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Can meaningful activities during social distancing protect mental health?

A recent study examined the effects of engaging in meaningless versus meaningful activities on levels of wellbeing during social distancing.

Psychologists have been concerned about the potential negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s wellbeing.

Some have suggested, for instance, that the fear of acquiring the COVID-19 virus may have serious psychological consequences. Other scientists, however, have noted that the effects of social distancing may further impact wellbeing.

In recent months, several such studies have emerged examining how social distancing has been associated with psychological distress, anxiety, and loneliness. Although important, these studies are limited because they have only implemented a measure of wellbeing at one point in time.

To address this issue, a team of scientists from Australia designed a study asking participants to report on their wellbeing both during social distancing and with the benefit of hindsight – looking back to the month before the social distancing began. The researchers were particularly interested in the types of activities participants engaged in before and during the pandemic. Participants were asked to report how long they had been engaged in these activities, and how important these activities were for them.

The results of the study were published in Plos ONE. A total of 95 people over the age of 18, who were engaged in some form of social distancing, participated in this study. The scientists discovered that when engaged in more meaningful activity, participants were more likely to see a reduction in both positive and negative feelings.

The researchers explain that these results contradicted their initial expectations, since a reduction in negative affect (experiencing negative emotions or feelings) was not accompanied by an increase in positive affect (experiencing positive emotions or feelings). Thus, while other studies have assumed such a correlation, when examining only one factor of feeling, these findings show that indeed a different scenario has occurred.

Another finding that the scientists reported was an increase in both types of affectivity when participants engaged in more activity in general. The researchers explained that this phenomenon is observed when a person is trying to re-orient themselves towards a different behavior. On the other hand, engagement in meaningful activity, which decreased both types of affect, is believed to be an activity-maintaining mechanism. Thus, when a decrease in affect occurs, so do the rewards for either decreasing or increasing the behavior.

The researchers point out that meaningful activities in life do not necessarily generate positive feelings, as they are not always necessarily enjoyable. In this way, one may say that a drive towards meaning is not equal to a drive towards positive feelings. Rather, it is possible that a positive feeling acts to drive the person towards more meaningful activities.

As the study relied on the participant’s recalling their experiences, it is possible that some errors did occur in the results. Nevertheless, the findings do contribute to our understanding of the psychological effects of social distancing. Given that social distancing may be enacted following each new wave of COVID-19, it is important to increase our knowledge of its effects.

Written by Maor Bernshtein

Reference: Cohen, D. B., Luck, M., Hormozaki, A., & Saling, L. L. (2020). Increased meaningful activity while social distancing dampens affectivity; mere busyness heightens it: Implications for well-being during COVID-19. Plos One, 15(12).

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

Maor Bernshtein
Maor Bernshtein
Maor is currently working on his BSc in psychology from York University in Toronto, Canada. He is interested in psychological research and likes to analyze results and apply them to everyday life. Maor has previously volunteered for The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and is passionate about bringing psychological knowledge back to the people. He hopes that others can benefit from psychological insights through his work and improve their overall life and well-being.


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