Keeping busy won’t cure pandemic ups and downs. There’s a better way, psychologists say.

January 14, 2021

Staying busy might add to pandemic stress. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Amid coronavirus lockdowns last spring, those who kept busy simply for the sake of doing so experienced heightened emotions — both negative and positive — versus those who pursued meaningful activities, according to new research.

In a new study published Dec. 31 in PLOS One, researchers Daniel Cohen of Charles Sturt University and Lauren Saling of RMIT University examined the factors that might predict how well people fared during the early stages of COVID-19 lockdowns. 

The research team sought to determine whether changes in behavior as a result of social-distancing practices would predict changes in well-being. Cohen told The Academic Times that the authors predicted that being more active overall or engaging in activities that were most meaningful to the participants would have the greatest impact on well-being.

But they found that both positive and negative affectivity, referring to the emotions or feelings that people experience and display, decreased with increased engagement in meaningful activities during social distancing, and that both positive and negative affectivity increased when an individual increased their overall busyness. 

Cohen said it was a surprising finding that increased busyness overall, no matter the activity, predicted more positive and negative emotions. The busier a person was relative to how they were before lockdown, the more emotional they were found to be with respect to both positive and negative emotions.

Using a recruited sample of 95 Australian adults who had engaged in some form of social distancing, Cohen and Saling surveyed participants about their behavior and affective states during May and June 2020, and asked them to recall the same variables from approximately one month before the initial COVID-19 lockdowns.

For both time periods, the participants rated 19 activities on how frequently they participated in them and how meaningful the activities were to them. The activities measured included time spent outside the home, online social interaction, child care, reading, exercising, listening to music, shopping, cleaning, employment-based work and doing nothing.

The participants also reported their demographics and health conditions and rated themselves on a series of well-being variables, including depression, anxiety, panic, loneliness, crying, cheerfulness, contentedness and laughter.

A second surprising finding in the study, according to Cohen, was that when people participated in activities that they found meaningful during lockdown, their overall levels of both positive and negative affectivity diminished. Although the researchers predicted that negative affect would decrease with an increase in meaningful activity, they did not expect that positive affect would also decrease.

“Instead of thinking about these positive and negative emotions as an endpoint, we’re thinking maybe we should rather think of them as a means to an end,” Cohen said.

If some people are feeling more emotions as they keep busy, that may “shake up” the individual and reorient their behavior, Cohen said. And if others are seeing their emotions diminished when they engage in activities that they find meaningful, they may end up in a more stable state. 

The researchers hypothesized that in the context of a lockdown scenario, emotions are functioning as a mechanism to guide individuals toward meaningful behavior. For those who increased their levels of busyness, this mechanism would have the effect of prompting them to try alternative activities. However, for those who increased activities which they found meaningful, this mechanism would have the effect of stabilizing their behavior.

“If you’re busy, but you’re not really latching on to stuff which is really meaningful to you, it’s unsettling,” Cohen said. “If you then fine-tune your lifestyle toward activities meaningful to you, what you’ll see is your emotions will settle down, and you’re not feeling intense positive emotions or intense negative emotions.”

The findings of the study suggest that meaningful activity is good for an individual, Cohen said, and that emotional stability is the mechanism that guides them toward that state.

According to the authors of the paper, a number of studies investigating the psychological impact of social distancing are measuring well-being at just one point in time. But the current study diversified the data by measuring the well-being of the sample at multiple points in time. It also conducted a broad measure of psychological well-being as opposed to focusing solely on negative dimensions such as loneliness, anxiety and depression. 

For future research on the topic, Cohen and Saling suggested further investigation into whether increasing meaningful activities enhance evaluations of life satisfaction. A longitudinal study that surveys the same sample of people every few months as the pandemic continues to unfold and social distancing practices change would also be beneficial. 

“Given that COVID-19 returns in waves, the psychological impacts of social distancing will persist over time and may indeed become accentuated with repeated iterations of social distancing,” the authors said in the paper. “It is therefore critical to understand the factors that support well-being during social distancing.”

The study, “Increased meaningful activity while social distancing dampens affectivity; mere busyness heightens it: Implications for well-being during COVID-19,” was published in PLOS One on Dec. 31. It represented a collaboration between Daniel Cohen of Charles Sturt University and Lauren Saling of RMIT University. They were the lead authors of the paper. Morgan Luck, of Charles Sturt University, and Atousa Hormozaki, of RMIT University, also served as co-authors.

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