HEALTHAGENDA

PLAY

Why fun is seriously good for you

Fun isn't just fun – it can actually be good for your health.

Health Agenda
March 2017

Remember, as a child, the sheer joy of bouncing on a jumping castle, or the tactile pleasure of finger painting? Simply losing yourself in the moment, with no purpose other than to have fun. How many of us regularly experience anything like that as adults, especially during times of stress?

While playing tag in your lunch hour may no longer be for you, there’s growing evidence to suggest fun can be an antidote to the stress of modern life for adults. It can also bring health benefits.

Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) are currently tracking links between happiness and good health. Even accounting for factors such as genetics and lifestyle, people who have more positive emotions tend to lead longer, healthier lives, and scientists are looking for the reasons why.

The benefits

Dr Laura Kubzansky, co-director of the Center for Health and Happiness at HSPH, looks at children at play and sees the groundwork for a life less troubled by conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other problems related to stress and inflammation.

The trick, Kuzbansky has said, is to find a way to step away from the worries that preoccupy many adults. “Everyone needs to find a way to be in the moment, to find a restorative state that allows them to put down their burdens.”

That 'restorative state' doesn't need to be on a therapist's lounge or sitting at a resort bar. The benefits can be gained simply by fostering a sense of fun, says Jacki Short, principal psychologist at the Sydney Centre for Creative Change.

“Generally having more fun in our lives can benefit our mental health in lots of different ways. And if you have good mental health you’re far more likely to have good physical health as they flow into one another.”

Short's practice focuses on using play as a way to help children – and adults – deal with problems in their lives and to learn more easily.

Play, she says, “can help us seek out novelty and new things. It can make the things we have to persevere with a little bit more fun, and it can foster a greater sense of empathy both with ourselves and with others”.

“It’s essentially the key to vitality, which gives us energy and strength and hope. It’s something that most of us strive for and come up short.”

Fun is the only goal

The trick is to get rid of any preconceived notions. As adults, many of us think that having fun means participating in structured activities, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

“Some people think ‘if I’m going to be playful I have to take up soccer’,” says Short. "Or ‘I have to get a subscription to the theatre company’, so that might actually be making it inaccessible to them, they might not have the physical or financial resources.”

Play can be far less prescriptive. “It’s intrinsically enjoyable. It doesn’t necessarily have any extrinsic goals. It’s spontaneous and voluntary and there’s a lot of possibility that can emerge from it,” she says.

“One of the other key elements is it involves active engagement. What can happen if we’re really embedded in it is that we lose ourselves, we experience diminished self-consciousness and freedom from time. Play is about fun, flow and freedom.”

Personalised play

Fun is different for everyone. Doing Sudoku may give you pleasure while your friend finds joy in belly dancing – and that changes as we age. Just because you loved building pillow forts at seven doesn’t mean it’s still fun for you at 47 (although if it is that’s OK too).

“Be really honest with what makes you happy,” says Short. “So often we hold onto notions of what made us happy in the past, or what should make us happy, or what everyone else tells us is a really good idea.”

For Dr Kubzansky, it happens at the piano keyboard. “I’m in the moment. I’m not worrying or thinking or trying to work out a problem. I’m just doing this thing that takes all my attention.”

Get started

If you’re unsure where to start, here are some ideas:

  • Grab a colouring-in book (they’ve been all the rage for a reason)
  • Go to the park. You don’t need to be a kid to jump on a swing, throw or kick a ball or fly a kite
  • Organise a games day – it could be board games, cards or backyard cricket – spending time with friends and family is a good way to make fun social.

Time poor? Try simply bringing a playful attitude to everyday life. Something as basic as smiling at strangers or wearing brighter colours can be enough to lift the spirits.

“Do something playful and spontaneous,” Short says, adding that it doesn’t need to be anything more exciting than literally stopping to smell the roses.

“That spirit of playfulness, enquiry and curiosity can lead us to new healthy ways of thinking,” she says.

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