• If you’re feeling lonely in your free time, do something that uses your skills and concentration.
  • Leisure activities like painting, skiing or chopping wood can engross us and put us in a state of ‘flow’.
  • A meaningful activity that we enjoy works best, say researchers at Penn State University.
  • Loneliness has been linked to increased mental health problems during the pandemic.

Doing something meaningful during your free time can help you feel less lonely, according to a new study.

Researchers led by Penn State University in Pennsylvania in the United States studied loneliness and leisure time amongst international college students and older adults.

They concluded that leisure activities involving some skill and concentration were less likely to make us lonely than passive, unchallenging activities like watching television.

Leisure without loneliness

Playing the piano, painting, chopping wood, writing and skiing are all examples of these more satisfying activities, the Penn State researchers suggest.

By engrossing us, mental or physical leisure activities like these put us in a state called ‘flow’, and this is the key to feeling less lonely.

“When we enter a state of flow, we become absorbed and focused, and we experience momentary enjoyment,” explains John Dattilo, professor of recreation, park, and tourism management at Penn State. We can also be surprised by how much time has passed when we leave our state of flow, he adds.

People will find flow in different leisure activities, depending on their interests and skills, the researchers say. Ideal flow activities demand quite a bit of skill – but can’t be so difficult that they seem impossible.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

Do a leisure activity you enjoy

They also need to be meaningful – in that they’re activities we enjoy. Dattilo makes the point that nursing home residents who didn’t enjoy playing bingo when they were younger are unlikely to enjoy it now.

These flow activities that absorb and challenge us are even more effective at reducing loneliness than being around other people, the researchers found.

This is important in the context of the pandemic, when people were isolated because of lockdown restrictions.

Pandemic loneliness

Multiple studies have shown the negative impact of COVID-19 on mental health, including loneliness.

One study of people aged 50 and older from 26 European countries found those feeling more lonely were up to 10 times more at risk of depressed mood, anxiety symptoms and sleep problems.

In Australia, surveys of 2,000 people from 18 to 88 found many reporting that the quality and size of their friendships had shrunk. Even months after lockdown, the enduring feeling was of people withdrawing and having fewer social interactions.

“Loneliness is a serious social and health issue, linked to poor mental health and early death,” the researchers at Sydney and Wollongong universities said.

Being in green spaces, and spending time with people who share our values can help reduce loneliness, mental health experts at King’s College London suggest.

Chart showing how common loneliness is in different countries.
Anyone can feel lonely, anywhere, but new research suggests leisure activities involving skill and concentration can help.
Image: Statista

Youth mental health

Mental health and wellbeing is a particular issue amongst young people and is often linked to conditions like poverty, social inequality, exposure to war and educational availability, according to the World Economic Forum.

It is calling for innovative solutions through its Youth Mental Health Challenge on UpLink, a digital platform launched by the Forum and its partners to crowdsource innovative solutions to the world’s biggest problems.