Senior Mental Health Advisor — Finding meaning amongst the chaos

Headshot of Dr Loretta Poerio

Dr Loretta Poerio
Mental Health Adviser

Given the events of this year, we could be forgiven for thinking we are all going to hell in a hand basket.

The inclination to want to bury our heads under the doona and not come out for a very long time is enticing. The COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty, social isolation and physical confinement are issues we are all grappling with on one level or another.

It is difficult to find hope among the chaos at times, but that is exactly what we need to do. This will take some effort and perseverance, and the good news is the little things you do matter.

Since the 1950s, meaning in life has been associated with our sense of psychological wellbeing. An increased sense of meaning in life has been shown across a range of studies to correlate positively with wellbeing. Deakin University has been conducting the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index survey as a measure of Australian wellbeing since 2001. A key area identified as critical to our wellbeing is having a sense of purpose. People who are keenly engaged in an activity or activities that they find meaningful and that provides a sense of connection and responsibility have increased wellbeing.

The time we are spending at home provides a good opportunity to reflect on what is important to us and what we can do, in small ways, to find purpose in our lives. This can come through a range of activities like growing your own vegetables, herbs and flowers, reading to your grandchildren (even if it is over a video link), volunteering at your local ex-service organisation (within physical distancing guidelines), helping a neighbour, remodelling an old (vintage) car, joining a bible study group, or learning a new skill. A little creativity and stepping out of your comfort zone is necessary, especially with COVID-19, but the rewards are great.

Connectedness to nature is one avenue that can provide and enhance our sense of purpose and meaning in life, and a higher level of wellbeing. Spending a day in nature is something we do instinctively when we need ‘time out’ to recharge. The feeling of being at peace with the world and having a different perspective on life is a common story. Research is also pointing to the mental health benefits of being close to nature, finding that greater access to green space in the home neighbourhood to be associated with less depression. Higher levels of green space have also been associated with decreased stress with a 2019 study finding that spending 15 to 20 minutes in green space or a park significantly lowered stress hormones in participants. There is some evidence that even when viewed through a window, nature has positive effects on wellbeing.

The news gets better, as not only can connecting to nature improve our sense of wellbeing, it is something that is essentially free and readily available to us at any time, like getting out in your garden, walking through green spaces in cities and neighbourhoods, and bushwalking through parks and forests. This makes connecting with nature an intervention worth considering.

Citations can be provided on request.