4 mood-boosting activities to keep your mind happy during COVID-19 lockdown

Music, journaling, and spending time with your pets are all science-backed ways to boost mental health during stressful times.

man and woman dancing and singing in their kitchen together

Dancing and singing a happy tune with your loved ones can boost your mental health.

Photo by fizkes on Shutterstock
  • Expressing your artistic self has profound positive impacts on your mental health and wellbeing during times of stress.
  • "Knitting and other forms of textile crafting such as sewing, weaving or crocheting have quite a lot in common with mindfulness and meditation," according to neuroscientist Dr. Sarah McKay.
  • Spending quality time with your pets can also have beneficial impacts, including lowered cortisol levels and a boosted immune system.

    Arts and crafts

    hands in pant on canvas concept of happy crafting

    Painting, sculpting, knitting and crocheting are all crafts that help boost your mood.

    Photo by Budimir Jevtic on Shutterstock

    Arts and crafts time with your kids (or diving into a new hobby such as quilting on your own) can do wonders for your mental health, according to several studies.

    In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, 658 students were asked to keep diaries over the span of 13 days. The students documented their mental states during various crafting activities including painting, sculpting, knitting, scrapbooking, sewing, and crocheting.

    Participants who engaged in creative activities were:

    • more enthusiastic about returning to that activity on another day
    • experienced a positive mood boost during their craft activity
    • felt inspired to be productive and creative in other ways

    The study also found that people who engaged in regular crafting activities experienced what psychologists call "flourishing," which is a process of internal growth and purpose. Lead author Dr. Tamlin S. Connor reports: "Overall, these findings support the emerging emphasis on everyday creativity as a means of cultivating positive psychological functioning."

    Neuroscience backs up this thinking: the reward center in your brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine when you do something pleasurable. While our brains are used to releasing dopamine to make us repeat activities that are essential to our survival (like eating or having sex), over time we've evolved so that the brain can emit dopamine signals during fun activities like decorating a cake or painting on a canvas.

    An article written by neuroscientist Dr. Sarah McKay explains: "Knitting and other forms of textile crafting such as sewing, weaving or crocheting have quite a lot in common with mindfulness and meditation, all are reported to have a positive impact on mental health and well-being."

    Karaoke time

    Music can help boost your mood. According to a University of East Anglia (UEA) study, there are several benefits to belting a tune along with a group of people. The results of the study showed that:

    • Social engagement with others gives people a sense of belonging and well-being that often lasts all day.
    • Being part of a group dynamic also helps improve social skills and confidence.
    • Taking part in a fun activity helps improve your mood and allows you to function better on a day-to-day basis.

    Tuning into your favorite radio station, playing a karaoke video game, or creating a Spotify playlist your whole family can sing along to is going to have an uplifting effect on everyone's mood during what is (for most) a very difficult self-isolation period.

    Professor Tom Shakespeare, the lead on the study, explains: "We found that singing as part of a group contributes to people's recovery from mental health problems. For some, it represented one component of a wider program of support. For others, it stood out as key to their recovery or maintenance of health. But the key thing for everyone was that it induced fun and happiness."

    This isn't the only experiment to prove these results: Other music therapy studies have shown a positive boost in social connection, cognitive stimulation, mental health, and enjoyment.

    Spending quality time with pets

    family in bed together with pet dog concept of pets making you happy

    Spending time with your pets can actually release feel good hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin.

    Photo by bbernard on Shutterstock

    Spending time with your pets provides hormonal changes that decrease stress.

    While this isn't news to dog owners, you may be surprised to learn just how beneficial spending time with your dog can be. Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests that a few minutes of petting your dog prompts a release of serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin, all known for being "feel-good" and "pleasure-inducing" hormones.

    Having a pet can boost immunity.

    A 2018 study suggests that infants who are exposed to pets before they are 6 months old have a decreased likelihood of allergies. Pets may also reduce the chances of hay-fever, eczema, and upper respiratory infections.

    Additionally, having a dog in your home may help balance out or even boost your gut health because dogs have many different types of beneficial bacteria.

    Owning a cat or dog can improve cardiovascular health and lower blood pressure.

    According to researchers at SUNY Buffalo, participants in a 2004 study who were already taking medication for hypertension showed blood pressure decreases in response to owning a cat or dog. In fact, their blood pressure response to stress was cut in half by spending time with their pet.

    Journaling or expressive writing

    Similar to crafting, writing about your personal experiences can help improve your mood, boost happiness, and help you find catharsis during a time of trouble or stress.

    During the stressful COVID-19 pandemic, stress and panic seem to be spreading just as quickly as the virus. Writing about your lock-down experience during this time can help decrease your anxiety and increase your mental well-being, according to research.

    In a 2006 behavioral therapy study, participants who wrote in the expressive writing style (journaling or the act of keeping a diary) showed significantly lower depression symptoms than those who did not. In a separate NorthWestern University study, this time focused on married couples who were asked to write about a conflict they were experiencing, those who explored their problems together through expressive writing showed greater improvement in marital happiness than those who didn't write about their issues.

    By writing, editing, and rewriting your own version of events, you can achieve a cathartic experience and see the situation more clearly, often changing how we view the situation we are in.

    Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

    A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

    Photo Credit: HS2
    Culture & Religion
    • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
    • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
    • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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    Are we really addicted to technology?

    Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

    Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
    Technology & Innovation

    This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

    In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

    But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

    In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

    Popularizing medical language

    What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

    To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

    If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

    LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

    "Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

    "We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

    "These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

    The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

    "If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

    Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

    But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

    Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

    In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

    "That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

    "Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

    Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

    Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

    "It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

    Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

    People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

    JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

    There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

    For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

    "For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

    "Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

    In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

    "None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

    "I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

    Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

    "The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

    "And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

    This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

    "Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

    Learned helplessness

    The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

    "The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

    So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

    "A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

    Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

    "If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

    But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

    For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

    Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

    The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

    According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

    Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
    Strange Maps
    • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
    • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
    • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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