How to reduce loneliness: Meaningful activities can improve health, well-being

April 10, 2022

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How to reduce loneliness: Meaningful activities can improve health, well-being

Loneliness is the world’s greatest killer, as many studies have shown over the last few years. And it is on the increase (and was long before Covid). It is this that makes this study so interesting and important.

Another thing that recent research has shown is that free time, which is sometimes idealized, can often be unhealthy and increase the sense of loneliness. Now, this new study has demonstrated that engaging in meaningful, challenging activities during free time can reduce people's loneliness and increase their positive feelings.

Across two different studies, the researchers found that people who had meaningful, challenging experiences were less lonely — even when higher levels of social contact and support were not available.  

What the researchers say: “There is a well-known saying: ‘Time flies when you are having fun,’” said the lead researcher. “The unspoken corollary is that time drags when you are bored. Our research shows that both of these ideas are true. By engaging in meaningful activities during free time that demand focus, people can reduce loneliness and increase momentary happiness.”

Loneliness touches people of all ages, from children to young adults to older adults. The COVID-19 pandemic, which caused many people to alter their social behavior to prevent the spread of disease, exacerbated the problem of loneliness around the world.

“Loneliness is very connected to our health,” the researchers explained. “Psychological, emotional, and cognitive health are all challenged when people are lonely. Loneliness is associated with depression and other mental health challenges.” In addition, loneliness affects the immune system and can lead to illness and death.

“Troublingly,” the lead author added, “there is a loneliness epidemic. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has increased loneliness for many people, the silver lining is that the pandemic has also exposed the scope of the loneliness problem. Anything we can do as a society to reduce loneliness should improve health and happiness for people everywhere.”

According to the researchers, reduced loneliness is associated with engaging in enjoyable activities that require both concentration and skill.

“When people become engrossed in what they are doing, they enter a state that is called ‘flow,’” they explained. “Flow can be achieved by engaging in mental or physical activities that we value and that require us to concentrate fully to use our skills.”

For people to achieve a state of flow, an activity must require a good deal of their skill but not be so difficult that it seems impossible. Additionally, it must demand concentration to execute and be meaningful to the participant. Artistic endeavors like playing the piano or painting can induce flow. So can physical activities like skiing or chopping wood, along with mental tasks like writing or storytelling. What induces flow differs from person to person based on individual skills and values.  

“When we enter a state of flow, we become absorbed and focused, and we experience momentary enjoyment,” they continued. “When we leave a state of flow, we are often surprised by how much time has passed.”

People with extensive free time — like college students who are locked down during a pandemic, or people who live in a nursing home — can achieve flow when they engage in activities they find to be meaningful. In this way, time passes quickly for them, their life has meaning, and their experience of loneliness is reduced.

Social support from friends and acquaintances is a primary way that people reduce loneliness. For many people, however, obtaining adequate social support can be challenging. Though the researchers found that students with high levels of social support were less lonely, they found that flow was even more important to reducing loneliness. Helping people achieve flow can reduce loneliness in situations where social support is insufficient. More importantly, it can reduce loneliness for people in any situation.  

Some activities never induce flow, while other activities may or may not, depending on the individual. Additionally, different people find different activities meaningful and enjoyable. For example, nursing home residents are unlikely to enjoy playing bingo if they did not enjoy similar games when they were younger.

So, what? In my observations of hunter-gatherers, what I found was that hunting and gathering were regarded as “fun” activities as well as being important. They were also social activities. In fact, practically everything they did was social. Loneliness was unknown to them. Many subsequent researchers have come to the same conclusion.

We are becoming more “connected” and less social. Facebook “friends” are not real friends. Virtual meetings do not serve the same social purpose as in-person meetings. They do not reduce loneliness. Our world is becoming “dehumanized” to the detriment of us all. The pandemic has only accelerated the process.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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