Mental Health: Experimenting with Fun
What comes to mind when you think of the word fun? Tropical beaches, hiking trails, or days full of adventure? Or maybe, gardening or long days by the pool?
Fun is an important aspect of mental health. It is a powerful antidote to stress, can provide relief from mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety, and can enhance social connection and bonding.
The funny thing is, we often think fun is something we plan for in the future. But if you reflect back on the times you had the most fun, it usually happens spontaneously.
So, let’s add a little play to your life and re-engage with fun this summer!
Finding Your Fun
Write down (or think of) some recent times you remember having fun. Maybe it’s a time you belly-laughed so hard your stomach cramped (laughter releases happiness hormones in the brain, like serotonin and endorphins). Or when you smiled so much your face hurt.
Now reflect on the last time you felt free. What happened to make you forget your responsibilities? Perhaps you can feel a sense of joy arising within you, even now.
Take a moment to revel in the most salient memory. See what happens when you check in with the five senses. Reflect on the who, what, where, when, and why that led you to encode that memory as fun.
As you read this article, keep that moment in mind. You might find your personal recipe for fun in the details.
The Psychology of Play
Children are gifted in the art of play. In fact, if you’ve spent any time with kids, you’ll likely recognize (at least intuitively) the importance of laughter, fun, and play. But it’s not just for kids; play is important in all of our lives. From a nervous system perspective, it gives us the opportunity to safely come to the edge of our sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system without becoming overwhelmed or feeling under attack.
Think of your nervous system in terms of riding a rollercoaster. As you reach the highest point, the suspense and fear build (perhaps, to the point of fight-or-flight). But as the coaster drops, the wind blows through your hair, and you delight in the freedom of screaming at the top of your lungs; you experience a release. You might even turn to see others laughing or making eye contact as a non-verbal sign you’re going to be okay. By the time the rollercoaster arrives back to its starting position, you can feel yourself returning to a sense of safety (the parasympathetic state of rest-and-digest).
A Recipe for Fun
The basic recipe for fun involves three main ingredients: mindfulness, freedom, and novelty. As we break down each of these ingredients, keep your memories of fun in mind. Consider how these elements allowed you to revel in an experience of fun. Then feel free to experiment and make it your own. What additional spices add joy, pleasure, or delight to your life? What unique flavors bring meaning or purpose to the pursuit of fun?
When we are present, we have the ability to engage. We notice the way a joke lands, erupting someone into laughter so infectious that soon we are laughing along. Mindfulness allows us to be present with joy as we fully connect with another human.
Mirror neurons are at play here. Researchers have discovered a place in the brain that lights up in response to another human’s behavior. For example, mirror neurons are to blame for a contagious yawn. They’re also at work when we feel empathy in response to another’s grief or sadness.
Mindfulness awakens us to the potential every moment has to offer. By staying present and engaged, we enhance our ability to connect. And when we are connected, fun – and laughter – become contagious.
It can be hard to prioritize fun while chasing meaning, passion, and purpose. You might even be wondering why fun really matters at all. Surely, fun cannot stack up against the weight of routine, money, success, or responsibility.
But Travis Tae Oh, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in researching fun, says liberation from responsibility is an essential component of fun – and can rejuvenate you for when you do need to return to responsibility.
We might think of liberation from responsibility as freedom. It’s that moment after the freefall of the rollercoaster, when you’re completely engaged with the present moment, unaware of anything other than the thump of your heart in your chest, and the feel of the wind at your face.
Freedom is a break. Freedom is not, however, avoidance, denial, or procrastination, postponing the inevitable as the pressure mounts. When we try to pretend our responsibilities do not exist, they loom in our subconscious and take mental energy away from the present.
True liberation requires a healthy balance of both freedom and responsibility. Learn to rise to the challenge of responsibility when it is necessary. And practice embracing freedom and relinquishing responsibility when a break is due.
So, what happens when we are completely present, and also free from responsibility? For many, a feeling of relaxation arises. But how can we elevate this moment of relaxation to one of fun? By adding an element of novelty – the third and final ingredient in our recipe for fun.
If it’s been awhile since you’ve experienced much fun, it might be time to step out of your comfort zone and add a little novelty to your life.
Novelty does not have to be scary – it can be anything outside your routine. (Although an element of playful fear or surprise can certainly be fun…think of a haunted house or horror movie.)
Maybe you commit to a fun exercise class once per week (think dance, yoga, or sports). Or perhaps you audition for a play, attend a community event, or set aside a date night with a friend or partner each week.
It’s also okay to let go of old hobbies that used to be fun, no matter how much time has been invested in them. A break from old hobbies might help you to rediscover the same passion and enjoyment they brought at the start. And in the meantime, what a great opportunity to try something new!
A Mindful Moment
Mental health concerns like trauma, depression, and anxiety can sometimes sabotage an experience of fun. Remember, if you’re feeling pressured to make a moment fun, that is not how fun works. Instead, focus on practicing mindfulness by allowing whatever feelings arise to be present.
As with any mindfulness practice, happiness and joy are not usually the first emotions to arise. It’s important not to suppress or judge any emotions that surface. Fun will come, eventually! Consider working with a mental health professional if feelings of depression or anxiety consistently block feelings of joy or experiences of fun.
Olivia Lynn Schnur is a professional writer, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and Certified Yoga Teacher. She writes about healing, health, and happiness with the goal of educating, uplifting, and inspiring readers. To learn more about Olivia, or to book a yoga session, visit oliviaschnur.com