When you’re sad, bored, lonely, or otherwise unhappy, people often suggest that you get out of the house, join a group, do something nice for yourself, or some variation on that theme. It’s intuitive that engaging outwardly or doing something that you enjoy feels good, but this type of activity has been found to be so effective in improving mood that psychologists working with depressed clients implement mandatory participation in rewarding and pleasurable activities or in activities that increase feelings of mastery. An empirically validated treatment for depression, activity scheduling was developed thirty years ago after research demonstrated that depressed people find fewer activities pleasant and engage in pleasant activities less frequently than do non-depressed people.
Clients are provided with a blank weekly calendar and are asked to pencil in, for example, 15 minutes of rewarding or pleasurable activity twice per day. The activity has to be realistic: a severely depressed client is unlikely to suddenly join a sports team or redecorate the kitchen. A realistic pleasurable activity might be 15 minutes of reading a magazine and sipping a hot drink. An activity that promotes mastery might be as simple as watering the plants, completing a small errand, or merely showering and shaving. For a depressed client whose life is very busy (with unpleasant or unrewarding activities), a pleasurable activity might be an afternoon coffee break during which the client stops working and listens to his or her favourite music for 15 minutes. Clients are asked to monitor their mood on a graph so that they can observe the mood shifts that correspond with activity.
The non-depressed-person version of activity scheduling is personal projects. A personal project is a hobby, venture, or activity that makes you feel happy, fulfilled, or accomplished–-things like learning to knit, joining a pub ‘trivia night’ team, building a bookshelf, writing a blog, training for an athletic event, learning to play an instrument, designing a software program, and volunteering. The parallel between activity scheduling for depressed people and personal projects for well people is obvious, and provides an intriguing perspective on the role of personal projects in quality of life. Psychology research supports the prescription of enjoyable and rewarding activities as an anti-depressant for depressed clients; it doesn’t seem far-fetched to bet that personal projects increase fulfillment and improve quality of life in well people.