During Lockdown, Meaningful Activity Is More Fulfilling Than Simply Staying Busy

By Emily Reynolds

It’s not hard to find ways to stay busy during lockdown. Yes, many of us are spending lots of time at home and have evenings and weekends free from almost any kind of social activity — but we’re also juggling work, chores, childcare, life admin and the various emotional demands of living through a global pandemic.

For some, in fact, staying busy has been an appealing prospect; indeed, hundreds of articles have been written with ideas on how to stay busy and distracted during the boredom of lockdown. But a new study from a team at Australia’s RMIT University, published in PLOS ONE, suggests that meaningful activity, rather than simply busyness, may be the way to stay emotionally stable during this period.

All 95 participants were adults engaging in some form of social distancing. After sharing demographic data, participants rated themselves on a number of wellbeing measures, both as they were at the time of the study and as they were one month before the start of social distancing. These measures covered anxiety, panic, loneliness, depression, crying, cheerfulness, contentedness and laughter. Through these measures, the team was able to measure change in both positive and negative affect.

Participants also indicated how much time they had spent on various activities before and during social distancing, including being outside the home, talking online and off, engaging with childcare or other chores, working, watching TV, reading or other creative pursuits, and doing nothing. Participants also indicated how important they felt each activity was to them.

When, during lockdown, participants began to engage in more activities they found meaningful, they saw a reduction in both positive and negative affect. But increased busyness with activities participants didn’t consider important was related to increases in both positive and negative mood.

At first glance, this seems to suggest that busyness is more desirable overall — you might be crying more, but you’re also laughing, right? The team thinks not. Instead, they argue that the extremes induced by busy but meaningless activity suggests participants were unsettled and unable to regulate their emotions. In other words, while busyness can make you feel more agitated and therefore prone to mood swings, meaningful activity is more likely to calm you down, soothing both extremes.

As senior author Lauren Saling puts it, “extreme emotions are not necessarily a good thing… when you’re doing what you love, it makes sense that you feel more balanced – simply keeping busy isn’t satisfying.”

There are some obvious limitations to the work — for one, the fact that participants had to recall how they felt a month before lockdown started. It’s easy to imagine that at least some participants would have been unable to accurately recall how they felt, perhaps even romanticising fairly mundane activities which they were, at that point, barred from doing. And away from individual emotions, how much were lockdown activities impacting general life satisfaction?

We’re now nearly a year into various kinds of lockdown, so it’s easy to look at studies like this and beat yourself up, especially if you’re spending more time aimlessly playing video games than engaging in activities you know you’d probably find more meaningful. We’re all doing what we can to cope with distressing (and incredibly tedious) circumstances — but trying to balance meaning and mindlessness might be one way for us all to do that better.

Increased meaningful activity while social distancing dampens affectivity; mere busyness heightens it: Implications for well-being during COVID-19

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest