I talk a lot to people about meaningful activity. Meaningful activity can be a big part of mental health recovery, as well as being critical for our own wellbeing. But what does it actually mean? And how can you find out what is meaningful to you?
Meaningful activities are things that we do, that mean something to us. Not all activities are meaningful. But activities that might seem really mundane to one person, may be meaningful to another. It’s completely individual. Meaningful activities have the potential to be a powerful tool for keeping well. But the key is knowing what is meaningful to you. You might feel really clear on what you find meaningful. However when we are struggling with our mental health, sometimes it can be hard to tell. Sometimes we can feel less enjoyment from activities we previously enjoyed. Sometimes it can be hard to connect to activities in the same way. We may also have changed, and might find that different activities bring meaning where once they didn’t. This post is aimed at helping you to identify the meaningful activities you can use to support your own mental health and to consider how much space these activities have in your life.
At the heart of meaningful activities are values. The things that we do are most meaningful to us when they align closely with what is important to us. For example, the man who visits his neighbour every day finds meaning in this because it sits closely with his value of kindness. The woman who eats healthily finds meaning in this because it sits closely with her value of maintaining good physical health.
Conversely, if you’ve ever been told by a well-meaning friend that all you need to do is X because it worked for me, well; this is why X might not work for you! Yes, some activities are great for mental health, and yes, there are lots of activities that are likely to be beneficial for most people, but not all. If the activity doesn’t fit with your values then you may struggle to find it meaningful however much you try.
Values might come from how we were brought up or from role models that we had in our youth. The teen that chooses to practice piano every day was brought up to value discipline. The parent that gives their teen a house key and an allowance might value independence.
Values do not usually change dramatically through mental illness, but sometimes mental illness can make it harder to see your own values. Values are completely individual, but if you are unsure of what your values are, consider your upbringing and think about the qualities you admire in others. Within this article from Live Bold and Bloom is a list of personal values. Look at this, and notice the ones that jump out at you.
Our values tie in closely to our identity. As such, this is an important thing to consider if you are looking for meaning. Some mental health issues can impact on our sense of identity. For example, depression can lead people to experience a low self esteem, and this can lead us to lose confidence in our own identity. Sometimes when someone has struggled with their mental health for a long time, they might feel that aspects of their identity have changed. For example, after going through a season of anxiety, you might find you can empathise with others more, and part of your identity might become being someone who cares deeply. Teens are at a point when they are developing their identities as they move towards adulthood. This might mean that teens drop previous activities and take up new ones. A girl that enjoyed drawing as a child might prefer sports as a teen. Ask yourself what your identity is. What kind of a person do you aspire to be? What are your personal qualities? What would family or close friends say about you?
Types of activity
Activity is a very broad term. Activities can include brushing your teeth, picking the kids up from school and bungee jumping. There are no rules about which activities can be meaningful.
But let’s consider the different types of activity. Within occupational therapy we talk about ‘occupations’ as meaningful activities. These are commonly divided into three categories: self-care, productivity and leisure. Self-care is all about the ways we look after ourselves, physically as well as mentally. So feeding, bathing, toileting. Productivity includes activities that give us a sense of purpose. This could mean work or school, but could also be activities like home projects, helping others and parenting. Leisure includes activities that we might use to relax, hobbies and interests. Clearly these categories overlap but they can be helpful when trying to work out where you find meaning. Consider these three categories. What activities fit into these for you? Does your life feel pretty balanced between the three? Or can you see a category that is lacking for you?
If you are looking at using meaningful activities for mental health, it is also worth considering any secondary benefits. Meaningful activities can be unhealthy, for example smoking or drinking to excess. These activities might fit with someone’s values and identity, but that doesn’t mean they will be good for mental health. So consider what other benefits your meaningful activities might bring. For example, if you are showing kindness to others through baking and sharing a cake, you will also benefit from developing your social connections. If you are doing a pilates class because it fits with your value of staying healthy you will also benefit from the relaxation element of this activity. Self care activities like eating well and washing regularly might be good for your self esteem as well as your body. What are the effects of the activities that you choose to do regularly on your mood? Do these activities benefit your mental health?
Christmas is a time that often takes us out of our normal routines. It’s the end of a pretty unusual year. Perhaps now is a good time to step back and look at your own life. To think about what activities you spend your day doing, and whether these activities are meaningful to you. And if you notice some gaps, maybe it’s time to imagine differently and try something new?!
I hope this post has given you a new perspective on the daily activities in your life. And I hope you have a good Christmas, even if it is a little different this year. If you want more support with making changes to your daily life for good mental health, then we can help at Imagine Therapy. Visit our website more more information and to book a free initial consult.