Sunday Scaries

If an activity does these 2 things, it could help your brain combat quarantine

Tasks that prompt the mental state of flow can sustain well-being, study finds.

An abstract digital illustration of a brain and several red people working on it like on a construct...

The novel coronavirus has made domestic existence a strange state of being. Across the United States, case counts are climbing and cities that eased restrictions over the summer are now considering reestablishing them. Outside, you might hear and see reminders of this very real danger. But inside, you might find yourself occupied by something so quaint, it might feel comical in comparison.

Bread baking, puzzling, houseplant nurturing — the pandemic has ushered in a rebirth of hobbies. In some ways, engaging in home-friendly activities is an obvious choice for present times. If you’re stuck indoors, why not occupy your time doing something interesting. But according to new research, these tasks prompt a not-so-obvious effect: they engage the mental state of flow, in turn acting as a tool that can combat the stressful setting of quarantine.

In a study published November 11 in the journal PLOS One, the research team describes flow as the experience of becoming so absorbed in an enjoyable activity that one loses track of their external surroundings. First author Kate Sweeny, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, tells me almost any activity can be turned into a flow activity if you pay attention to two features of the experience:

  • It should push you — but not to the point of frustration.
  • You should be able to track your progress.

“Some activities, like video games, have those features built in,” Sweeny explains. “Other activities might take more creativity to get into a flow state.”

So, does opening TikTok and suddenly realizing you’ve been scrolling for an hour count as flow?

“My lab talks a lot about whether something like scrolling social media, reading a good book, or watching a great show or movie should be considered flow activities,” Sweeny says. “For now, I’d say they’re out — they’re zoning out instead of zoning in.”

In the case of her study, we don’t know exactly what activities the participants engaged in to achieve flow — just that they did. An online survey was sent in February 2020 to 5,115 people living in Wuhan and other large Chinese cities affected by the pandemic. They were asked about their quarantine length and asked to measure their subjective experiences of flow, mindfulness, and well-being.

Getting into the flow — Sweeny became involved when a colleague who wanted to conduct a survey with his Chinese peers about Covid-19 needed an expert in uncertainty and worry. “I was particularly interested in traits and experiences that might weaken or break the link between quarantine status and poor well-being,” she says.

“Flow seemed like a particularly promising experience given its ability to make time pass quickly and pleasantly without being beset by worry.”

Statistical analysis of the survey data revealed that both flow and mindfulness were linked to better well-being — but it was only flow that weakened the link between longer quarantine and poorer well-being.

The team isn’t quite sure why that is, but Sweeny comments that it does make sense. Mindfulness, she explains, is great for combatting stress but is inherently not helpful for passing the time in a distracted way. (The whole point is to be incredibly attuned to your present.) It didn’t make the experience any worse — but it didn’t break the link between quarantine and poor well-being like flow did.

Sweeny and her colleagues note that future studies should investigate which flow-inducing activities are most effective for which people. Past research indicates that sports, leisure activities, and work (if you’re a high-achiever) can all prompt flow.

As governors in states like Washington, Maryland, and Illinois consider possible lockdowns, there’s a takeaway here for people grimacing at more time indoors.

“If people find themselves cooped up, whether due to Covid-19 or wintery weather, our study suggests that keeping busy may be a good way to stay well during that kind of isolation,” Sweeny says.

There’s always teaching your dog to talk with buttons? The possibilities of activities are endless.

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