Looking after your Social Self
Engaging in Meaningful Activities and Connecting With Other People
written by Jane Anastasios, Psychologist
Local Councils sometimes get a bad rap for misspending our rates, allowing inappropriate developments, and not always acting or focusing on the needs of the local community. Without entering a potential political minefield, I was greatly heartened to read our local council ‘brag sheet’ newsletter, that amongst other things, listed a whole host of free local community events and activities that they had arranged or were subsidizing – concerts, art shows, classes at sporting centres, book clubs at the library, talks by experts in different fields, gardening clubs, youth groups, computer classes. One program that stood out to me was an initiative where they link volunteers in our community to check up on and visit other members of the community (elderly, disabled, socially isolated) on a regular basis. It seemed to me that both the volunteers and the people being visited were on a winner here. A sense of meaningful participation and contribution, connecting and forming relationships with people, and being a member of their broader community. This struck a chord with me as the research into people’s psychological wellbeing and life satisfaction clearly highlights the importance of connecting with others, having a sense of belonging, and participating in meaningful and enjoyable activities as factors that lead to people feeling good about themselves and their lives. In this article we will focus in on engaging in meaningful activities that promote enjoyment, a sense of purpose, and connection as a way of looking after your ‘social’ self and enhancing your psychological wellbeing.
What the research says about engaging in enjoyable activities and psychological wellbeing.
Positive psychology researchers have all noticed a clear link between life satisfaction, improved psychological wellbeing and people who regularly engage in activities they enjoy. These are activities that are pursued just for the sake of it- for pure pleasure and enjoyment. They also note that whilst doing things just for fun and enjoyment are important, they are not the whole story (other things like contributing and connecting are stronger factors), but certainly worth doing. Engaging in things for fun and enjoyment help with feelings of happiness and positive mood, and can reduce stress in the moment (and when done regularly, over the longer term).
Some things you might like to consider:
Regular participation seems key – find ways to build enjoyable activities into your day to day life, rather than just waiting for that elusive day or holiday or retirement when you will have time to do this
You can choose things to do on your own or with others
It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money – some things are free.
It doesn’t have to take a whole lot of time.
Ask yourself what are the things you like to do just for the sheer fun or enjoyment of it. What seems important is that these activities are enjoyable to you, and you are not just doing it to please someone else, or doing it because you think other people would approve of it. It is your life so make sure you are spending some of your time on things that are important and fun to you.
Not sure what you like doing. Here are some ideas of things that some other people have tried out and enjoyed:
What the research says about engaging in activities that are purposeful and psychological wellbeing
As well as doing things just for fun, engaging in activities that bring a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and are meaningful to you are important for our wellbeing. Finding activities, whether it be through work, volunteering, studying, our hobbies, leisure pursuits, helping your household run smoothly, looking after your family, seem to help people feel more fulfilled. Taking the time to work out the kinds of activities that are important to you, bring you as sense of accomplishment, purpose, and engage you, is one way of taking better care of yourself and your wellbeing. Positive psychology researchers have found that when people find or create purpose in activities they tend to report high levels of life satisfaction. Oftentimes these activities involve sheer hard work (as opposed to than those activities we simply do for fun) and can be challenging, but when they are linked to something that is personally meaningful, or that you value, or that plays to your strengths, people seem to find these kinds of activities engaging and satisfying and in turn this leads to improved psychological wellbeing. People who say that at times they become so deeply immersed or involved in some of their activities (what psychologists refer to as ‘flow’) also report high levels of life satisfaction.
Some things you might like to consider:
Take the time to work out what kinds of activities deeply engage you – for each of us it will be different
Sometimes our jobs or some aspects of them can provide this sense of purpose and/or level of deep engagement. Allowing ourselves to focus some of our time on these parts of our work (as well as doing the other less enticing parts) seems like a good idea.
Purposeful and engaging activities where you experience a sense of accomplishment are not just about your job and might involve other roles or parts of your life (eg. building a cubby house for your nieces, helping to run a school fete, volunteering your time to help new immigrants to learn English; teaching your child how to ride a bike; cooking a new recipe; a workout at the gym, nutting out a difficult knitting pattern, weeding and planting a garden bed)
Take the time to work out your skills and strengths and things where you like being challenged
If you are having trouble finding something that you currently do that brings you a sense of purpose, engagement, or accomplishment, remember some past activities you have done before when you experienced this – What was it about this activity that gave you this feeling (was it helping other people, was it a sense of learning something new, was it putting together a bunch of new ideas, was it creating something)
What are the things you value in life (e.g. being kind, being a team player, being organized, learning, teaching, creating, being resourceful; bringing people together)
What the research says about connecting with others and psychological wellbeing
Even though this article and the previous 3 are focused on self-care- the things that you can do to look after yourself- the “self” in self-care doesn’t mean you have to do this on your own. In fact, the research is pretty clear that people tend to do best when we have meaningful, enjoyable, and/or supportive connections with others. When we are struggling seeking help from others whether it be a friend, family member, or professional (e.g., a GP, counsellor, social worker, teacher), seems to lessen the load. When we seek out opportunities to connect with other people this can help us feel less isolated and alone and can also potentially be a source of enjoyment. Psychologists interested in resilience have found that when people have a good sense of belonging and feel connected to a community, and have someone they can go to for support (family, friend, professional) they tend to cope relatively well with the inevitable difficulties in life. Researchers are also finding strong links between people’s wellbeing and the satisfaction they derive by getting involved in broader community concerns or contributing by helping others in need. I like the notion of interdependence as a way of understanding this. We are individuals, who at times like being on our own and can rely on ourselves, yet also at times need others and enjoy our connections with others.
My work with children over the years has taught me a lot about the importance of connections and how it seems to work, from their point of view. What they tell me about how connections with others works, also seems equally apt for adults. In a nutshell what children and young people tell me is that some people are there to help us in practical ways, some for fun, some for doing things with even if we don’t like them that much (like school work, making things, team sports), some to care for you or about you, some to teach you, some are for close friendships, and some just to hang out with (kind of friends but maybe not your best friend), some are just people you know cos you see them a lot (like the lady at your favourite bakery, the hairdresser), sometimes you have fights and make up (or not), sometimes you just don’t hit it off with some people, sometimes you might like people but not see them much, and our connections and relationships with people can change over time.
Some things you might like to consider:
Look for opportunities to create new connections. Here’s a few ideas:
Go to your kid’s school social events or working bees
Join a sporting team, a walking group or similar interest
Join a book group, film club, chess club
Join a support group
Book in for some classes at your local adult learning centres
Talk to the other parents at the park where your kids play, rather than just scrolling through your phone.
Say a little more than hello to the person who serves you regularly at your coffee shop, supermarket, newsagent, the school crossing supervisor, the neighbour you often see but don’t know
Check out the local Men’s shed
Volunteer your time and skills – there are heaps of ways to contribute and connect. For more ideas about this try contacting your local Council or look up some ideas on the internet.
We all have different comfort levels and skills when connecting with other people. Some people have an easier time of connecting with others- they seem to thrive or be in their element; other people might like to connect with others, but struggle to be around large groups of people for too long, preferring smaller groups or one-on-one time; some people feel quite uncomfortable with this whole area but wish to connect with others. If you struggle with shyness, social anxiety or if you’re not too confident with all of this, seek help from a psychologist who may be able to help with some skills and strategies.
Strengthen existing connections and relationships. This might be as simple as arranging more regular catch ups, inviting some people you have just met to attend an event with you, chatting with your work colleagues, sending an email to someone who lives further away and haven’t seen for a while – doesn’t have to be lengthy, just short and sweet is better than not at all. Bake a cake for a neighbour just because you feel like it, offer to pick up or drop off one of your kids’ school mates- sometimes it is actions and not words.
Ask for help and seek support when you need it – there is usually someone who is keen and able to help in whatever way they can, especially when they know you need it and have some ideas about what they can do to help. Whether it be help with building a new fence at home, picking up the kids from school when you are stuck at work, making people aware that you are sick at home and might need a bit of a hand, or if you are struggling emotionally you might need a kind listening ear. And when someone you know could do with some help, do what you can even it is just a quick encouraging text or phone call.
Want to know a bit more about all of this:
For those of you of my vintage or earlier check out this link…Remember Norm and the Life Be in it campaign
And a bit more on the serious, meaty, and research side, check out a Ted Talk “The new era of positive psychology” by Martin Seligman a prominent Positive Psychology Researcher talking a bit more about all of the ideas about engaging in activities and our psychological wellbeing.