The Healing Value of Fun

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“I don’t exercise,” says my friend Alfred Gee, “I bargain hunt. I like to take the bus downtown and go to different stores. I compare prices and quality and have a great time, especially when I save some money. It takes hours, but I’m retired, so why not have some fun? By the time I get home, I’ve walked four or five miles. I’ve tricked myself into exercising.”

Not everyone shares Alfred’s idea of a good time. But we can all benefit from having more fun in our lives – and not just to help us exercise. Studies show that relaxing and enjoying ourselves on a regular basis can decrease stress, improve immune system function, decrease our perception of pain, improve our mood, and help our hearts beat more regularly. The fun prescription is the best you’ll ever get: there’s nothing to give up, nothing to monitor, and no fingersticks, needles, or drugs.

The healing power of fun and laughter is well supported in theory, but many of us don’t get enough of this medicine to test the theory for ourselves. Remember the parable of the ant and the grasshopper? The ant toiled endlessly all summer long, while the grasshopper goofed off. As a result, the ant had enough to eat over the winter, while the grasshopper starved. The fable never mentions the ant’s chronic back pain and high blood pressure. Our society strongly endorses the ant’s lifestyle: work, work, work. With legends of self-made men in our history books and phrases like “Time is money” in our vocabulary, Americans often view any nonproductive activity as a waste of time. Work is necessary and valuable, of course, but being a workaholic takes a considerable toll on our minds and bodies. We also need balance. Learning to take it easy from time to time will improve our health, quality of life, and probably our productivity as well.

Are we having fun yet?

What is fun, anyway, and how do we know when we’re having it? There’s no scientific definition, of course, and everyone has his own idea of what’s fun. Fun and laughter often go hand in hand, although you can have either one without the other. There are all types of laughter: polite, malicious, nervous. Scientists use the term “mirthful laughter” to indicate the kind of good-natured laughing we do when things strike us as funny or when we’re having a good time.

Fun can also be synonymous with play, pleasure, fascination, and joy. Having a good time usually means not taking ourselves or what we’re doing too seriously. At work, everything we do has a purpose, and the point is to produce or accomplish. In play, we do an activity for its own sake. We become absorbed in the game, puzzle, or movement, or in what we’re seeing and hearing. While we may also be trying to win a game or to learn something new, we enjoy the activity itself, as Alfred enjoys his bargain shopping.

Play often involves using our imagination and creativity. Have you ever seen comedians in an improv show find a dozen ways to use some simple prop to create unexpected effects? Silly, unusual, or incongruous sights or situations can often make us laugh and provide us with a lot of amusement. Of course, you don’t have to be in stitches to enjoy yourself. Taking simple pleasure in visual, sonic, or tactile beauty is another way of letting go and having fun.

A laughing matter

Some people claim that humor has actually cured them of serious and potentially fatal conditions. Norman Cousins jump-started the whole science of psychoneuroimmunology, or mind/body healing, with the famous example detailed in his book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient. After returning from a stressful trip abroad, Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic autoimmune disease. A form of arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis causes inflammation of the spine, pelvis, and many joints. Cousins’s doctors predicted a gloomy future. Facing this prognosis and dissatisfied with the quality of life and care in the hospital, Cousins checked himself into a hotel suite (at one-fourth the price of his hospital room!), where he had a film projector set up. He spent much of each day laughing himself silly over Marx Brothers movies and old episodes of Candid Camera. Within eight days, his pain subsided, and gradually, he recovered almost completely. Cousins believed that his positive attitude, good humor, and hope helped him to get the upper hand over his illness.

Japanese researchers have also documented the healing power of humor and laughter in rheumatoid arthritis, another autoimmune inflammatory disease. Twenty-six people with the disorder listened to an hour of rakugo, traditional Japanese comic stories. As the participants’ mood improved, their level of pain diminished. Moreover, their cortisol levels dropped, suggesting a reduction in stress; and their levels of interleukin-6 and interferon-gamma, indicators of inflammation, also fell. This means that the disease essentially “turned off” during the rakugo. It remained subdued for at least 12 hours afterward.

Laughter and good humor provide astonishing health benefits in other conditions as well. Researchers led by Lee Berk at Loma Linda University in California studied 48 people who had had a heart attack. Throughout the yearlong study, all participants received standard cardiac care, but half of them were instructed to watch humor videos of their choice for 30 minutes each day. Both groups had lab tests and EKGs (a test of heart function) twice a month. At the end of the study, the humor group had lower blood pressure and fewer arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and required less cardiac medication. Moreover, while 10 people in the standard care group later had second heart attacks, only two in the humor group did.

More significant for people with diabetes, the humor group had greatly reduced levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). Cortisol is associated with increased insulin resistance, while epinephrine stimulates the liver to release more glucose. While there are no specific studies yet on the effects of humor on diabetes, lowering stress is known to improve blood glucose control and provide other psychological and physical benefits.

The best medicine

However you do it, having fun benefits you on many levels. Here are a few of the ways good humor helps:

Laughter. Mirthful laughter is thought to have numerous health benefits. When we laugh heartily, we breathe deeply and exercise our chest muscles, momentarily raising our heart rate and improving blood flow to the heart. Laughter provides a gentle form of exercise that relaxes tense muscles and flexes less commonly used ones. It also reduces stress, boosts immune system function in several ways, and improves breathing by opening tight airways. It’s thought that laughter may even help cure snoring by improving the muscle tone of the palate and throat.

It’s interesting to ask how laughter evolved and why it is good for us. Some biologists think that laughter is our species’ way of indicating that a situation isn’t serious, as in, “Yes, I fell, but I’m OK (Ha, ha). Keep chasing that mammoth.” So laughter tells us that everything is all right and enables us to relax and keep on keeping on.

Social connection. Sharing moments of fun can bring us closer to other people, and social support is powerful medicine. Many fun activities, such as games or excursions, involve partners or groups of people and provide opportunities to make new friends or keep up old relationships. If we like having fun, other people will like being around us.

Forgetting our troubles. Our problems and the world’s can wear us down. When problems pile up, our stress levels go up, too. Life seems bleak, and self-care starts to become more trouble than it’s worth. Working some pleasure into each day gives us a break from worries and problems and gives us more energy and clarity to deal with them.

Absorption in the moment. Fun can be a form of meditation. When we’re doing something we enjoy, we forget both the past and the future and pay attention to the moment. Living in the moment reduces stress and helps us appreciate life more. In India, a Dr. Madan Kataria started a popular and now worldwide practice called yogic laughter, a form of meditation based on group laughing exercises. But we don’t need a formal spiritual practice or a laughter club to give full attention to what we’re actually doing. Whether we’re playing basketball or watching a sunset, getting lost in the moment is one of the healing dimensions of fun.

Enjoyable exercise. If people treated exercise as an opportunity to take pleasure in their bodies, play games, and try new activities, they would do a lot more of it. The attitude “No pain, no gain” usually leads within a few months to “no exercise.” So consider finding physical activities that you actually enjoy. You may be able to trick yourself into exercising, the way Alfred does.

New experiences. Most people tend to be scared of trying new things, because they are afraid they won’t be good at them. But when you try something just for the fun of it, it doesn’t matter how proficient you are. In fact, doing things you’re not good at can be a major source of enjoyment for many people. And new experiences are good for you. They make life seem more interesting and self-care more worthwhile.

Barriers to fun

If having fun is so, well, fun, why don’t adults do it more often? Many adults have learned that grownups don’t play. Having fun doesn’t clean the house, and it doesn’t pay the bills. Taking time for pleasurable activities may make us feel guilty or lazy. Maybe as children we never knew any adults who had fun, so we have no role models for light-hearted activity.

If you have difficulty loosening up for these or other reasons, you can overcome those barriers with an attitude adjustment. If you habitually think, “I’ve got so much to do and so little time,” try substituting a new thought, such as, “I’ve got time for the things that are important, and having some fun is important, too.” If doing something unproductive makes you think you’re lazy, consider it this way: “I do as much as I can, and that is all anyone can do.” Finally, think of having fun as part of your self-care, as valuable to your well-being as blood glucose monitoring.

Many adults are embarrassed to be caught having fun. We think people will laugh at us if we do something silly or if we’re not good at an activity, and we’re afraid that being laughed at will hurt. Perhaps we are perfectionists whose self-concept depends on being very good at everything we do. These attitudes can be a major source of stress that affects many parts of our life. If we are constantly judging our performance in life, we will find it next to impossible to let go and enjoy ourselves. Taking a chance and trying something new may be a healing experience, showing us that we don’t need to take ourselves so seriously, and that the sky will not fall if we make a mistake. Having someone we trust try an activity with us can give us more courage to take that risk.

Maybe it’s simply been a while since you did anything just for yourself, and you think you don’t know of any fun activities or where to find them. If this is your barrier to fun, seek out and spend time with humorous, active, friendly people who seem to enjoy themselves and know creative ways to have fun. Scan the papers for clubs, groups, and events that sound interesting to you. Zero in on the sounds of laughter and play – at a party, in the park, or even at the office – and become part of that world.

Making fun a way of life

Fun is really all around us; we just have to be open to it. Here are some ways to stimulate your fun-sensors and become more of a “player.”

Child’s play. Children are the grand masters of fun. They can spend hours blowing bubbles, rolling down a grassy hill, or playing a silly game. Interacting with children – or just watching them play – can scrape the rust off our fun circuits. If you have young relatives or neighbors, visit with them. Their parents will probably appreciate your help with supervising. If you don’t have children in your own family or social circle, stroll past the playground and just observe (from a respectful distance), or volunteer at a local school or day-care center.

Getting physical. Did you ever see a sporting event where sections of the crowd stopped watching the game to bat a beach ball around in the bleachers? Physical activities are very engaging, and you don’t have to be an athlete to enjoy them. Flying a kite, throwing darts, or tossing a balloon up and down are simple and easy ways to enjoy yourself. With a partner or group, there’s Frisbee, table tennis, shuffleboard, and a thousand others. These activities may be even more fun if you don’t keep score.

Mind games. Jigsaw or crossword puzzles can keep you busy for days, and they help keep your mind active and strong. Singing, drawing, playing a musical instrument, or making objects out of clay or Play-Doh exercise your creativity and can give you a sense of fulfillment. Writing can be stimulating for some. (For example, I’m having a lot of fun writing this right now.) Start a journal, write a letter, or try writing a funny sketch about yourself.

Funny stuff. A lot of people get paid to make us laugh, so why not take advantage of it? Read the comics or a joke book, watch a live comedy show, a funny video, or a TV sitcom that makes you laugh. Most of the scientific studies on the benefits of humor are based on this kind of passive entertainment, and it’s an easy way to get your daily dose of laughter.

Entertain your inner child. Think back to your childhood and all of the games and activities you used to adore but no longer do. Some of these, like jumping on the bed, you probably gave up for good reason. But other activities, like miniature golf or swinging, may still bring you pleasure and remind you of happy times and how good it feels to play. How about buying a couple of cheap water pistols, or having a pillow fight?

Fun is a state of mind that gets easier with practice. It won’t happen all at once, but after a while, you may be able to make games out of activities that now seem like work. Maybe you’ll view a frosty window as a blank canvas for art, the way you did as a child. Or you might make musical instruments out of empty bottles and coffee cans. Life might gradually start to seem less like work and more like pleasure. And that change will make living well and managing diabetes easier.

Originally Published May 25, 2010

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