Why fun is so rare these days and the 7 health benefits of having more of it.
Why fun is so rare these days and the 7 health benefits of having more of it.
Whether it’s true or not, many people feel as if they are living lives similar to Hutch in the movie “Nobody.” Wake up, shower, get dressed, drink coffee, bus to work, punch in, punch out, bus home, eat dinner, argue, hit the pillow frustrated, wake up frustrated and do it all again. Day after day. Joyless. Funless.
Even when we’re not living that way, it often feels like we are because there is so much built-in repetition in our lives. We love our routines, even though they distract us from opportunities for fun.
Why we need fun
Fun is often mischaracterized as a pleasant momentary feeling. But it’s a lot more than that. For one, it’s a neurochemical carrot designed to encourage you to “play.” Fun stimulates a process of experimentation which often leads to the acquisition of new skills that contribute to your survival. It’s not just a grande ol’ time, having fun can make you a better hunter, farmer, technologist, or anything really. Fun is evolution.
Fun is also a bright spark of joy where time pauses. Maybe it’s hopping a fence to climb along the underbelly of a long suspension bridge. Going on a particularly thrilling bike ride or leaping out of a plane with only a parachute. Playing the handshake game with a bunch of friends. Or like Dr. John Kitchin, aka “Slowmo,” who quit his successful practice as a neurologist to skate ever so slowly along San Diego’s boardwalk. This is the good stuff. People having fun look as if they’re being illuminated from within – as if glowing. Fun fills us up and makes us feel present.
The 7 health benefits of fun
Fun may also be just the thing we need to improve our deteriorating health. As a society, and mainly as we become adults, we suffer from a whole host of maladies that stem from inactivity, lack of connection, excessive stress, and sleep deprivation. Collectively, we’re an overweight, depressed, anxious ball of nerves and these are all things that having fun can address. Fun…
- Gives you energy: The way we live our lives these days is draining. Fun reduces burnout, helps recharge our batteries and makes us feel more mentally awake and capable.
- Improves learning: Having fun while learning strengthens and broadens memory networks and helps your mind toggle between wandering and focused. This, in turn, can improve your overall capacity to learn.
- Relieves stress: High levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) can lead to weight gain and sleep loss, and retard the body’s ability to fight off infection. Fun reduces cortisol, helps take your mind off your worries, and transports you to a more positive and relaxed place. Ahh. That’s the stuff.
- Helps you be more active: Many things we find fun involve physical activity and other people. Dancing, playing sports, swimming, walking with someone you care about, etc. etc.
- Boosts serotonin: Fun boosts serotonin levels, a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that improves mood, helps maintain healthy sleep patterns, reduces anxiety and stabilizes emotions.
- Improves memory: By reducing cortisol and boosting serotonin, you’ll enjoy a clearer mind and better memory.
- Improves longevity: Having fun improves positive emotions which is directly correlated with living a longer life. In a classic study, those with fewer positive emotions in their written autobiographies died on average 10 years earlier than those expressing lots of positive emotions. Other studies found the same solid link between feeling good and living longer.
Fun is a whoopie cushion in the brain
So why aren’t we having more fun?
Do you know anybody who would like to be having less fun? No, you don’t. Because everyone wants more of it and it’s relatively easy to conjure. But fun seems to be in short supply due in large part to our routines. Routine and fun seem to be at odds and, let’s face it, routine has all the momentum.
But it may also have to do with the fact that we don’t truly understand what fun actually is. When asked to recount their truly fun memories, people tell you some of the most treasured memories of their lives – and they do sound like legit fun. But if you ask what fun they’ve been having lately, they might give you a list of activities that are often marketed as fun but are nothing more than a jolt of dopamine: shopping, eating out, binging TV, gaming, watching sports with a buddy, or popping out for a going for a soft serve frozen custard chocolate vanilla twist cone. These activities may be pleasurable, but they do not rise to the level of fun in the true sense. They’re cheap-plastic-toy-shaped fun. Made in China fun.
Most of the time when you ask someone to define fun, they’ll list off fake fun activities like the ones above or recount the times in their lives when they had fun. But none of that gets us any closer to the notion of what fun actually is. Obvious question: how can we expect to have more of something that we can’t describe and don’t understand?
So what is fun, exactly?
Catherine Price, author of “The Power of Fun” spent nearly five years researching the question of what, precisely, fun is. In her 2021 Ted Talk she describes it as, “Feeling alive.” Fun is a whoopie cushion in the brain. It lights us up and gives us energy. When people tell stories about fun they had, the details are always different, but the way they look while telling those stories is the same.
Price describes these three key elements of fun:
- Playfulness: a lighthearted attitude. Letting go of perfectionism and embracing curious, wandering explorations.
- Connection: Usually a shared experience, but not always. Most peak fun memories involve others.
- Flow: You’ve heard the saying, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” The reason for that is that you’re so engaged and focused when having fun that you lose track of time. You are fully engaged and immersed.
Separately, these three states of being have all been shown to improve people’s’ moods and mental health. When experienced simultaneously (i.e. when they’re having fun), the effects that people report are almost magical. When people are having actual deep fun, they report feeling focused and present, free from anxiety and self-criticism. They laugh and feel connected, both to other people and to their authentic selves. Who wouldn’t want more of that?
Play… it went away.
When we’re kids, fun is high on the menu. We have “play dates” and birthday parties in the “fun zone.” We hoppity hop, bouncy house, trampoline, and, of course, video game. It’s easy to have fun.
But eventually, and rather gradually, the scissors, glue, doodling, chasing, tagging, cartwheeling, and experimenting give way to plugging formulas into a school-issued laptop, watching YouTube tutorials, scrolling your device, filling in worksheets, walking the strip mall and writing essays. No fun. (Fun fact: a 2014 study found that boredom accounts for nearly a third of the variations in student achievement. Teachers should really make learning more fun.)
The way that we are socialized in our culture supports the gradual atrophying of our fun muscle. “Don’t be silly,” they say. “Why don’t you grow up?” “Stop clowning around and get serious.” As we get older, we hear these things enough times and our playground of possibilities naturally starts to shrink. We start to think, “Well, I guess the fun’s over.” Play is not encouraged, fostered or even culturally expected. It’s on the menu, sure, but it’s a side order. An extra. The main entree of adult life is doing your assigned job, raising kids, paying bills, maintaining a long-term relationship and maybe squeezing in a little exercise. You are supposed to run around with your head in a box and be constantly late for everything.
Flow… it had to go, too.
While being in a flow state is a key component of fun, modern humans have a hard time getting into this meditative state. Everything around us is designed to grab our attention and distract us. We get hundreds of emails, go to six meetings, and process scores of text messages, SMS, reminders and mobile push notifications every single day.
Our technology addictions distract us from our distractions. The second we have some downtime, we pick up our device and scroll. Not prioritizing fun creates a void that addictive algorithms are more than happy to fill.
So how do we have more fun?
“I don’t know how to have fun,” is a thing that some people say. Maybe you’ve said it. The truth is that people often forget what fun feels like and how to begin conjuring it again. Fun, like so many psychological things, can be thought of as a kind of muscle or a constellation of habits that become stronger and more second nature the more that you do them.
But where to begin?
Look, the last thing you need is an article on the internet telling you precisely how to have more fun. You know how. All you need is a reminder to have it and the time and mental space to conjure it up. Then just follow your inner child. They know what they’re doing and have been waiting for you to get the fun going.At Pinwheel, we believe that fun is a critical part of our work – not a thing to do after work. And since we all love the crafts that we’ve chosen already (design, writing, etc.), all we really needed was to give our creative children a playground and tell them to go have a ball. So we created an entire play page on our website to give our fun projects some airtime. Check it out… and go leave your own funprint on the world.