It’s common for people who would like to make changes to their drinking or other substance use to report that they feel boredom and disengagement in addition to persistent anxiety. Introducing healthy hobbies and engaging activities is therefore an important tool to make change.
Our largest cities are finally emerging from lockdown, but it will probably be a while before the full range of leisure activities are available to us. In the meantime, you’re probably looking for ways to pass the time — and some activities are better for your mental health than others.
A Netflix or Instagram binge might sometimes feel irresistible, but research shows that overindulging in activities like watching TV or browsing on social media can damage our health. These kinds of activities can be very passive and often don’t help us learn new skills or hobbies. Whilst we get a quick hit of dopamine from these activities, it doesn’t really change our state of mind in a way our brains need to feel better in the long term. Many people end up feeling like they’ve wasted their time, and report feeling more anxious and depressed the more time they spend scrolling.
If you reflect and feel you genuinely enjoy watching tv or the time you spend on TikTok, we’re not saying you should cut them out altogether — but try to be present and engage mindfully. For example, if you love TV mysteries, consider setting up a Crime Club with your friends and meeting monthly to discuss what you’ve watched. When you’re exhausted, that might sound like a lot of effort, but in the long run increasing your engagement will increase your energy.
The neuropsychology of ‘flow’
Creative, engaging activities are more likely to put us in a state known as ‘flow’, which induces a feeling of being completely absorbed in the present moment. We can probably all relate to having this experience this at some stage in our lives, even if only briefly — and how wonderful it can feel.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi began researching flow states in the 1970s and discovered that it wasn’t the absence of stress or challenge that generated life satisfaction, but absorbed focus on meaningful activity. He observed:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Steven Kotler, Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective suggests that when in a flow state, our brain waves transition from the faster-moving beta waves to the borderline between the slower alpha and theta waves. This neurobiological activity promotes creativity. Kotler also observes that when in flow, “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain charged with self-monitoring and impulse control—goes quiet. The DLPFC is our inner critic, that voice of doubt and disparagement.”
Positive psychology research backs up the suggestion that spending time on creative goals leads to improved experiences of mental health and is associated with feelings of joy, happiness, and optimism. Being creative can be a wellness solution. Alongside healthy eating, exercise, and sleep, including some form of creative activity in your life can be a potent mind body approach that you can add to your toolkit.
Activities for growth
So if activities designed for zoning out can be harmful, what kind of activities are good for us?
The authors of Increasing happiness in the general population: Empirically supported self-help suggest that some activities can help calm and soothe our nervous systems. Based on research, they identified three key criteria for beneficial activities:
- engagement and enjoyment
- ability to persevere.
Activities that meet these criteria are more likely to create a lasting change in life satisfaction.
So what are those activities? It’s different for everyone! Some ideas are:
- arts and crafts
- playing a musical instrument
- jigsaw puzzles
- sports and other movement-based activities
They key is to be creative, and the job is enjoyment!
Identify the barriers to creative enjoyment
If you don’t usually partake in the kind of structured leisure time activities like those we’ve suggested, have a think about why. If none of them sound engaging to you, that’s fine — think about identifying something that does.
If they do sound engaging, but you just never get around to doing them, why? Have a think about what stops you and what you could do to overcome that. For example:
- If you want to try ceramics but lack the expertise, sign up for a class.
- If you enjoy painting but never do it because you can’t face the mess of setting up (and cleaning up after), consider investing in an iPad and Apple Pencil.
- If you’d like to write but never seem to find the ‘right’ time, give yourself some structure — set up a dedicated time a couple of times a week, or join a creative writing group online or in your local community. If you’re not sure where to find one, your local library can probably help.
- If you never go to dance class because you’d rather spend time with your family, think about having family dance night.
If you’re not sure what sounds fun to you — try everything! Exploring what you find enjoyable is a worthy pursuit all on its own. Ask your friends and family to help you find a new hobby. The added benefit of this is that social connection has been shown solidly in the research to improve all facets of health, including reducing rates of depression and anxiety, strengthening our immune system, and even increasing our longevity.