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We’re in the midst of a pandemic—and, it seems, a loneliness epidemic. A 2021 report from Harvard University found that 36 percent of survey respondents across the nation categorized themselves as feeling lonely on a frequent basis. The number was even higher for young adults (61 percent) and mothers of young children (51 percent).
However, new research attempts to address the critical question: How can we effectively counteract the rise in loneliness?
The answer, apparently, can be found in how we spend our time. In a new study published in Leisure Sciences, researchers compared the effects of social support and the experience of a flow state on the self-reported loneliness of participants. Those surveyed were international students studying in Taiwan who were far from their families and home countries and more likely to experience higher-than-average degrees of loneliness.
The researchers found that high levels of participation in activities that were described as both challenging and meaningful predicted low levels of loneliness. And they didn’t have to be performed in a group setting to incur an effect. Even solo activities, such as a painting or practicing yoga, reduced loneliness. Additionally, researchers found that achieving what they dubbed a “flow state” through these meaningful and challenging activities was more effective in reducing loneliness than social support from peers.
A flow state is a completely immersive state of mind in which you’re so tuned into what you’re doing or working on, you aren’t distracted. This could be drawing, dancing, playing the piano, even writing. In an interview, John Dattilo, one of the study’s researchers, noted the powerful influence that a flow state has on our mental well-being. “When we enter a state of flow, we become absorbed and focused, and we experience momentary enjoyment,” he says. “When we leave a state of flow, we are often surprised by how much time has passed.”
Depending on what your day-to-day life looks like, achieving a flow state on a regular basis may seem impossible. But you’ve likely experienced flow states recently. It may have been a yoga practice where you felt completely connected with your physical body or a meditation session that flew by. (Yes, it happens.) It could be a time where you moved effortlessly through your kitchen while cooking dinner or a late-night journaling session. It’s when you’re in the zone.
Not everything you do can result in a flow state. The researchers note in the study that you want to look for activities that are simultaneously challenging and meaningful to you. So, yes, while having a movie marathon may feel meaningful to you, it’s likely not particularly challenging.
It’s also going to vary from person to person. Although your friend might find painting to be meaningful, and a little difficult (in a good way!), the same activity might give you anxiety. Instead, focus on finding time for those activities that strike the ideal balance for you—and tap into your flow.