One day early in the pandemic, after I dropped my daughter at her job, I went for a long drive on some country roads. I surfed the radio and gazed at the greens of spring out my window. It was a dose of freedom in a constrained and uncertain time.
It was spontaneous, and it was fun. The experts who study fun – and take it seriously – say we need more of it, especially now. Now that I’m fully vaccinated and pandemic limits are fewer, I plan to seek out more fun.
Fun is in the eye of the beholder, which makes it a rather difficult thing to define – or to study. Riding a roller coaster might be fun for one person but not another; likewise, fishing, playing video games, dancing, visiting antique shops, doing puzzles or attending a hockey game.
Fun can be social – something done with others – or solitary, says Scott Eberle, a researcher and Psychology Today columnist who previously worked at Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y. After months of isolation, he says, “We know how to play solitaire.”
Perhaps now is a good time to try something new.
“Most of us have overconfidence about what we like,” says Travis Oh, who studies consumer behavior at Yeshiva University. When you go to a favorite restaurant, no matter how long the menu, you’ll probably order something you’ve had before.
“The biases we have as consumers keep us from trying new things,” he says, which can be as true for fun activities as it is for menu options. Trying new things provides its own fun, and the same can be true of spontaneity.
To try to define what makes something fun, Oh and his team interviewed 21 people ranging from teens to 70-somethings about how they do fun. Two common features emerged from the wide range of activities that participants cited:
• A sense of release or liberation from workaday lives.
• How engaged or immersed people felt during the activity.
Oh also notes that fun experiences are often cordoned off from the rest of life in space or time. You have fun on a baseball diamond or on a Sunday afternoon.
Those boundaries, in turn, may contribute to the sense of free play. “Once there, we get away with things we shouldn’t otherwise,” Eberle says.
Fun is related to play, although they’re not the same. “Play is one way we structure fun,” Oh says, “but you can have fun without play,” as with activities such as daydreaming or watching a film.
There’s lots of research on the benefits of play, mostly in children. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that play promotes learning, cognitive and language development and social-emotional health – especially during a child’s development.
Play also helps to mitigate the toxic aspects of stress. Oh says that the increased number of students reporting depressed feelings may well result from their neglecting fun and taking life too seriously.
What about us oldies? “The effects of play are global,” Eberle says. “The benefits can be physical, social, emotional and intellectual.” Which means, he adds, you could become fitter, more connected, more resilient and wittier if you spent more time at play. Moreover, the point of play is to have fun, Eberle says. “These benefits are actually side effects.”
Susan Magsamen, founder and executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University, says the sense of time passing without you noticing is a key element of fun – as is doing things without necessarily having an end goal but just being in the moment.
“We undervalue these things,” she says. It’s letting go of expectations and paying attention to the right now; it’s the language of mindfulness.
Post-pandemic (if that’s where we are now, I’m not sure), do you want to go back to normal? Or do you want to create a new normal that includes more play and more fun?
“It’s a great opportunity to get to the essence of things we took for granted before,” Magsamen says. Given a year-plus of pandemic, politics, economic stress and social justice issues, people’s stress hormones are off the charts, she says.
“We’re in a heightened state of biology. It’s not healthy,” Magsamen says. We need more chemical messengers associated with pleasure, namely oxytocin and dopamine, she says. When those substances are coursing through our veins, she says, “We learn better, we’re more creative, and we’re more resilient.”
Many people consider fun and play as extra activities and opportunities, something to partake in if you have free time. It goes against our work ethics, our to-do lists and all the “shoulds” in our lives. Magsamen says we might promote play, perhaps particularly post-pandemic, from “nice to have” to “need to have.”
“Fun is a counterweight to the burdens of life, such as work, school and parenting in a pandemic,” Oh says. “If you’re not good at spontaneous fun, then schedule it.”
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