This summer I have been too busy to write about or research depression because my other (bat rescue) thing has completely taken over. My normal keep-well routine has been completely disrupted, viz exercise, sleep, omega 3 supplements, social activities. I’ve lost a stone in weight from not having time to cook. In the middle of all this a close friend died unexpectedly, leaving me shocked and grieving.

bfp ble (2)

Here’s the strange thing though: I haven’t felt depressed. It’s only now, when it’s all quietening down, that I am noticing dark thoughts clouding my mind, and energy and enthusiasm draining away.

A friend who also suffers from depression recently told me that she feels better when she is busy and doesn’t have time to think. In the past I would have associated such busy-ness with pressure and stress: both to be avoided as far as possible. It’s what precipitated my breakdown 5 years ago, and what I have tried so hard to eliminate from my life ever since. But perhaps pressure is OK – healthy even – when you are doing something you love.

Research on meaningful activity

The research literature talks about a connection between mental health and meaningful activity. What you do, and the meaning it has for you, is important for well-being.

our daily occupations are imbued with personal meanings that contribute to the perception of purpose and meaning in our lives, ultimately influencing our health and well-being (Yerxa et al., 1989)

Researchers have developed tools for measuring meaningfulness, such as the Engagement in Meaningful Activities Survey (EMAS, Goldberg et al. 2002), which reflects the extent to which people believe their activities: fit with their value system and needs; demonstrate their competence; and are valued in their social or cultural group.  Studies have found, broadly, that the higher the score on the EMAS scale, the better the depression, and vice versa. EMAS talks about daily activities, and not about duration – so it’s the meaningfulness that is important here, rather than how busy you are.

Here’s the EMAS tool . Each criterion is preceded by  “The activities I do…”

  1. help me take care of myself (e.g., keep clean, budget my money)
  2. reflect the kind of person I am
  3. express my creativity
  4. help me achieve something which gives me a sense of accomplishment
  5. contribute to my feeling competent
  6. are valued by other people
  7. help other people
  8. give me pleasure
  9. give me a feeling of control
  10. help me express my personal values
  11. give me a sense of satisfaction
  12. have just the right amount of challenge

Score  1-Never, 2-Rarely, 3-Sometimes, 4-Usually and 5-Always

To apply this, one could devise an activity or range of activities that would score maximum points – and then do it daily. I am going to add this to my list of experiments.

Research on being busy

So meaningful activity is helpful for depression, but that’s not the same as being busy. We looked at rumination – mulling things over and over – in a previous post. Rumination is strongly linked to depression and is best avoided if at all possible, usually by deploying positive distractions.  Steve Ilardi, in his Six Step Programme to Beat Depression, has anti-ruminatory activity as one of the steps and talks about the need to find distracting things to do. He also suggests that, along with watching movies and playing video games (or whatever works as a distraction),  you may as well include activities that are inherently anti-depressive such as exercise and engaging with friends. Or doing meaningful stuff.

People typically ruminate – and feel the worst – when they have nothing else to occupy their attention. Steve Ilardi

Keeping busy with positively distracting activities will stop rumination (and rumination makes us feel bad). And if those activities are also meaningful to us, we will actually feel better.

Finding the busy sweet spot

I have learnt this summer that, against all expectation, a huge amount of disruption (for me, anyway), pressure, and physical and emotional upheaval, did not make me ill. I don’t know that I could have continued much longer at the same intensity though. Feeding baby bats every 3 hours round the clock is tough; thankfully they grew out of it…

There must come a point when being busy all the time is not healthy. Mustn’t there? Perhaps it’s when the meaningfulness starts to slip – for example when the activities are such that you you don’t have time to care for yourself properly (as per criterion 1, above), or when you no longer feel in control (criterion 9).  The important thing is to be aware of what is happening, and to take steps if possible to get back on the meaningful track.

Doing work you love

Since many of us have to spend a lot of our time earning money, the perfect set-up would be to do work that is distracting and meaningful.  Not necessarily easy to achieve, but worth striving for.
This post is dedicated to Scott Dinsmore, a perfect-toothed, ever-smiling, overwhelmingly-enthusiastic American I’ve never met whose stuff about changing the world through ‘finding and doing work you love’ inspired me to start this website and pursue making a living from learning about depression. He died last week in a climbing accident in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime year-long trip around the world with his wife. Living his legend.

References and further reading

Goldberg B, Brintnell ES, Goldberg J (2002)  The relationship between engagement in meaningful activities and quality of life in persons disabled by mental illness Occupational Therapy in Mental Health. 18(2):17–44

Steve Ilardi (2009) The depression cure: the six step programme to beat depression without drugs

Yerxa EJ et al. (1989). An introduction to occupational science: a foundation for occupational therapy in the 21st century. Occupational Therapy in Health Care, 6(1), 1-17.

Scott Dinsmore’s TED talk on doing work you love


when keeping busy keeps depression away

6 thoughts on “when keeping busy keeps depression away

  • Hi Libby
    Once again I found myself nodding all through your article (in agreement, not torpor!). The EMAS list makes intuitive sense, and reminds me of the Maslow hierarchy of needs. I think the key is balance – now you’re risking post-bat burnout so it’s a good time to do more on the self-care and nurturing front, yes?
    Thanks for the Scott Dinmore info too.
    Take care lovely x

    1. Thanks Amanda. The link with Maslow is interesting; I will need to think about that. He was talking about what motivates us and EMAS is about what feels meaningful, so it is as well there is overlap I suppose or we would never stop eating. Or something. x

  • Great post and makes some very interesting points to mull over, which is a good thing in this case, as mulling in my experience has never been productive. Creating a balance between busy and knowing when enough is enough is a fine line. Knowing when to say yes or no, I find, often difficult as we care more about others feelings and neglect our own. We’re our own worst enemy.

    Again, a great read! Thanks.

  • Really interesting stuff. Distraction certainly works with me.

    In an ideal world we could all work on what we are passionate about. In the absence of that in your job- perhaps it makes sense to have this passion utilised in leisure time.

    1. Thanks Toby, yes it does seem rather idealistic to be gainfully employed doing something that gives meaning and joy, so using leisure time to pursue what we are passionate about is key.

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