Fun and health: What’s the connection?

Taking life too seriously? You could be harming your health

Fun and health: What's the connection?

Source: Web exclusive: August 2011

If you’ve ever watched a child splashing in a puddle, or laughing at the top of her lungs at something as simple as a silly hat or a goofy dance move, then you’ve seen fun in action. In our busy world, kids are the keepers of fun, finding joy in the little things that make worth living.

As we get older and busier, however, fun can sometimes elude us. Our lengthy to-do lists and packed schedules often keep us from cultivating time for carefree frolicking and good, old-fashioned play. But scheduling a little fun into every day is an important way to cultivate good health and overall happiness.

Go with the flow

‘I think the biggest thing I see in my practice is that when people are having fun, they get into the flow,’ explains art therapist Nalini Iype, who helps her clients use creativity as a means of developing self-awareness while working through their problems. ‘They get so focused on what they’re doing that they forget what’s going on around them, and that brings them into a state of mindfulness.’

That’s because learning to live in the present’rather than worrying about things you can’t control in the past or the future’is an effective way of managing stress and anxiety. ‘You learn not to worry about the things you have no control over anyway,’ says Iype with a laugh.

Stop stress and anxiety

Whether you’re dancing, laughing with friends, playing music or embarking on a new craft project, doing something enjoyable can help you relax and slow down‘and that’s a vital strategy for healthy living. That’s because too much stress can negatively affect both mental and physical health. It can manifest itself in feelings of irritability or sadness, sleeping too much or not enough, weight loss or gain, or in straight-up negative thinking. It is considered a risk factor for issues including heart disease, mental illness and some types of bowel disease, and can have a negative effect on the immune system, which can leave the body vulnerable to disease.

Iype, who says she turns to painting and ceramics, bike riding and having picnics with friends when she’s looking for fun, says she recently worked with a man in his mid-thirties who was suffering from severe anxiety. ‘He was timid using the art materials,’ she explains, ‘so I suggested using finger paints. You could tell how happy he was to be making a mess. There were no rules, except to have pure fun.’ Iype says she could see his body relax as he worked. ‘There was a change in his body language. His shoulders dropped…he was really into it.

‘I think having fun allows people to connect to themselves and to become more in tune with themselves,” she adds. ‘That’s a healthy thing, because you can become more aware of your own wants, needs and desires’and that’s important because we are so often focused on other people.’

The good kind of selfish

Happiness coach and motivational speaker Leigh Anne Saxe agrees, saying too many of her clients see taking time for themselves as selfish. Instead, she urges them to see it as a good thing. ‘We can only be of help to other people when we’re feeling okay about things,’ she explains, ‘and we have nothing to offer anyone when we’re not. So it’s not only not selfish, it’s a selfless thing to do!’

Iype says that she sees too many adults forgetting that they are allowed to have fun’or indulging in activities that are competitive, rather than relaxing. ‘People forget to have fun for the sake of having fun,’ she explains. ‘I think there really are some societal pressures that say it’s irresponsible to have fun. I also think people get caught up in how they might look to their peers, so they may not pursue their passions.’ But she says as people grow older, they need to find a way to reconnect to the activities that fueled them when they were younger.

When she is helping her clients reconnect to their playful and creative selves, Saxe says she often walks them through their life stories, helping them note what once gave them joy. ‘When they were young they painted, or they built things. They didn’t hold back. We try to go back to the things they loved then. Many times they’ll find things they want to get back into.’

Whether you’re indulging in physical activity for the pure joy of the movement (and not just to burn fat!), using your hands to create something new, or spending time with others (try a board game or a sing-along!) you’ll reap all kinds of healthy benefits investing in your playful side. You may even enjoy yourself!