The Science of Play. The Art of Fun.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how much fun have you had this week? How many times have you felt completely free and completely alive?
I’ve recently been listening to the Happiness Lab podcast with Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santos. Dr. Santos is most known for the most highly-attended class at Yale, entitled The Science of Well-Being. That’s a fancy course name for “How to Be Happier.” What’s not to love about that?
In a recent episode of her podcast, Dr. Santos joined a research project on how to have more fun, led by Catherine Price, author of The Power Of Fun: How To Feel Alive Again. Catherine Price describes having fun as being “engaged, focused, connected, and completely present.”
It’s not scrolling or checking notifications, zoning out or vegging on the couch. It’s laughing, twirling, soaking in life. It’s that feeling when you turn off your phone for take-off and settle in for a long flight – or is that just me?
It got me thinking about why fun matters- and how to have more of it.
It turns out, the science of fun is pretty interesting.
Even though everyone has their own idea of what’s fun, getting to do what we want, when we want is key. So if my mom says I have to do it a certain way, it probably doesn’t count as play any more!
Sharing the activity with other people is also key! When most people recall fun experiences, they are usually with other people. Introverts included. In the last year, we’ve all seen the negative effects of isolation. It stands to reason that the reverse is true. When we have fun together, we reap benefits too.
Physically, when we’re having fun, we get a hit of dopamine, the same feel-good hormone we get when we’re eating our favorite food, being rewarded or falling in love.
And when we get large hits of dopamine, we also lose track of time. If you’re thinking “time flies when you’re having fun,” it turns out it kind of does! Yasemin Saplakoglu writes for LiveScience.com about the research of Joe Paton, a neuroscientist at the Champalimaud Foundation:
“When you’re having fun, [brain] cells are more active, they release a lot of dopamine and your brain judges that less time has passed than actually has. When you’re not having fun, these cells don’t release as much dopamine, and time seems to slow down.”
Not only do we gain a lot of benefits from taking time to play, but when we don’t there are negative side effects too.
Depression, anxiety, and irritability are all symptoms of a lack of play, according to Dr. Stuart Brown, the former chief of Psychiatry at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in San Diego and author of the book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (Avery, 2009).
There’s even research that suggests that having fun increases productivity and reduces burnout. It reduces stress and balances hormones. It’s the spoonful of sugar AND the medicine!
So basically to sum it up…
- Strengthens relationships
- Makes time fly
- Decreases depression and anxiety
- Increases productivity and reduces burnout
- Makes us healthier
Fun creates bonds and builds resilience, in ourselves and in our families. It makes us better parents, friends, teachers, colleagues. It can actually make us healthier, happier people. And when we do go back to work, because accomplishing goals is awesome too, it helps us be more creative problem solvers and more productive.
That’s great. But I’m busy, you say. I don’t have time to do more. So how do I have more fun?
I’m glad you asked! Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Try noticing one delightful thing every day.
Start small. Look for something that makes you smile – or laugh! – and dwell on it, journal it, revel in it for just a moment. For me, I am ridiculously overjoyed by lizard sightings, butterflies, or the way my kids say “afore” instead of “before”. Or the fact that my youngest is suddenly insisting that everyone give him “two blue Easter eggs” for his birthday in February.
- Invest time in a hobby.
Reading, crossword puzzles, painting, pickup basketball games. It might feel like skipping school at first, but research shows that it will make you more efficient and more productive when you return to work.
- Plan a family “yes day.”
Watch the movie Yes Day on Netflix if you don’t know what a yes day is! Pick a day and treat it like a stay-cation. Everyone gets a say in what you do and everyone’s all-in. Remember, having fun together strengthens your bond and increases resilience in your kids.
- Have regular family date nights.
Put everyone’s phone away and go bowling or play games. (We’ve got some game ideas here.) Make sure that everyone gets a chance to choose the activity and don’t make it about the rules or manners. Laugh together as much as possible!
- Experiment with new activities.
Take a dance class or piano lessons. But don’t be afraid to quit if you’re not having fun. Just because it’s fun for someone else, doesn’t mean you have to like it!
- Schedule free time into your family’s calendar.
It takes intentionality to keep the family calendar from looking like a war plan. But just like well-visits and teeth cleanings, everyone needs unscheduled free play every now and again.
- Try noticing one delightful thing every day.
- It turns out, fun is as important for your health as eating healthy, drinking enough water or exercising. And if you don’t believe me, just do a quick Google search and you’ll find a lot more research to prove it! So, take the scenic route, stop to smell the roses, play a little PacMan. It’s worth every second.
- And if you have more ideas on easy ways to incorporate fun into your day, drop us a note in the comments!
Kelly has lived in three countries and worked with teens from all different walks of life, encouraging them to pursue their passions and to be kind.