Most of us want to have more fun, it just seems like it is not as easy as it used to be. The reasons are many: guilt (because others aren’t having fun), perceived inappropriateness (because others around us cannot have fun) or lack of time (because our commitment to others won’t let us have fun). Yet, science gives an encouraging nod that we need to make time for fun and should perhaps prioritize it.
What do having fun and staying healthy have in common?
A lot more than you might think.
Laughing with friends, throwing a ball for the dog, watching your favorite TV show, or reading a book might be called “leisure activities,” but the health benefits associated with some good old fashioned fun are nothing short of incredible. So the next time you’re feeling guilty for skipping the gym in favor of a reading a good book, keep these health benefits in mind:
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, which leads us to . . .
2. Sweet 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 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. However, taking time for leisure activities and play that make you feel great can help even when stressful situations do arise. Think of fun, stress-free activities as money in the bank. When stress, pain, or negative situations arise, you’ll be able to tap into reserves of calm, rather than finding yourself in the red.
4. Boosted Energy and Vitality
Having fun and enjoying leisure activities can also help boost your energy levels. Stress and pain are both mentally and physically draining. Taking the time to relax, enjoy yourself, and spend time with others doing activities that make you feel like yourself can help you feel less tired, more mentally awake, and more capable.
Stress is draining — it can suck the life out of us, making us tired and cranky. When we effectively reduce our stress levels, this can often provide us with a new boost of vitality. Having fun and playing have traditionally been connected with children and the early years of our development. However, many philosophers and psychologists emphasize the importance of play as we get older. Plato professed that life must be lived as play, and George Bernard Shaw famously said: We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
5. Improved Memory and Concentration
The reduced cortisol levels and increased serotonin levels that come with having fun mean you’ll enjoy a clearer mind and better memory. We all know the feeling of running on autopilot or becoming forgetful when a particularly stressful situation is troubling us. The same phenomenon occurs on a lower-level when it comes to stress. Regularly taking the time to relax and play reduces low-grade stress levels and frees up mental energy.
6. Improved Relationships
Research shows that when we have fun with others, these experiences have a positive effect on building trust and developing communication. Having fun gives us an opportunity to connect and be creative. When we laugh together, this sends an external non-verbal message that says: “We are alike, we share values” (Everett, 2011). It can also make us look more vulnerable, but at the same time approachable and friendly, which can help build connections and bonds. Drs. John and Julie Gottmann, relationship experts from the Seattle’s Gottman Research Institute, have been studying happy and unhappy couples (and their patterns of behavior) in a systematic way. They found that couples who are happy know how to have fun together. It appears that when we have the ability to create and partake in acts of humor and affection, our conflict resolution skills improve as well.
Studies show that fun activities at work can improve our relationships with co-workers. These strong bonds developed with our colleagues have been linked to improved performance and productivity (Kansal, Puja, & Maheshwari, 2012).
7. Sounder Sleep
Spending time laughing, playing, relaxing, or participating in enjoyable leisure activities can also help you sleep more soundly. Taking time to relax or doing something to make yourself smile right before bedtime is especially important, but any fun or relaxing activities during the day will reduce cortisol levels and improve how soundly you sleep.
Just like healthy eating is most beneficial when done over a sustained period of time, the health benefits of having fun only improve with time. Making a habit of relaxing, engaging in activities you enjoy, and spending time with people who make you happy will yield sustained and increasingly positive benefits of consistently lower stress, positive feelings, better sleep, better coping abilities, and improved relationships.