How Pleasant Activity Scheduling Helps Reduce Depression

Increasing your activity level is good for your mood.

Scheduling time with friends can reduce depression.

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Pleasant activity scheduling, which is also referred to as behavioral activation, is a therapy technique that is often used to treat individuals with mental health conditions such as depression.

It involves scheduling and participating in positive events that are meant to boost an individual’s mood. Pleasant activity scheduling is recognized as an evidence-based treatment that is effective in reducing a variety of mental health symptoms.

How It Works

Individuals who are experiencing depression often isolate themselves. They may stop engaging in activities they previously enjoyed, and they may decline social invitations.

Withdrawing from activities may increase their depression. Their symptoms may last longer and become more intense which may increase their tendency to isolate themselves even more.

To help break out of this cycle, a therapist may assist a client in identifying an activity that might boost their mood. Eating dinner with a friend, going to the gym, or playing a round of golf might help someone feel better.

But therapists don’t just assist clients in picking a random fun activity. Instead, they help clients identify their values. They rank how important specific values are to them such as work, education, volunteering, intimacy, family, friendship, spirituality, entertainment, and health.

Then, the therapist assists in gathering concrete activities that support these values. Someone who values friendship, for example, might enjoy having coffee or watching movies with a friend. Once concrete activities are identified, the therapist encourages the client to schedule some of these activities that are important to their values.

Next, they review the results with the therapist and determine a course of further action. Clients who found the activity helpful in boosting their moods may continue scheduling it. Those who didn’t find the activity helpful may work with the therapist on finding other ones that may boost their moods.

Scheduling a pleasant activity may help in two different ways:

  • The act of scheduling an activity may give the individual something to look forward to. As soon as they make plans, they may experience a boost in mood.
  • Then, when they engage in the activity, they’re likely to experience an even brighter mood which can help them break out of a downward spiral.

Research

Pleasant activity scheduling has been around since the 1970s. Initially, it was incorporated into cognitive behavioral therapy.

Cognitive behavior therapists assist individuals in replacing the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that contribute to distress. So while an individual may be learning how to reframe thoughts that fuel their depression, they might also be learning how to increase their activity level.

But research indicates that pleasant activity scheduling can be an effective stand-alone intervention.

In fact, some individuals with severe depression may struggle to replace irrational thoughts—which is a key component in cognitive behavioral therapy. Additionally, addressing their unhealthy thoughts may actually increase their feelings of guilt (a common symptom of depression).

Therefore, pleasant activity scheduling may be an even more effective way to improve mood when it’s used as a standalone intervention for depression.

Here are some other things research reveals about pleasant activity scheduling:

  • It’s effective in group settings. A 2019 study published in Behavioral Therapy concluded that “behavioral activation delivered in groups produces a moderate to large effect on depressive symptoms and should be considered an appropriate front-line treatment option.”
  • It may be helpful in treating addiction. A 2020 study published in Addictive Behaviors found that behavioral activation reduced the relapse rate in individuals who quit smoking since depression is often a factor that makes quitting difficult. Pleasant activity scheduling was effective in decreasing depressive symptoms while also increasing the chances that individuals would successfully stop smoking.
  • It may be more effective than other types of treatment for certain individuals. Individuals with lifelong depression, substance abuse issues, dementia, and severe depression may not respond well to the cognitive components of cognitive behavioral therapy. A 2009 study published in Behavior Modification found that these same individuals may experience relief from their symptoms when they engage in pleasant activity scheduling. The study also found that it may be superior to paroxetine in treating depression, because it results in less relapse and recurrence, may be substantially cheaper, and does not have the risks associated with medication.

The overwhelmingly positive studies on pleasant activity scheduling have helped make it an evidenced-based treatment. It’s used by many practitioners who are looking to improve the mental health of their clients.

Examples

Pleasant activity scheduling is completely custom to each client. While the therapist assists the client in identifying the activities they want to engage in, it’s up to the client to make the decisions on what they want to do and when they want to do it. Here are a few examples of how pleasant activity scheduling may be used in treatment:

  • A man developed depression after being laid off from his job. He spent his days at home watching TV and had little social interaction. His therapist helped him identify ways to increase his social interactions. He agreed to locate and attend one networking event each week. He also began meeting with a family member for coffee every morning. Increasing his social activity helped him feel happier and more hopeful about the future.
  • A woman experienced depression for many years. She struggled with low energy, and consequently she stopped going to the gym even though her health was important to her. She worked with her therapist on identifying some activities she was willing to try like going on a hike with friends. She scheduled one activity per week for a month and found that her mood slowly began to improve.
  • A college student reported feeling depressed during his first year of college. His therapist discovered that he spent a lot of time in his dorm room alone. The therapist asked about activities he used to enjoy doing and discovered that he was very involved in his church when he was in high school. The client agreed to attend local church services. After several weeks of participating, he found that his mood gradually became better.
  • A manager was given permission to work remotely. Initially, she liked the flexibility of working from home. But within a few months, she grew depressed. Her therapist helped her identify activities that could help her feel connected to the outside world. She began walking every morning, working from a coffee shop two afternoons per week, and attending the gym three evenings per week. Her symptoms of depression decreased as her social engagement increased.

A Word From Verywell

If you notice some mild symptoms of depression, you might find adding some pleasant activities to your regular routine helps you manage your symptoms. If, however, you’re struggling to feel better on you own, talk to your physician.

A doctor may refer you to a therapist. And you might find a therapist who encourages behavioral activation to be quite helpful in boosting your mood and helping you feel better. 

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  1. Simmonds-Buckley M, Kellett S, Waller G. Acceptability and Efficacy of Group Behavioral Activation for Depression Among Adults: A Meta-AnalysisBehavior Therapy. 2019;50(5):864-885. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2019.01.003.

  2. Martínez-Vispo C, López-Durán A, Senra C, Rodríguez-Cano R, Río EFD, Becoña E. Behavioral activation and smoking cessation outcomes: The role of depressive symptomsAddictive Behaviors. 2020;102:106183. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2019.106183.

  3. Sturmey P. Behavioral Activation Is an Evidence-Based Treatment for DepressionBehavior Modification. 2009;33(6):818-829. doi:10.1177/0145445509350094.