Doing these kinds of activities will be a game changer for your happiness

The COVID-19 pandemic has left a series of holes in all of our lives. The activities, hobbies, and events we all took for granted not so long ago have been replaced with lockdown orders, contact-tracing, and social distancing guidelines. All of these measures are undoubtedly necessary, but that hasn’t made it any easier for so many among us to adapt to our new reality.

It’s been repeated time and time over the past year that we should all do our best to “stay busy” while locked down at home. So, in pursuit of something to fill those holes, people have tried anything and everything to stay preoccupied at home.

From redecorating the living room and cleaning every inch of the house, to baking more muffins than anyone could eat, we’ve all attempted to cope in our own way.

But, does “busy work” really lead to satisfaction and well-being? Probably not, according to a new study just released by RMIT University. Australian researchers report that pursuing “meaningful activities,” or hobbies you enjoyed before the pandemic, while locked down at home will invoke far more contentment and satisfaction than simply staying busy.

Moreover, study authors say that engaging in mindless busy work all day will only leave you feeling more annoyed and unsatisfied. 

Now, many of the activities we all enjoyed pre-COVID just can’t happen right now. In these cases, researchers suggest adapting what you love to do to conform to social distancing guidelines. If you used to love getting together with friends to work out, consider setting up a Zoom exercise session with your old workout partners. Perhaps you were just starting to learn jiu-jitsu before the pandemic emerged. While training with others is probably out of the question right now, you can still watch instruction videos online and practice with a mat at home.

No one is saying these makeshift solutions will be as satisfying as actually working out with friends or rolling around on a jiu-jitsu mat with an experienced teacher. That being said, you’ll likely feel much better after finding a way to do what you love as opposed to dusting off your bedroom shelves or starting a jigsaw puzzle. It all comes down to finding ways to still pursue the activities we find personally meaningful and rewarding.

Look, if you’ve been meaning to rearrange your closet or start playing Monopoly again, by all means, go for it. Chances are, we’ll all have enough time to engage in both personally meaningful activities and busywork. What the research team here is saying is that only meaningful activities will leave you feeling legitimately content and like you achieved something.

“Busyness might be distracting but it won’t necessarily be fulfilling,” says study co-lead author Dr. Lauren Saling in a release. “Rather, think about what activities you miss most and try and find a way of doing them.”

For this research, participants reported their level of well-being during 2020 lockdowns to researchers, as well as their retrospective well-being around a month before lockdowns began. Study subjects were also asked to make a list of the activities they usually engaged in the most under normal circumstances, and rank each activity in terms of importance.

Here’s where things get interesting. When asked about meaningless lockdown activities like binge-watching TV, participants reported feeling more positive emotions and more negative emotions. In short, such actions left them feeling just as happy as sad/unsatisfied. 

This is a finding ripe for further exploration. We’ve all been quick to reach for the remote during this pandemic, and while watching TV and movies for hours on end is entertaining in the moment, it will often leave the viewer with a sense of emptiness once those final credits start rolling.

Conversely, when participants found ways to still engage in meaningful activities at home, both their positive and negative emotions remained subdued. This finding may confuse some, but study authors clarify that when we embark on an activity we love, it often calms us more than anything else.

“Extreme emotions are not necessarily a good thing,” Dr. Saling explains. “Emotions are a mechanism to make you change your behavior. But when you’re doing what you love, it makes sense that you feel more balanced – simply keeping busy isn’t satisfying.”

Finally, participants who reported taking on a whole lot of mindless busywork during lockdown actually ended up feeling more frustrated than anyone else. Even when these individuals said they felt happy, they still didn’t feel fulfilled.

“The study showed positive and negative affect worked together, not as opposites,” Dr. Saling concludes. “Respondents who simply stayed busy during lockdown reported an increase in both positive and negative emotions.”

Even before the coronavirus became an awful reality, people would frequently attempt to do away with any lingering sadness or emptiness in their lives by “staying busy.” The idea being one can’t be sad or depressed if they’re literally on the move and busy all day every day. It makes a certain degree of sense in theory, but these findings are further proof that no one can find meaning in life simply by keeping themselves preoccupied. There has to be some substance or passion behind what you’re doing.

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE.