Seeking happiness during lockdown? Here’s some practical advice: pursue meaningful activities

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  • With lockdown in place in many parts of the world, researchers are trying to figure out the best ways we can be happy in isolation
  • Latest research from researchers of psychology offer positive encouragement: forget engaging in 'productive' activities, and simply do what makes you happy
  • Based on their findings, following this advice could potentially ensure greater wellbeing

It’s safe to say that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and consequent lockdown have badly affected our mental health, leaving us with a rollercoaster of emotions and feelings – from sadness and anger to fear and loneliness.

And simply keeping yourself busy by engaging in activities that you don’t necessarily enjoy will only be to your own detriment, say researchers of a new study. Instead, if you want to feel satisfied, and more importantly, happy, then you should pursue “meaningful activities” – in other words, things you truly enjoy doing.

The findings, published in PLOS ONE, indicate that we’re better off doing what we love and adapting these activities to fit in with physical distancing, such as swapping our regular morning walk with friends for a zoom fitness session.

If you try to maintain your level of activity by doing mindless "busywork", for instance, it will only leave you unsettled and unsatisfied, explained the researchers.

Co-author Dr Lauren Saling, a lecturer in the department of psychology at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said while people have tried their hand at new activities, such as baking and painting during this time, there is more benefit in trying to continue what we enjoyed before lockdown.

"Busyness might be distracting but it won't necessarily be fulfilling," Saling said in a news release by the university. "Rather, think about what activities you miss most and try and find a way of doing them."

Substitute meaningless activities with ones you enjoyed before lockdown

The researchers conducted a survey, asking participants to rate their level of wellbeing as it was during lockdown and retrospectively one month before this occurred.

Participants also indicated how much time they spent engaged in various activities and ranked how important each activity was for them.

Although participants reported feeling more positive emotions while doing novel "meaningless" activities, such as binge-watching TV, they also felt more negative emotions. Essentially, they felt unhappy just as much as they felt happy, the researchers said.

However, when these activities were substituted for activities enjoyed before lockdown, such as dining with friends via a virtual alternative, participants’ positive and negative emotions were found to be more subdued.

Why might we be feeling this way?

Saling explained that busyness riles you up, prompting you to change your behaviour, but meaningful activity – doing what you enjoy – calms you down.

“Extreme emotions are not necessarily a good thing,” she said, adding: 

“Emotions are a mechanism to make you change your behaviour. But when you’re doing what you love, it makes sense that you feel more balanced – simply keeping busy isn’t satisfying.”

Some participants who kept busy with mindless tasks also reported feeling more frustrated and, even when they were happy, felt less fulfilled.

Current study challenges certain assumptions

According to Saling, their study challenges assumptions that we can stave off sadness by keeping busy.

“Respondents who simply stayed busy during lockdown reported an increase in both positive and negative emotions. This heightened emotionality will tend to shift you away from activity in general and towards meaningful activity,” said Saling.

Another interesting finding was that the biggest change in positive emotions before and during lockdown was experienced by people under the age of 40 years, which Saling explained was likely because it was harder for that age group to successfully substitute meaningful activities into a lockdown context.

READ | Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus crisis

READ | Anxiety, overeating and under-exercising - the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown on SA

READ | Mental health effects of Covid-19 pandemic, lockdown - and concern over suicide risk

Image credit: Unsplash

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