Tag Archives: Well-being

Solitude during the pandemic had positive effects on our well-being, not just negative ones

The pandemic and lockdowns during these last two years have caused major changes in all of our lives. But not all of the consequences have been negative. According to new research, experiencing solitude has been one of the surprising net sources of wellbeing during this time.

Solitude is often looked down upon as just another word for ‘loneliness’. However, having time for ourselves, by ourselves, is a very important element in our personal development and wellbeing. Although thrust upon us in an unfortunate set of circumstances, experiencing the pandemic and associated lockdowns has, nevertheless, given many people around the world the context they needed to experience solitude.

Although not all descriptions of solitude that made part of this study were positive, they outweighed the ones that were negative, the authors explain. Overall, the findings suggest that people of all ages can recognize solitude as something that can benefit our well-being.

Time for ourselves

“We often stigmatise solitude and confuse it with loneliness. But when we do that, we lose the benefit of understanding and then pursuing the benefits of time we spend alone,” explains Dr. Netta Weinstein, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Reading and lead author of the paper, for ZME Science .

“If we can focus on the positives, we can think about how to try out more of those kinds of experiences and activities that make our time alone peaceful, rewarding, and less lonely.”

The study used data submitted by more than 2000 participants, ranging from teenagers to adults. These participants were recruited as part of three representative samples of the UK population and were selected on the basis of age, gender, and geographic location. The participants included 1,001 adolescents aged 13-16, 523 adults aged 25-51, and 511 older adults aged 59-85.

The study looked at the benefits of solitude in several aspects. For example, one benefit of solitude is that it frees us from concerns regarding “social niceties”. Another would be that it gives us an opportunity to act autonomously, and yet another that it allows us to develop our personalities and abilities.

All in all, adolescents reported little interest in the autonomy aspect of solitude but were excited about the opportunity to increase their competence and grow as individuals. Out of all groups, they also expressed feeling the least disruption caused by solitude. The adults were most invested in the self-growth and competence aspects of solitude and reported focusing on acquiring new or developing existing skills to feel more effective. Unlike the adolescent group, they were very keen to develop and benefit from their autonomy during the lockdowns. Older adults were less interested in the competence aspect of solitude than those in the ‘adults’ group, much less keen on self-growth, but put a high price on the autonomy they experienced due to solitude during this time.

While adolescents overall were the least likely to experience disruptions in their lives caused by solitude, and the most likely to experience feelings of interpersonal connection during this time, adults were the most likely to report disruptions in their well-being during the lockdowns. The paper reports that “working-age adults recorded the most negative experiences” during this time out of all three groups.

However, the authors caution that the data was collected during the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, and as such, these results may not be generalizable over the whole pandemic. That being said, they’re still a reliable indicator of the potential benefits of solitude.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say there are benefits of the pandemic or its lockdowns” Dr. Weinstein explained for ZME Science. “However, what we see is that while lockdowns were understandably difficult for some, others appreciated the opportunity to slow down. They embraced the chance to spend time on simple at-home activities such as baking or crafting, and appreciated getting to know their local green spaces.”

I asked her why adults, in particular, have reported the most negative experiences related to the solitude of the pandemic. Dr. Weinstein believes this comes down to the pressures and stresses the restrictions placed on their day-to-day lives — disruptions in careers, uncertainty regarding the future, and increased responsibilities for children who spent more time at home — coloring their perception of this solitude. Furthermore, this demographic was the most likely to have their usual opportunities for alone-time, a crucial element of well-being, disrupted. For example, they lost those small moments they could take for themselves during their commute or breaks at work, which takes a toll over a longer period of time.

“These stressors may have interrupted their positive solitude time. On the other hand, even working-age adults reported many positive experiences during their time alone,” she adds.

As a last thought, Dr. Weinstein cautions that our experience during the pandemic is not a perfect representation of solitude in general. This particular opportunity for solitude came bundled up with a lot of stress for all of us, a lot of uncertainty, and accompanied by a lot of worrisome news and events. With that in mind, we shouldn’t judge the experience of solitude too harshly based on these past months.

“Solitude is a space where we can pursue our interests, get to know ourselves, and be free of immediate social pressures or demands. It’s much harder to appreciate these things when we are forced into solitude, rather than when we choose it. However, to the extent that we can find value in solitude it can be rejuvenating and rewarding,” Dr Weinstein concluded for ZME Science.

The paper “What Time Alone Offers: Narratives of Solitude From Adolescence to Older Adulthood” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Be kind.

Want to improve your mood quickly? Look at people around you and, genuinely, wish them well

New research from Iowa State University says that the secret to happiness is simple: wish others well.

Be kind.

Image via Pixabay.

We all have bad days, or just bad times. Each of us also has his or her own way to cope with such times and get a shot of feel-good chemicals. However, new research says that we shouldn’t focus on something we can eat, drink, or do to make ourselves feel better — instead, we should focus on wishing others well.

The best gift is giving

“Walking around and offering kindness to others in the world reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection,” said Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology.

“It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities.”

Together with co-authors Dawn Sweet, senior lecturer in psychology; and Lanmiao He, a graduate student in psychology, Gentile put three techniques intended to reduce anxiety and increase happiness or well-being to the test. The team worked with a group of college students at Iowa State, who they asked to walk around a building for 12 minutes while practicing one of the following strategies:

  • Loving-kindness: Looking at the people they see and thinking to themselves, “I wish for this person to be happy.” Students were encouraged to really mean it as they were thinking it.
  • Interconnectedness: Looking at the people they see and thinking about how they are connected to each other. It was suggested that students think about the hopes and feelings they may share or that they might take a similar class.
  • Downward social comparison: Looking at the people they see and thinking about how they may be better off than each of the people they encountered.

The researchers also set aside a number of students who acted as a control group. They were asked to do the same activity as the other three groups, but the activity they were asked to perform consisted of looking at other people and focusing on what they saw on the outside — clothing, the combination of colors, textures, makeup, accessories, that sort of thing.

All students were surveyed before and after the walk to measure anxiety, happiness, stress, empathy, and connectedness. Each technique was then compared against the control group to gauge how effective it was in reducing anxiety and promoting well-being.

The interconnectedness group reported feeling more empathetic and socially connected to those around them, the team reports. Those in the downward social comparison group didn’t see any improvement in mood or happiness (this group had the worst results among all groups). Those who practiced loving-kindness or wished others well saw an increase in happiness, felt more connected, caring, and empathetic, as well as less anxious — by far the most successful group in the study.

These results go against the grain of previous research which found that downward social comparison can act as a buffer against feelings of personal inadequacy by boosting positive feelings. Students who compared themselves to others in the present study felt less empathetic, caring, and connected than students who extended well wishes to others, which takes a toll on our wellbeing, the team explains.

“At its core, downward social comparison is a competitive strategy,” Sweet said. “That’s not to say it can’t have some benefit, but competitive mindsets have been linked to stress, anxiety, and depression.”

The team also investigated whether different personality archetypes reacted differently to this technique. They expected to see naturally-mindful people reaping the biggest rewards from the loving-kindness strategy, or that some narcissistic personalities would have trouble genuinely wishing others well. They didn’t.

“This simple practice is valuable regardless of your personality type,” Lanmiao He said. “Extending loving-kindness to others worked equally well to reduce anxiety, increase happiness, empathy and feelings of social connection.”

The team says we can all benefit from these findings, especially in a social-media dominated world. It’s easy to start comparing yourself to others in such an environment, they explain. Drawing comparisons isn’t a bad thing in itself, Gentle explains, adding that “as children we learn by watching others and comparing their results to ours.” But in terms of how much it fosters happiness, comparisons can’t hold a candle to loving-kindness.

“It is almost impossible not to make comparisons on social media,” Gentile said. “Our study didn’t test this, but we often feel envy, jealousy, anger or disappointment in response to what we see on social media, and those emotions disrupt our sense of well-being.”

The paper “Caring for Others Cares for the Self: An Experimental Test of Brief Downward Social Comparison, Loving-Kindness, and Interconnectedness Contemplations” has been published in the Journal of Happiness Studies

Central Park.

Go to the park, it’s good for you — and makes you happier

New research shows that a 20-minute long visit to the park can make you happier, whether you exercise or not.

Central Park.

Image via Pixabay.

A team of researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Occupational Therapy says that urban parks are great for our emotional and mental wellbeing. Visiting an urban park for as little as 20 minutes will make you feel happier, they say, no matter what you do during that time.

Parking space for your stress

“Overall, we found park visitors reported an improvement in emotional well-being after the park visit,” says main author Hon K. Yuen. “However, we did not find levels of physical activity are related to improved emotional well-being. Instead, we found time spent in the park is related to improved emotional well-being.”

The study points to urban parks as key neighborhood elements, providing residents with the opportunity to enjoy nature and engage in physical activity. Contact with nature and health-promoting and/or social and recreational activities in parks let people reap benefits such as stress reduction and recovery from mental fatigue.

Data for the study was recorded in three urban parks — Overton, Jemison, and Cahaba River Walk Parks — in Mountain Brook, Alabama. These three parks were selected as they were the main three public parks in the town and saw a large volume of visitors each day. The team collected feedback from 98 park visitors, although four reported twice during the study and their second responses were excluded — thus, the team worked with data from 94 participant testimonies.

The findings suggest that everybody can benefit from some park-time. You don’t need to be physically active during your time there, so individuals can gain the health benefits of spending time in an urban park regardless of any disability or limitation they may be struggling with.

Yuen says that the study definitely has its limitations — these include the lack of objective data (as it was self-reported) pertaining to the visit’s effect on health and emotional well-being, and the study’s limited scope, both in number of participants and geographic spread. Still, the findings are exciting, he says, and point to the need for more urban parks and better conservation work on those already in place.

“There is increasing pressure on green space within urban settings,” said Jenkins. “Planners and developers look to replace green space with residential and commercial property. The challenge facing cities is that there is an increasing evidence about the value of city parks but we continue to see the demise of theses spaces.”

The paper “Factors associated with changes in subjective well-being immediately after urban park visit” has been published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research.

Life satisfaction hinges not on what you do — but who you do it with

If it’s happiness you’re after, you’ll need a team.

Socializing.

Image via Pixabay.

New research from the University of Leipzig, Germany, suggests that well-being strategies involving other people are more satisfying than nonsocial pursuits. So if you want to boost your life satisfaction, get yourself some people to share it with.

Group effort

“Our research showed that people who came up with ‘well-being’ strategies that involved other people were more satisfied with their lives one year later — even after taking into account that they were marginally happier to begin with,” says lead author and psychological scientist Julia Rohrer.

“In contrast, people who came up with strategies that did not explicitly involve others remained, on average, as satisfied as they were.”

The team examined a subset of data recorded during 2014 for the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, which is considered to be a nationally-representative survey of adults in Germany. The participants in this sample reported how satisfied they felt with their lives on a scale from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied). They also reported how satisfied they thought they’d be in 5-years’ time and described the strategies they could employ to maintain life satisfaction in the future.

One year later, the participants again rated their current level of life satisfaction.

Out of the 1,178 participants in the sample, 596 made a general statement such as “there is not much I could change” or one that didn’t require individual action, such as “a political shift would improve my life.” The rest, 582 participants, reported a specific strategy. There were no substantial differences in the life satisfaction of these two groups over time, the team notes.

The researchers further broke down this last group by the focus of the strategies they described: 184 people mentioned an approach centered around some form of social engagement and interaction — “helping others,” “spend more time with family,” “spend more time with friends”, and so on — while 398 described a nonsocial strategy — such as “stop smoking” or “pick up sports”.

Based on the answers each participant provided in the follow-up poll, the team says that those who engaged in a social strategy showed increased life satisfaction — while those who embarked on nonsocial strategies showed a relatively constant level of life satisfaction. Data reflecting how much time each participant invested in various activities that involved socializing with friends, family, or neighbors helps explain this boost in life satisfaction, the team adds.

Overall, the research suggests that spending more time with others, especially others we care about, could be an important avenue to increased well-being. Rohrer says that she plans to follow-up on the findings with experimental and longitudinal studies over long durations to determine exactly why socially-focused strategies seem to improve satisfaction — while nonsocial ones do not.

“Many people are interested in becoming happier, but there is a lack of evidence regarding the long term effects of pursuing happiness through various types of activities,” she says. “After all, there’s no guarantee that trying to become happier doesn’t make you more miserable in the end.”

“I think our study partly fills that gap in the literature, although more research with a longitudinal perspective is certainly needed.”

The paper “Successfully Striving for Happiness: Socially Engaged Pursuits Predict Increases in Life Satisfaction” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

Walking.

Feeling down? Walk it off! No really, walking is all you have to do

Need a morale boost? Get out of your chair and take a short walk to lift your spirits.

Walking.

Our bodies were designed for near constant activity and yet, most of us today have trouble finding time in our day to exercise. This turn of events is really unfortunate, considering the fact that physical exercise has been shown time and time again to help alleviate depression — which a record number of people suffer from.

But you don’t need hours at the gym to get a boost to your mood, University of Connecticut researchers report. Simply getting out of the chair and taking a walk around can reduce depression and give you a general state of well-being, they report.

“We hope this research helps people realize the important public health message that simply going from doing no physical activity to performing some physical activity can improve their subjective well-being,” says Gregory Panza, a graduate student in UConn’s Department of Kinesiology and the study’s lead author.

“What is even more promising for the physically inactive person is that they do not need to exercise vigorously to see these improvements,” Panza continues. “Instead, our results indicate you will get the best ‘bang for your buck’ with light or moderate intensity physical activity.”

This is particularly encouraging news as ‘light physical activity’ is basically walking. Simple, standard, vanilla walking, the kind where you don’t break a sweat or notice an increase in breathing or heart rate. The benchmark ‘moderate physical activity’ is walking a 15-20 minute mile with a slight increase in breathing and heart rate — while still be able to hold a conversation– as well as mild sweating. ‘Vigorous’ exercise is equivalent to jogging a 13-minute mile with heavy sweating and a significant increase in breathing and heart rate, up to the point where you’d be unable to maintain a conversation.

Do a little shake

The researchers gave 419 healthy middle-aged adults accelerometers to wear for four days so the team could record their physical activity. The participants also completed a series of questionnaires in which they described their daily exercise habits and reported on their levels of depression, pain intensity, the extent to which pain interfered with their daily activity, and psychological well-being.

The team found a powerful correlation between sedentary behavior and the lower levels of subjective well-being (positive and negative evaluations the participants made about their lives). Those who reported sitting around for most of the day reported lower levels of happiness, and those who did even limited physical exercise had a positive boost to their mood.

For example, those who participated in light-intensity physical activity reported higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of depression. People who participated in moderate-intensity activity reported higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of pain severity.

Two surprising finds were, first, that the greatest improvement in well-being was reported by those who lead typically-sedentary lives and engaged in light or moderate activity, and secondly, that vigorous exercise didn’t seem to cause any positive or negative shift in subjective well-being.

“The ‘more is better’ mindset may not be true when it comes to physical activity intensity and subjective well-being,” Gregory Panza, a graduate student in UConn’s Department of Kinesiology and the study’s lead author. “In fact, an ‘anything is better’ attitude may be more appropriate if your goal is a higher level of subjective well-being.”

Overall, very encouraging findings — if you’re trying to mood up through exercise, anything will help; and at the same time, you can’t be worse off no matter how hard you work out. That last point, in particular, should come as great news for those who enjoy hard, calorie-burning workouts, as it doesn’t support a widely reported recent study that found high-intensity workouts significantly lowered some people’s sense of well-being.

Still, the authors note that all participants of the study had a generally positive sense of well-being and were generally physically active going into the project, so their answers should be interpreted with that in mind. Another limitation is that the study only analyzed one point in time. A longitudinal study (which tracks people over time) would offer a better glimpse into the relationship between exercise and mood,

The full paper “Physical activity intensity and subjective well-being in healthy adults” has been published in the Journal of Health Psychology.