Why leisure is important to your quality of life
It's easy to underestimate the importance of leisure activities in a society where individuals often identify themselves by their work role ("What do you do?") rather than their interests (“What do you enjoy doing?”). But for many people it is their leisure activities (sports, hobbies, courses, etc.) that add the most meaning to their lives. Failing to recognize the value of leisure can result in work-life imbalance, in which your productive (or work) roles are overemphasized. It is important to place value on the regenerating or renewing effects of leisure activities.
It has been found that people with bipolar disorder frequently experience decreased ability to find or participate in leisure activities, mainly during periods of depression. Even when acute symptoms have ended and someone is considered to be in remission, people with bipolar disorder often find it hard to increase their participation in leisure activity again and continue to experience “deficits” in leisure activity.1 Helping individuals with bipolar disorder to engage fully in leisure activity is a vital part of recovery. One research study found that the amount of involvement in leisure activities "significantly predicted the adjustment to and recovery from mental illness."2 The authors of this study suggested that “the meanings [people look for] and gain from leisure can help them with stress-coping, recovery, adjustment (becoming more comfortable with their bipolar disorder), and active living for individuals with mental illness." The recognition that the creation of meaning is a crucial part of recovery is something new in clinical research, reflecting the Positive Psychology movement.
Leisure activities help you to: protect your sense of competence or ability to do the things you want (they could help give you a boost when you're not able to work because of mood symptoms), build or maintain connections to other people (they could uplift you if you’ve been feeling socially isolated); express yourself creatively (they can make you feel rejuvenated when you've been feeling ‘blah’ and uncreative) and regain a general sense of wellbeing.
In a research study of personal stories of people living with bipolar disorder, some said they were concerned that excessive or over-involvement in their leisure activities had triggered a manic episode, and so they were afraid of becoming involved in such activities again.3 Although excessive or extreme involvement in activities may indeed lead to mania, going too far in the opposite direction by stopping all activities is an ineffective solution and may lead to a depressive episode. Finding a midpoint, a moderate and sustainable degree of involvement in leisure activity, is the best solution.
How you can take action
Increasing your leisure activity will involve setting goals that you are likely to follow through on. It is the most useful to you if your leisure goals are both realistic and practical. If you’ve been feeling depressed, keep in mind that depression makes it difficult to get moving. As a result, you need to set your goals much lower than you ordinarily would. For example, if you would like to start going to films again, your first goal might be to find a list of film showings coming up over the next few weeks. Useful goals are: Specific (give a very clear and concrete description of what you're aiming to do), Realistic (set your goal to be easy enough so it's achievable even if you feel pretty depressed in the coming weeks) and Scheduled (set out exactly when and where you're going to do the leisure activity).
Act first, motivate later. Remember to set goals even if you don’t want to or you don’t feel “motivated”. Motivation is often the first thing to go when a person’s mood is low. If you can begin setting leisure activity goals, following through and then checking off the goal in your schedule, you can gradually reestablish motivation or the desire to do something. But if you wait for your motivation level to rise to some level that you think is necessary, you might be waiting a long time to start your leisure plan.
One leisure studies expert feels that there are different types of leisure activities: Casual Leisure requires little or no preparation and involves short-lived pleasurable activity (this would include sociable conversation, pleasurable aerobic activity, etc.), Project Leisure involves more sustained effort and time (e.g. planning an anniversary party or building a scrapbook of a vacation), and Serious Leisure requires the learning of skills or knowledge and is generally more fulfilling (like volunteering, fine art, sports, etc.).4 You might want to think about how you would like to balance these three kinds of leisure in your life.
If you're getting support from a mental health clinic or other agency, you might have access to an Occupational Therapist (OT). An OT can be exceptionally helpful in working with you to identify leisure activities that would be helpful in achieving and maintaining wellbeing.