Mental health and wellbeing

31 March, 2020

Finding meaningful activity in daily life

While keeping a routine is important, it’s also important that we find meaning in how we spend our time. Our Advocacy Manager and registered occupational therapist, Louise O’Leary, talks us through some tips.

"Man through the use of his hands, as they are energised by mind and will, can influence the state of his own health” – Mary Reilly, occupational therapy pioneer, 1916-2012

Tags:   occupational therapy  

The way we spend our time and the activities we choose to do regularly can reflect not just our interests, but our values and priorities in life, and they can contribute to our sense of identity.[i] Importantly, our routines and daily occupations can also influence our health, both physical and mental.[ii] 

A central part of mental health recovery can often be reconnecting with pleasure and meaning in daily activities, but this is also a significant preventative strategy to protect our mental health.[iii]

We all experience change and disruption in our daily lives – to our family and work life, community activity, and leisure and social participation. At times, you may not be able to partake in the activities you regularly enjoy outside of the home, and leisure outlets you use to relieve stress and add balance to your lifestyle may not be available.

However, connecting with meaning and pleasure in daily life during times of challenge and stress is vital for mental health and wellbeing, and there are lots of ways to do so, even when our choices feel limited.

Keep things achievable

Keep things achievable

It’s important to consider our energy levels, motivation, concentration and quality of our sleep. [iv] 

Planning to take on major projects or achieve something you would have no interest in normally might feel like a good use of extra time, but may be counterproductive. Respect how you’re feeling and your need for rest, and try to keep things doable and focused on your needs and wellbeing. Setting time aside to read a few minutes of a book you’ve been wanting to read before you go to sleep may feel enough, for example.

Please bear this in mind as you read through the suggestions below.

Consider what motivates you

Consider what motivates you

One activity can hold different attractions for people. For example, Anne might run for purely physical health reasons, Barry might run with a club for the social or competitive dimension this brings, while Ciara might run because it helps clear her head and relieves stress. If you have a favourite activity you can’t do at the moment, think about what it is you like about it and what alternatives might meet that need for you.

For the above scenario, for example, Anne might try online workouts, Barry might join a group class online or set himself a challenge to master a new skill over the coming weeks, while Ciara might search for some yoga for relaxation classes online.

If civic and altruistic activities are important to you, you might consider contributing to community efforts in your area to support people who may be vulnerable. 

Find something that absorbs you

Find something that absorbs you

Occupational ‘flow’ is a positive psychological state we access when we are fully absorbed in an activity we enjoy and that is just challenging enough for our skills.[v] It’s positively linked with wellbeing and stress reduction.[vi]

Finding an activity that you can ‘lose yourself’ in can also be a helpful way to distract yourself from worry. Try and think of activities that have provided this for you in the past, where you’ve lost track of time, for example, because you were so focussed on the task at hand.

The psychologist who coined the term ‘flow’ initially composed his ideas from studying concert pianists at practice. Playing an instrument at any level; making something; crafting; gardening; baking or even reading a good book are all activities that might easily help you tap into a state of flow.

Add variety to your day

If you’re not sure where pleasure and meaning might lie for you at the moment, try out different things in small ways.

Add variety to your day

A helpful exercise to do, on your own or with your family, is to create a ‘lucky dip’ of different small and pleasurable things which you put in a box and use to prompt you each day: you can download a sheet for this here

Examples might include ‘read a poem’, ‘try a new recipe for dinner’, ‘listen to an album you haven’t listened to in a while’, or ‘send a text message to a friend’.

Revisit your interests

Over time, we may find ourselves moving away from or struggling for time to take part in the hobbies and interests we built through the years. This current period gives us an opportunity to revisit some of these interests and enjoy what it was that drew us to them.

Revisit your interests

You might find it helpful to complete an online interest assessment to give you new ideas, if you feel you need them. Career interest self-assessments are also available online, which can be helpful to give ideas if you are interested in exploring new learning opportunities.

If there is a topic or skill you’ve been interested in the past, might you be able to give some time to it now? There are numerous free online courses now available, including a range being provided by Solas. These might be of interest not just from a recreational perspective, but also if you have recently become unemployed and would like to upskill or explore new avenues.

Consider your environment

Consider your environment

If the spaces in which we can move and participate have become limited, this can be challenging, especially for people who particularly value different environments for pleasure, stress relief and relaxation purposes, such as spending time by the sea or going for hikes.

Whether you are someone who has a great interest in nature or not, connecting with the natural world can offer great meaning in daily life. Evidence also shows that green, natural environments have a positive effect on our mental wellbeing.

If you have a garden or outdoor space attached to your home, make use of it, and perhaps give time to making it a more enjoyable and comfortable space. Try and bring nature into your home with plants and flowers, if it’s something you enjoy. If there are nearby green spaces where you can safely enjoy daily exercise, consider using them for this purpose.

There are also lots of ways to virtually explore the natural world. The Guardian has noted that “the Royal Parks in London and Central Park in New York both have online tours. The United States (US) National Park Service… is also offering 32 virtual tours, including of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Maine’s Acadia National Park.” Closer to home, Dublin Zoo offers live webcams to catch a glimpse of different animals living there.

If travel is something you value, you might find some of the virtual tours of international landmarks that are available of interest.

Enjoying creativity and cultural outlets

Enjoying creativity and cultural outlets

Creative outlets have been suggested as a useful means of supporting mental health.[vii] 

If activities like sketching or crafting do not appeal to you, however, you might find it of interest to participate in arts and culture from a different perspective. 

Some cultural sites offering virtual tours include:

Google Arts and Culture also has content from more than 1,200 museums and archives, including 500 virtual tours.

Staying connected socially

Staying connected socially

Social interaction in all its forms is, of course, something that most of us value greatly in our daily lives, and something that has been significantly disrupted in recent weeks. In terms of minding our mental health, finding ways to stay socially connected with others is one of the most important things for us to do.

Social activities such as planning a phonecall, writing a card or letter to someone, or sending an email or text message to a friend can be easily done. If you are comfortable with smartphones or other devices, having a virtual coffee break, or arranging a virtual meal with a friend or family member may be enjoyable. You might consider planning to watch the same show on TV while leaving your phone on loudspeaker or via video call, so you can enjoy it with a family member elsewhere.

There are also various forums being made available online which can help us feel connected with others in different ways, such as virtual church services, dance sessions and coffee clubs.

If you would like to learn more about how to use your smartphone or to access online videos, there are helpful resources available from Age Action.


[i] Eklund et al (2016) The linkage between patterns of daily occupation and occupational balance: Applications within occupational science and occupational therapy practice. Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy 24 (1), pages 41-56 

[ii] Whalley Hammel, K. (2017) Opportunities for wellbeing: The right to occupational engagement. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy 84 (4-5), pages 209-222

[iii] Whalley, Opportunities for wellbeing

[iv] Health Service Executive (2020) Minding your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak. 

[v] Nakamura, J. and Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2012) Flow Theory and Research. The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (second edition)

[vi] Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, Flow Theory and Research

[vii] WHO (2020) Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak



Continue to…

Adjusting routines to mind your mental health