Most of us want to have 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.
Since the term “fun” can be ambiguous and is often used in different contexts, let us first look at the standard definition of the word. Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines fun as: amusement, especially lively or playful. Staying true to the definition we generally connect the word fun to things that are entertaining and enjoyable to do. Fun is also sometimes used interchangeably with play — although there is a distinction as fun is argue that play is a state of mind; a certain attitude we can incorporate into any and every activity (Brown, 2009).
It is important to keep in mind that what is fun for you, might not be fun for somebody else. Therefore, fun can be difficult to investigate using standardized scientific methods. As such, scientific conclusions about the benefits of fun come from subjective observations and less rigorous studies. Nonetheless, there are enough studies that indirectly link to the concept of fun and play that a case can be made that we all need fun.
Here are five reasons science suggests you should have fun:
- Fun improves your relationships, both at work and in life
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).
- Fun makes us smarter
According to science, one way to improve our memory and concentration is to have fun. Partially, this has to do with the stress reduction that happens when we engage in something we enjoy. However, the benefits of fun activities seem to stretch further than that. The British Cohort Study — a study that has been following 17,000 people born in 1970 — found that reading for fun improves our language skills, and more surprisingly our proficiency in math as well. It appears that fun activities that introduce us to new ideas and concepts foster self-directed learning. The rewards we gain from these experiences might expand beyond the obvious benefits. Scientists are now also exploring if reading for fun can also protect us against cognitive decline as we age.
- Fun reduces stress
You probably do not need science to inherently know this already: engaging in enjoyable activities can be an especially powerful antidote to stress. It has been recognized in several studies that spontaneous laughter has a stress-buffering effect that helps us better cope with stress. According to one study, individuals who laughed less had more negative emotions when compared to those who laughed more. In contrast, those who laughed more showed fewer negative feelings even when stressful situations increased (Kuiper & Martin, 1998). Interestingly, this same study found that there is no correlation between having a good sense of humor and displaying stronger or more intense emotions. As such, therapeutic laughter programs are now being developed and evaluated, and are sometimes offered as treatments for depression, stress and anxiety (Kim et al., 2015). It appears that there is some truth to the adage, “laughter is the best medicine.”
- Finding fun in physical activity balances your hormone levels
It has been well-established that high stress levels negatively influence our hormones and neurotransmitters (especially cortisol and noradrenalin). Stress also affects our endocrine, metabolic and immune functions. Hormones can have an amazing effect on our mood — this is true for both genders (Koelsch et al., 2016). Certain hormones, such as cortisol, insulin, testosterone and estrogen, can be particularly influential and cause havoc when we have an imbalance. One way to naturally balance hormones is to engage in pleasurable physical activity (e.g. Abbenhardt et al., 2013). In other words, adaptation is not reliant on intense physical activity but rather consistent recreational exercise. When it comes to exercise, find what fun means to you and bake it in to your routine.
- Fun can make you more energetic and youthful
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.
Fun at Work
Having fun at work might be just as important as having fun in your personal life. Everett (2011) concludes that since we will spend more than 90,000 hours of our lives at work, we might as well have fun there. Some of the benefits of playing on the job include:
– Higher recruitment and retention rates. Organizations that nourish creativity and playfulness in employees have less difficulty recruiting and retaining good staff, and it is an encouraging trend that more modern organizations are balancing work and play than in prior decades (Everett, 2011). For example, here in the Bay Area Google is known for having a fun workplace and is also a very desirable company to work for. Sponsoring fun activities has also been recognized as a measure to prevent burnout (Meyer, 1999).
– Increased job satisfaction. Employees must feel satisfied to be productive. There are many factors that contribute to job satisfaction, which logically also correlates to overall life satisfaction. When we can laugh and have fun at work, we can also build better relationships and help create connections with our workmates. Doing fun things together creates a joint history with our fellow employees. When we have fun together we tend to relate to and identify with our coworkers better. Some authors believe that “teams that play together, stay together,” so it is important to create organizational culture that supports that (Berg, 2001).
– Increased customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction is generally closely linked with employee satisfaction. Workers who have something to smile about are usually better equipped to make customers smile than their melancholy counterparts. Fun seems to be contagious — as shown by studies looking at work environments. For example, when a fun work philosophy was adopted at Sprint, this resulted in their call center agents handling 30 percent more calls, and customers expressing an increased level of satisfaction with their services (Karl & Peluchette, 2006).
Everett (2011) also points out that fun should not be made mandatory. It ceases to be fun then, and can actually contribute to feelings of stress among employees. It is important to consider that people’s perceptions of fun (and what fun means to them) may vary and that they do not necessarily want to have fun in a certain way, at a certain time.
[FUN FACT]: Did you know that according to a study from 1998, adults only laugh on average 17 times a day (Kuiper, & Martin, 1998)? If you have a good joke, leave it in the comments so we can help push up this average.
Sources & further reading:
Abbenhardt, C., McTiernan, A., Alfano, C., Wener, M., Campbell, K., Duggan, C., & … Ulrich, C. (2013). Effects of individual and combined dietary weight loss and exercise interventions in postmenopausal women on adiponectin and leptin levels. Journal of Internal Medicine, 274(2), 163-175.
Kansal, M., Puja, & Maheshwari, G. (2012). Incorporation of fun and enjoyment in work: Builds the way for success and generation of long term benefits. ZENITH International Journal of Business Economics & Management Research, (12), 98-113.
Kim, S., Kim, Y., Kim, H., Lee, S., & Yu, S. (2012). The Effect of Laughter Therapy on Depression, Anxiety, and Stress in Patients with Breast Cancer Undergoing Radiotherapy (CP). Quality Of Life Research, 20, 84.
Koelsch, S., Boehlig, A., Hohenadel, M., Nitsche, I., Bauer, K. & Sack, U. (2016). The impact of acute stress on hormones and cytokines, and how their recovery is affected by music-evoked positive mood. Scientific Reports, 6doi:10.1038/srep23008
Meyer, H. (2000). Fun for everyone. IEEE Engineering Management Review, 28(2), 45-48.