’m still utterly overjoyed by Steps!)

Album cover to 'What The Future Holds' by Steps - all five band members dressed in black in front of the word 'Steps'

I find that sitting down to immerse myself fully and mindfully in a topic that fascinates me is intensely healing and relaxing. 

My special interests are very important to me – not just because I find the topics fascinating but because my research suggests that my special interests are good for me. 

My research reveals that immersing yourself in your special interests could be protective against burnout and protective against ill-being. 

In my life, there are two clear ways in which this happens. 1) Special interests put me into a flow state. 2) Special interests help me to live authentically.

Special interests put me into flow

In positive psychology, flow is when:

  • You have intense, focused concentration in the here-and-now
  • You’re not aware of yourself, and you ‘become one’ with the activity
  • You lose your sense of time
  • You have control within the situation
  • You’re doing something intrinsically rewarding (you like it!)
  • Your skills and the level of challenge are aligned

Flow is associated with good mood, the development of skills, personal growth, enjoyment and self-efficacy (belief you can do something) (see Csikszentmihályi’s extensive work on flow). 

When I’m reading about positive psychology and scribbling out new theories and frameworks by hand, it’s like time stops – I feel powerful and capable…I feel like what I am doing matters. That I matter. I feel happy.

Special interests help me to be myself

As well as the positive effects of flow, getting stuck into my passions helps me to be unashamedly authentic. My special interests allow me to be fully me. 

Being fully and unashamedly myself is vital to my well-being – being yourself is the opposite of masking. 

Masking is an exhausting process where autistic people self-monitor and self-regulate to make their behaviour match what society expects. 

Masking is associated with depression, anxiety, exhaustion, burnout, and even suicidality (Raymaker, 2020). 

Being able to ‘take off the mask’ and do the things that naturally draw you in – regardless of what others think – is restorative and life-giving. I actually ‘prescribe’ immersion in special interests to people who tell me they’re burnt out.

In positive psychology, being yourself is associated with good outcomes. In his book ‘Authentic’, Stephen Joseph (2021) says that authenticity is the key to a happy life.

The cover of Stephen Jones' book, authentic. The colour is covered with multicoloured fingerprints.

Stephen Jones (2021) explains that, to be authentic, you have to know yourself, own yourself and be yourself. By choosing a passion to lose myself in, I’m knowing, owning and being myself.

My special interests, therefore, are a path to the happy life. Studying at the weekend is in alignment with who I am. My actions are congruent with my strengths and values.

When I study, the mask comes off. And it feels good.

Everyone should pursue their interests

Although a lot of my blog posts are about positive psychology and neurodiversity, almost every piece of advice I give is good for ANYONE.

It is sometimes said that what is necessary for autistic people is just good practice for all.

I believe everyone would benefit from spending more time on their passions. With that in mind…

Are you struggling to do enough of the things that enrich you and make you happy?

The things we schedule are the things that actually happen.

Choose an activity you love. Got it? Ok. Open your calendar now and schedule 45 minutes to do this activity within the next seven days. Book it in and commit to it. You’ll thank yourself later!

Thanks for reading,

Becci

PS If you found this post helpful, please share it so that more people can understand the benefits of pursuing their special interests.

PPS If you like my writing and think this platform is important, please consider “buying me a coffee” to help me keep the website running. I appreciate all your support!

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Joseph, S. (2021) Authentic. London: Piatkus.

Raymaker, D. M., Teo, A. R., Steckler, N. A., Lentz, B., Scharer, M., Delos Santos, A., Kapp, S. K., Hunter, M., Joyce, A., & Nicolaidis, C. (2020). “Having All of Your Internal Resources Exhausted Beyond Measure and Being Left with No Clean-Up Crew”: Defining Autistic Burnout. Autism in Adulthood2(2), 132–143. https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2019.0079