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

Free time is sometimes idealized, but research shows free time can sometimes be unhealthy by increasing loneliness. A new Penn State study demonstrated that engaging in meaningful, challenging activities during free time can reduce people’s loneliness and increase their positive feelings.

An international team of researchers including John Dattilo — professor of recreation, park, and tourism management at Penn State — has been studying how to increase leisure and reduce loneliness during the pandemic among both international college students and older adults.

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.

“There is a well-known saying: ‘Time flies when you are having fun,'” said Dattilo. “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 and the pandemic

Despite — or perhaps in part because of — technology that can connect people anywhere at any time, previous research has shown that loneliness has increased over recent decades.

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,” Dattilo explained. “Psychological, emotional, and cognitive health are all challenged when people are lonely. Loneliness is associated with depression and other mental health challenges.”

“Troublingly,” continued Dattilo, “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.”

In a new article that appears in Leisure Sciences, the researchers explored loneliness among international university students in Taiwan. The same research team also published an article about reducing loneliness among nursing home residents late in 2021.

Prior research has shown that loneliness among international university students is common around the world. International students are removed from their social networks and live in a different culture, often one that speaks a different language. Typically, international students can prevent loneliness by participating in social activities to receive ‘social support,’ the sense that they are cared for by the people with whom they socialize. During the pandemic, however, many group-based activities and social gatherings have been cancelled or prohibited.

Additionally, the researchers identified that the online social opportunities that became available in the pandemic may be less accessible to international students because of language and cultural differences.

Flow reduces loneliness

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,'” Dattilo 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,” Dattilo 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, according to the researchers.

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.

Encouraging flow for everyone

Some activities never induce flow, while other activities may or may not, depending on the individual. According to Dattilo, there is nothing wrong with watching television, but, typically, it does not help people enter a state of flow because they are unlikely to experience any challenges. Additionally, different people find different activities meaningful and enjoyable. Nursing home residents are unlikely to enjoy playing bingo if they did not enjoy similar games when they were younger, said Dattilo.

“Learning which activities might enable someone to enter a state of flow requires asking questions and listening,” said Dattilo. “People tend to thrive on healthy engagement and challenge. My collaborators and I hope that this research will help people live fuller, happier, healthier lives.”

This research was funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology in Taiwan. Liang-Chih Chang of National Open University in New Taipei City, Taiwan was the lead author of this research. Pei-Chun Hseih of Brock University in Ontario, Canada and Fei-Hsin Huang of Lungwha University of Science and Technology in Taoyuan City, Taiwan also contributed to this research.

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