Doing something meaningful during your free time can help you feel less lonely, according to a new study.
Researchers led by Penn State University in Pennsylvania in the United States studied loneliness and leisure time amongst international college students and older adults.
They concluded that leisure activities involving some skill and concentration were less likely to make us lonely than passive, unchallenging activities like watching television.
Leisure without loneliness
Playing the piano, painting, chopping wood, writing and skiing are all examples of these more satisfying activities, the Penn State researchers suggest.
By engrossing us, mental or physical leisure activities like these put us in a state called ‘flow’, and this is the key to feeling less lonely.
“When we enter a state of flow, we become absorbed and focused, and we experience momentary enjoyment,” explains John Dattilo, professor of recreation, park, and tourism management at Penn State. We can also be surprised by how much time has passed when we leave our state of flow, he adds.
People will find flow in different leisure activities, depending on their interests and skills, the researchers say. Ideal flow activities demand quite a bit of skill – but can’t be so difficult that they seem impossible.
Do a leisure activity you enjoy
They also need to be meaningful – in that they’re activities we enjoy. Dattilo makes the point that nursing home residents who didn’t enjoy playing bingo when they were younger are unlikely to enjoy it now.
These flow activities that absorb and challenge us are even more effective at reducing loneliness than being around other people, the researchers found.
This is important in the context of the pandemic, when people were isolated because of lockdown restrictions.
Multiple studies have shown the negative impact of COVID-19 on mental health, including loneliness.
One study of people aged 50 and older from 26 European countries found those feeling more lonely were up to 10 times more at risk of depressed mood, anxiety symptoms and sleep problems.
In Australia, surveys of 2,000 people from 18 to 88 found many reporting that the quality and size of their friendships had shrunk. Even months after lockdown, the enduring feeling was of people withdrawing and having fewer social interactions.
Being in green spaces, and spending time with people who share our values can help reduce loneliness, mental health experts at King’s College London suggest.
Youth mental health
Mental health and wellbeing is a particular issue amongst young people and is often linked to conditions like poverty, social inequality, exposure to war and educational availability, according to the World Economic Forum.
It is calling for innovative solutions through its Youth Mental Health Challenge on UpLink, a digital platform launched by the Forum and its partners to crowdsource innovative solutions to the world’s biggest problems.
Victoria Masterson is Senior Writer, Formative Content