Meaningful activities

xmas3Engaging in activities that are meaningful to you is an important route to wellbeing. They can be a great way over the festive period to share quality time with people you know, as well as providing a way to be busy when you’re not feeling so social.

When people are struggling with their mental health, it can be hard to take up a new activity. Sometimes people need some support or encouragement to get started. From our PEOPLE study  we heard how people who have felt isolated and who had found it hard to do much for years had their lives transformed when they took up a hobby that worked for them. We provide an example at the bottom of this page – Dan’s story.

In our Community Health Networks study , we mapped these meaningful activities, finding that they provided people with positive new identities, a routine and structure to their day, increased confidence and a sense of achievement, and a way to meet new people. Having something meaningful to do was a key concern of many participants and often they mentioned hobbies that had been lost due to illness.

We’ve recently been commissioned to evaluate a high profile and ambitious mental wellbeing programme that is being implemented by Kent County Council. The wellbeing programme consists of a diverse range of activities – but they are all linked by the ‘Six Ways to Wellbeing’: connect, give, take notice, keep learning, be active and care for the planet. These ‘Six Ways’ are all about making small lifestyle changes and finding simple, enjoyable things that can make a big difference to how people feel.

Case Study: “I think the best thing I ever did towards recovery was to become physically fit and active.”

louiseI think the best thing I ever did towards recovery was to become physically fit and active. It was summer and I started to swim, daily, in the local pool. Over the course of the next few months I reaped the benefits, gradually becoming a lot stronger in body and mind.

Exercise did me so much good that summer that I have made it an essential part of my life in the twenty years since. I don’t swim so often now, but I do walk, every day without fail, with my dog.

Walking is easy, it’s free, and it can be done anywhere at any time. It does require discipline – but this is where the dog comes in. I have to walk her, whatever the constraints on my time, and whatever the weather. Her little face scans mine beseechingly, and we both know exactly what she wants. I see our daily walk as my duty – not just to keep myself healthy and strong, but to keep her mood stable and to keep her in good shape too. Plus, of course, we both enjoy the exercise.
So that is what I recommend to each and every person trying to recover their emotional equilibrium after a period of distress. Go for a long daily walk – and if you can, beg or borrow a dog to take with you. If you have a furry friend on the end of a lead you would be surprised how many more people smile or stop to speak with you, which makes it a social activity too. A good starting point, if you don’t know any dog owners, is a website called which does pretty much what it says on the label. (Failing finding a dog, you could of course take a human companion and talk as you walk).

Go on, make a daily walk the start of a lifetime habit. You’ll never regret it.

Louise van Wingerden, peer reviewer for the McPin Foundation peer research panel


Practical tips

  • New Year’s resolution – what new (or old) activity would you like to take up again, or for the first time? Who could you do it with?
  • What structures can you put in place to help you keep the activity up? Ask a friend to join you, or book yourself onto a regular club or class.
  • You might want to take part in physical activities for fitness, join a club or group about an interest of yours, or try volunteering.

An example from The PEOPLE study: