BATH, England — Relaxation is a valuable commodity in today’s fast-paced culture. More and more people all over the world are reporting increased bouts of anxiety and stress, prompting many developers to release mindfulness smartphone apps intended to help users control their breathing, calm down, and practice meditation. Besides the obvious irony associated with using a smartphone to quell anxiety, a surprising study out of the United Kingdom has found that playing smartphone video games may be better for mental health than mindfulness apps.
Conducted at University College London and The University of Bath, the study concluded that smartphone shape-fitting games (think Tetris or even Solitaire) can relieve more stress after a hard day’s work than mindfulness apps that prompt breathing or meditation activities.
Researchers conducted two experiments for the study. First, 45 students completed a 15-minute math test and were then given either a smartphone game, a mindfulness app, or a fidget spinner for 10-minutes to help them unwind. The study participants who played a game reported feeling more energized and less tired, while participants in the other two experimental groups reported feeling more lethargic.
For the second round of research, a separate group of 20 participants were asked to either play a shape-fitting smartphone game or use a mindfulness app after returning home from work for five days. Those who played the game after work reported feeling significantly more relaxed and in control at the end of the week compared to the meditation app users. In fact, participants who completed a beginner’s course on a popular mindfulness app actually scored progressively worse on relaxation ratings throughout the week.
It’s worth noting that both groups displayed roughly the same energy levels at the end of this experiment.
“Far from feeling guilty about being absorbed by their phone, people who play such games after a stressful day at work should know they are likely to be gaining a real benefit,” explains study co-author Professor Anna Cox in a release.
While smartphone video games aren’t usually associated with stress relief, researchers say they check off all four factors associated with post-work recovery and relaxation: they are generally relaxing, they provide players an opportunity to learn a new skill, they are immersive and provide a fun distraction from the pressures of everyday life, and they allow the player to feel completely in control.
“To protect our long-term health and well-being, we need to be able to unwind and recuperate after work. Our study suggests playing digital games can be an effective way to do this,” says lead author Dr. Emily Collins.
Interestingly, researchers also noted that the more a participant seemed to enjoy playing the smartphone game, the greater benefit it provided in terms of post-work recovery. Remember that next time you play solitaire, it might be more beneficial than you think!
The study is published in the scientific journal JMIR Mental Health.