Everyone wants to have fun – but not all of us have the right kind of fun. It can be no laughing matter, too. Clinical psychologist DR QURATULAIN ZAIDI of Mind N Life looks at the psychological effects of experiencing fun, how it benefits our mental health and how we can increase the fun in our lives.
In a culture and society that is driven by (and values success by) productivity and achievement, it’s hard to give ourselves permission to have fun. Fun is seen as a waste of time. Yet, the irony is that having fun can make us more productive.
Culturally, we are all under constant pressure to build a successful and prosperous career, do well in school, be a good parent (or child), make meaningful social relationships, or exert positive social influence. When we strive for meaningful purposeful life through a sense of achievement, unfortunately it’s not healthy; because, when we fall short of these achievements, we are creating a perpetual cycle of stress, depression and not being good enough.
Fun makes us feel the most engaged and alive. Many people radically underestimate how important fun is to their resilience, happiness and mental and physical health. They’ll often use the word “fun” to describe anything they do with their leisure time, even when those things, upon reflection, aren’t actually enjoyable.
The essential characteristic of fun is a sense of liberation. It’s a temporary release from various internalised and externally imposed restrictions, such as work obligations, schedules, routines, parenting responsibilities, schoolwork, And, to add a more recent one to the list – mask wearing and social distancing.
Research shows that when we experience fun, we experience the confluence of a number of psychological states, including the following:
This isn’t about playing games – playfulness is a quality of light-heartedness that allows you to do things in everyday life just for the pleasure of it.
Being spontaneous is about being carefree.
Connection refers to the feeling of having a special, shared experience with another person.
A sense of liberation comes from temporary freedom from the various constraints of life (for example, obligations, discipline and restrictions); when this happens at the same time as a pleasurable activity, the experience of fun is maximised.
Flow describes a state of being fully engaged and focused, often to the point that you lose track of time. It’s important to note that flow is an active state. The hypnotised daze we fall into when we binge-watch Netflix or scroll through social media is definitely not a state of flow. Researchers call these mindless absorbing activities “junk flow”.
Fun is an experience of liberating engagement. So, if you want to kill someone’s fun, it’s easily done by enforcing behavioural and psychological limitations – just as the pandemic has done to our lives over the past two and half years!
What are the health benefits of having fun?
#1 Reduced stress
Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone” or the “fight or flight hormone”, spikes to unhealthy levels when we’re stressed. It’s intended to save our lives in a do-or-die situation; however, at low levels of stress (when there’s nothing to fight or flee) cortisol can cause weight gain and can even inhibit the body’s ability to fight off infection and heal itself. Having fun and taking the time to play reduces cortisol levels.
#2 Increased serotonin
On the flip side, having fun increases serotonin levels. Serotonin is a chemical that regulates many of our most basic processes, including sleep patterns, memory, body temperature and mood. Doing activities you enjoy and that help you relax and connect with others naturally increases the body’s serotonin levels.
#3 Improved ability to cope
Stress is inevitable – and not every waking moment can be spent having fun. So think of fun, stress-free activities as savings in the bank. When stress, pain or negative situations arise, it’s helpful to access these savings to provide a sense of calm.
#4 Enhanced energy levels, memory and concentration
Having fun and enjoying leisure activities can also help boost your energy levels. The reduced cortisol levels and increased serotonin levels that come with having fun can help give you a clearer mind and better memory.
Forming meaningful connections with others is one of the most significant health benefits of having fun. Taking time to enjoy activities and conversations with friends gives us a sense of connection, usefulness and meaning that can be more powerful than any prescription. As American researcher and academic Brené Brown says, “The truth of the matter is that a sense of social connection is one of our fundamental human needs.”
Taking time to relax right before bedtime is especially important; indeed, any fun or relaxing activities during the day can help reduce cortisol levels and improve the quality of sleep. Research studies have shown that people with lower stress levels are much more likely to report “very good” or “excellent” quality sleep (33 percent compared to eight percent in one study).
How can I increase the fun in my life?
#1 Cut down on “fake fun”
Fake fun consists of activities that take up our leisure time, but that don’t inspire playfulness or connection, or result in the total engagement that happens with flow. Scrolling social media and bingewatching television are two examples of fake fun that can make pandemic anxiety and hopelessness even worse. If you identify the sources of fake fun in your life and reduce the amount of time you spend on them, you’re likely to find extra hours each week that you can devote to the pursuit of true fun.
#2 Find your brand of fun
We all experience fun differently, so identify yours. Try to think of two or three experiences from your life in which you remember really having fun. Think of times when you laughed with other people and felt completely engrossed in the experience. What were you doing? Who were you with? What made the experience feel so good? Keep in mind that small moments count.
#3 Make conscious time to have fun
It’s impossible to plan for fun, because fun is an emotional experience that can’t be forced. It is possible, however, to make fun more likely to occur, simply by prioritising the people and activities that are the most likely to create it for you. And remember that “micro” doses of fun are important too!
The impact of the pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of humanity as a whole has been huge, and it is consequently more important than ever to actively try to create playfulness, spontaneity, connection, liberation and flow. Life is too short, and we have a choice around making every moment count in a positive way. Being productive is important, yet it can’t be our sole aim. And when most people look back at their positive memories, these are moments of feeling connected, focused and present, free from anxiety and self-criticism, and full of laughter. So let’s prioritise it!
Dr Zaidi is a British-registered clinical psychologist who works with individuals, couples and families in her private practice in Central, and as a mental health consultant for a number of NGOs and international corporations.
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This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.