This unprecedented period of social distancing and isolation over the past several months has seen us all experience the shock of losing our daily routines and habits that make us who we are. We have experienced what it is like to lose the ‘doing’ and ‘being’ that makes us human and the occupations and activities we engage in on a daily basis. We have also experienced what it is like to become disconnected, and our need to ‘belong’ and to contribute to others has also been disrupted.
The nature of the occupations and activities that are important to us is shaped by a range of factors including our values and beliefs, life roles, culture and what is meaningful to us.
Meaningful Occupation is More Than a Job. Most people understand ‘occupation’ as paid employment, but it is so much more than that. As an occupational therapist, it is often a struggle to explain that occupations are multifaceted and vary across a person’s lifespan. For example, I am an occupational therapist. I am also Australian, a wife, mother, sister, friend. The things that I do and what’s important to me are based around all of these roles. A variety of concepts from a range of disciplines (occupational therapy, psychology, sociology and anthropology to name but a few) acknowledge there are universal values that underlie activities. It is not just about the ‘doing’ of activities, but it is also a basic human need to ‘belong’; to form connections and relationships with others, to share and contribute to the well-being of others and to participate in collaborative occupations such as being part of a group or team.
Meaningful Occupation = Well-Being. Engaging in meaningful occupations, is fundamental to human health and well-being. There are physical and cognitive benefits of participating in activities that are meaningful and purposeful, in both developing and maintaining skills and abilities. Research undertaken over decades, in many fields, also supports that social connections, a sense of inclusion, a feeling of contributing, is integral to good mental health as well. Additionally, participating in meaningful activities also allows individuals to maintain identity, self-esteem, and belonging (personhood) and express feelings.
This period of disruption to our daily roles, routines and habits has given us a brief insight into what it is like for many people with an illness, disease or disability, who are unable to do the things that are meaningful or important to them, or fulfill valued life roles. We’ve also had a glimpse of how it feels to be socially isolated and distanced from others. This is how many people who live in care homes or receive health and social care services live and feel every day. As life returns to ‘normal’, let’s remember that we all have a need to be occupied, to feel that we belong and matter. This is true for every person, of every age and culture.
“It is neither wealth nor splendour; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness.” Thomas Jefferson, Personal letter to his sister