As people practice social distancing at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many have picked up new hobbies like tie-dyeing, baking banana bread and learning TikTok dances. Another increasingly popular pastime: doing jigsaw puzzles.
Puzzle manufacturers have reported soaring sales and even shortages. It turns out there are psychological reasons for the mania right now.
“Our primitive lizard brains are on overdrive in quarantine. We know on a cellular level that there is a threat to our survival, as both individual humans and a species, so we are stuck in a fight-flight-freeze cycle where our brains can’t figure out which one will keep us alive,” psychotherapist Jenny Maenpaa told HuffPost.
“We’re not sleeping well because we’re staying alert enough to jump out of bed if the threat comes close enough to us, which our brains can’t understand is an unhelpful and irrelevant biological response to a virus,” Maenpaa said. “When we don’t get enough restorative sleep, our reaction times are slower, our emotional self-regulation is poorer, and we have trouble performing high-level cognitive functions. Puzzles are a surprising antidote to all of those challenges.”
But why and how exactly do puzzles soothe us during difficult times? HuffPost spoke to Maenpaa and other experts to find out.
They Offer A Sense Of Control
“While COVID-19 is associated with a lack of control and an unknown end, puzzles offer the opposite,” said Michael Vilensky, a psychologist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. “With a puzzle, with enough time and effort, we can control the outcome, know it will end, and experience a sense of relief and accomplishment when it’s finished.”
Karen Kavett is YouTube personality with a channel entirely dedicated to jigsaw puzzles. She told HuffPost she agrees that jigsaw puzzles are a great activity when the world feels out of control because the task is entirely within your power. You can do it solo or with a group. You can spend all day putting it together or just work on it for a few minutes at a time whenever you’re in the mood.
“With a puzzle, with enough time and effort, we can control the outcome, know it will end, and experience a sense of relief and accomplishment when it’s finished.”
– Michael Vilensky, Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center
“It’s also an activity where you’re simply assembling an item that already exists, rather than needing to expend mental energy to create something new,” she added. “Plus, since there are so many different types of jigsaw puzzles out there these days, anyone can find an image that speaks to them.”
There’s A Clear Purpose
Puzzles can provide a clear goal and sense of purpose in this time when people feel aimless and unable to map out future plans.
“Right now in quarantine, so many of us are performing meaningless tasks, like showering, just to feel like we did something,” Maenpaa said. “Sure, it’s ‘doing something’; but it’s not productive in the sense that it gets you towards any larger goals other than not offending those in your close proximity. But doing a puzzle feels like working towards something bigger than your to-do list, which is especially alluring when meaningful action in quarantine can be hard to come by.”
There are very few clear answers in the chaos of life ― particularly in 2020. But jigsaw puzzles are all about clear solutions, which can be very soothing.
“In this uncertain time, we’ve heard from customers that seeing a pile of pieces come together as a finished puzzle is extremely satisfying,” said Thomas Kaeppeler, president of Ravensburger North America.
Patrick K. Porter, creator of BrainTap Technologies, noted that there’s a neuroscience component to this phenomenon. It also helps explain why some people feel like they can’t stop working on a puzzle until it’s finished.
“The conscious mind is known as a servomechanism, meaning it is goal-striving,” he explained. “During quarantine, when we have no environmental changes from one day to the next, it can feel like we’re living in Groundhog Day, as depicted in the Bill Murray movie. Jigsaw puzzles provide a challenge that gives this goal-seeking behavior an outlet. With each puzzle piece found, the puzzler gets a little hit of dopamine, which soothes the brain, and this reward then climaxes with the puzzle’s completion.”
You Can Feel Accomplished
“Human beings perform best when we have tasks that we are competent at and can succeed at but that challenge us just enough to feel accomplished when we complete them,” said Maenpaa.
He added that jigsaw puzzles are unique in the way they engage the logical part of the brain (rationally fitting pieces together) and the creative side (envisioning the big picture of the completed work).
Porter noted that our brains love patterns, but the uncertainty of the pandemic has disrupted our usual patterns of daily activities and left our minds seeking ways to fill that void.
“In common times, the problem-solving part of our brain is active all day, whether by navigating through traffic, working through a busy schedule, or planning a meal so every dish will be ready to serve at the same time,” he said. “This is how our brains build and maintain neuroplasticity, the ability to stay flexible and active. Therefore, jigsaw puzzles are an excellent choice for people of all ages during quarantine, or anytime.”
“People who find satisfaction in doing jigsaw puzzles tend to be those who prefer a planned and actionable life,” he continued. “These same people need the payoff in completing a task, which gives them a sense of accomplishment.”
It’s A Meditative Experience
For many, doing a jigsaw puzzle almost feels like meditation. That’s how A.J. Jacobs, an author who is working on a book about different types of puzzles, describes the experience.
“Some jigsaw friends of mine talk about how time just melts away,” he said. “You feel like you’ve been working on a puzzle for five minutes, but in reality three hours have passed. That can be helpful when you’re stuck inside for two months.”
“[Puzzles] take a certain level of concentration that creates mindful moments. These moments take us outside of ourselves and our worries.”
– Elizabeth Hinkle, therapist
Focusing on individual puzzle pieces and one overall image forces people to be present and relax. It’s also a tactile task without external stimulation like screens.
“They take a certain level of concentration that creates mindful moments. These moments take us outside of ourselves and our worries,” said Elizabeth Hinkle, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Talkspace.
In this meditative state, your brain may block out toxic thoughts and even process other ideas and feelings that had been bothering you. In any case, the destressing effects are powerful.
“When immersed in a great jigsaw puzzle your heart rate goes down and a sense of peacefulness overtakes you, lowering blood pressure and anxiety,” said Donna Brown, founder of The Missing Piece Puzzle Co. “Puzzling immerses you into a problem-solving situation that is relaxing and soothing, and it always feels great to place a piece in a puzzle.”
You Can Make It About Togetherness
“While puzzles can be satisfying on your own, they can also act as a welcome social activity during quarantine, in that the conversation can be about something other than COVID-19 and can bring about a sense of togetherness and working toward a shared goal,” Vilensky said.
Indeed, the group collaboration in completing a puzzle offers its own form of satisfaction. Brown said that in her days as a teacher, she rarely witnessed anyone passing a puzzle in progress without stopping to see what’s happening or offering to help. She believes the activity fosters a sense of community.
“Puzzling is such a social event, and it’s always fun to see different people’s personalities and strengths, such as problem solving, leadership qualities, and the ability to work together toward a common goal, emerge when working a jigsaw puzzle with others,” she said. “Starting a puzzle takes us from a chaotic place where the puzzle pieces are all willy-nilly, to a place of organization with the common goal of completing a picture.”
They Provide A Welcome Escape
Jigsaw puzzles offer a way to break up the monotony of the day in quarantine. They also take us back to simpler times before the pandemic.
“Puzzles are a throwback,” said Vilensky. “Like other popular quarantine activities (bread-making, going for a drive), puzzles can help us connect to the past and offer a sense of familiarity that is reassuring during new and chaotic times.”
Kaeppeler noted that certain types of puzzle images are calming and appealing to customers because they provide a sense of escape.
“For example, images that have a first-person view of a setting provide a calm environment for someone to focus and relax,” he said. Travel-related puzzles can also offer a feeling of a getaway.
Even if travel themes or cozy settings aren’t for you, there are countless other image options.
“I often get asked by people what puzzle they should buy, and my main rule of thumb is to just look for an image that makes you happy,” said Kavett. “I like bright colors, so many of the puzzles I do are bright gradients or very highly saturated illustrations, but there is a perfect puzzle out there for everyone.”