Boost your fun factor: It’s good for you!

by Lisa T. Wood:           

Buttoned-up blouses and sensible shoes bumped next to tattooed biceps and mini skirts.

Live music screamed from speakers as the crowd pulsated together in the dark—smiles beaming, heads jiving and fists pumping in enthusiasm. Friday night dancing at a Walnut Creek pub seemed to bring out the uninhibited fun side of everyone after a long week of work. Especially for a group of women my friends and I noticed and quickly nicknamed "the lunch ladies."

I doubt they were actual lunch ladies, but maybe. Either way, you know the vision of the stereotyped lunch lady"a bit quirky, possibly nice or possibly not, efficient and singularly focused on the task at hand. Perhaps even a bit, let's say, stodgy. But if these were real lunch ladies next to us, they showed none of their weekday persona.

Give it a Try

The camaraderie between them was evident—each one subtly encouraging the other to slide out from behind the safety of the leatherette booth and slip in amongst the more extroverted partiers. What caught our eye was how much fun bounced between them. Nothing too flashy or affected, no silky "moves" Beyonce-style. Just a little hip shake there, a shoulder dip here, and a finger snap punctuated by a twinkle of the eye.

The lunch ladies prompted my curiosity to look around the room. What a crowd! A cross section of people with different ages, styles, nationalities, motivations and experiences sharing a common moment in time. And importantly, people were smiling—leaving behind for just a minute worries about the economy, money and health, global warming or eating more veggies.

There was certainly scheming going on in shadowed corners of the room—darting eye contact and human insecurities on display as drums thumped and possibilities swirled. But the simplicity of the experience, the basic fun of dance and desire for human connection was utterly refreshing. Fueled by the crowd's enthusiasm, I was all too happy to jump up myself, let go of the daily minutiae and simply dance.

Where's the Fun?

Which got me thinking: It is so hard for adults to just have fun. Oh, we're plenty good at fret or worry, show some talent for working and are fairly skilled at planning and decision-making. Through life we spend significant time and money learning how to work. But along the way did we forget fun? Did we forget play?

Many adults think "vacation" when considering fun. Yes, vacations can be fun. They also often require a lot of work, planning, money and time, which can lead us back to fret and worry, which postpones the fun. Isn't there an easier way to get into the fun zone?

Children don't have any trouble finding fun. Grab a stick or a cardboard box and that's a party right there. Or picture in your mind a child at the beach, sand between tiny toes, skittering along the first few foamy inches of water rolling up the shore. That's it. Heaven. Living in the present moment.

And here's a fun, yet unverified fact: Not one person on the beach under 4ft tall worries about 6-pack abs, muffin tops or bathing suits being "in" this season. Those fun zapping concerns are the exclusive territory of adults and teens.

Chores or Play? Hmmm.

But fun and play are tough for grown-ups to "justify."  There is no shortage of things we should do like pay bills and schedule dentist appointments. But where's the fun in that?  In Psychology Today, Emma M. Seppala, Ph.D., takes a look at play in her article titled "5 Reasons to Increase Your Play in 2013," citing research that suggests playing, laughter and fun are essential to our well-being, creativity, and health.

For example, Mark Beeman, Ph.D., at Northwestern University found people have an easier time solving a puzzle after watching a short comedy clip. The study suggests fun, which perhaps eases tension, may facilitate brain connections helpful for more mental flexibility and creativity.

Dr. Seppala also points to a study by Barbara Fredrikson, Ph.D., of the University of Chapel Hill, North Carolina concluding that play and resulting positive emotions can bring more creative thinking. "Taking a break and engaging in a totally frivolous act of fun can help loosen our tension and worries and help us think of different ways to engage with a challenging situation," notes Seppala.

You are Here—Or are You?

Play and fun have also been linked to decreased stress and inflammation in the body and may improve vascular health. And one of the most interesting connections between play and wellness highlights living in the present moment. Play may be fun because it focuses our energy in the present moment, which many experts believe is one place we can feel happiness.

But living in the now, as books and spiritual teachers advise for happiness and overall well-being, is an elusive state of mind for adults. You've probably experienced first hand the challenge of present living, and the numbers agree: 50% of the time we aren't in the present moment, according to a study of 5,000 people by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University.

If we aren't in the present then where the heck are we? Apparently, in either the past or the future, neither of which offer the benefits of real fun in the present. Our minds seem to naturally wander away from the present moment and according to Seppala, researchers found that "a wandering mind is an unhappy mind."

Prescription: More Fun

I don't think anyone purposefully writes "create an unhappy mind" at the top of the "to do" list. But we can end up with one by accident, inaction or inattention. Fortunately, at least one way to foster a happy mind is to enthusiastically cannonball into play and fun.

Is it time for you to do like the lunch ladies? If a leatherette booth is all that's keeping you on the sideline of fun, then slide on out and join in. Actually, why not get started? ThWhat things can you do right now that rank high on the fun meter? The timing is perfect with one of the best seasons for fun and play warming up around the corner. As kids write in school yearbooks: Have fun this summer!

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