Free time is unhealthy as it increases loneliness. So what is the flow needed to overcome loneliness? A new study from Penn State University shows that engaging in meaningful challenging activities during free time can reduce loneliness and increase positive feelings.
An international team of researchers including John Dattilo (professor of recreation, park, and tourism management at Penn State) found that people who had meaningful challenging experiences were less lonely – even when higher levels of social contact and support were not available.
TIME FLIES WHEN HAVING FUN
Noting that time drags when one is bored, Dattilo said that their research showed that people can reduce loneliness and increase momentary happiness when engaging in meaningful activities during free time that demand focus.
People of all ages, from children to adults feel loneliness. The COVID-19 pandemic, which caused many people to alter their social behaviour 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. It is associated with depression and other mental health challenges.”|
Pointing out that COVID-19 pandemic increased loneliness for many people, Dattilo said “there is a loneliness epidemic.” He pointed out that the pandemic also exposed the scope of the loneliness problem.
The researchers note that earlier 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.
FLOW REDUCES LONELINESS
According to the researchers, reduced loneliness is associated with engaging in enjoyable activities that require both concentration and skill. Dattilo explained that when people become engrossed in what they are doing, they enter a state that is called ‘flow, “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.” he said.
He explained that 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 possible, they showed that playing the piano or painting can induce flow. Similarly physical activities like skiing or chopping wood, along with mental activities such as writing or storytelling can also induce flow. However, he noted that the flow differs from person to person based on individual skills and values.
Once a person enters a state of flow he or she becomes absorbed and focused and experience momentary enjoyment. When we leave a state of flow, we are often surprised by how much time has passed,” he said.
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,
Another way to reduce loneliness is to get social support from friends and acquaintances, who are a primary way to 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 Dattuo.