Observations & meditations on modern life

Having fun is more important than you think

The value of PLAY is one that we underestimate every single day.

First, let’s talk physiologically. Very simply put: when we have fun, smile, laugh, play, etc. we stimulate the production of Dopamine. This is known as the “happy hormone” as its production is associated with all these positive emotions and feelings. It also inhibits the production of Cortisol, the stress hormone, creating a positive cycle that can benefit us in more ways than just “feeling less stressed”.

When we feel less stressed, we are inherently more open, more grounded, and able to think more logically. Having fun, playing, isn’t just about the moment in which we feel that way, it is about the effect that it can have on us thereafter. We can create positive links between our physical state (hormone levels etc), the feelings it gives us, and the activity we’re doing. Our brains are association supercomputers, so for the best, most comfortable outcome, we have to create circumstances that we would want to repeat.

We don’t like to think so but we are extremely similar to other animals when it comes to conditioning. We can condition our brains in a similar way, but the difference is that sometimes, we feel as though we cannot control the fear that inhibits this. Sometimes, we cling onto problems for fear of what any change might bring with it. The emotion centre of our brain will most often follow whatever is going through our minds. So if we want to create that feeling of happiness and really truly live it, we need to be able to put ourselves in situations where we are familiar with the feeling.

We see this in animal behaviour all the time. When we play with our pets, it gives them a sense of bonding, positive reinforcement, and a desire to put themselves in those circumstances again. I know that my dog will behave in the way that I want her to when she knows that there is the possibility for a play reward. She is therefore anticipating joy as the potential outcome as opposed to fear, so she is not on edge, so she is not highly strung, and she is able to listen to me from a more grounded place.

When we’re anticipating fear as the potential outcome, our cortisol levels increase, adrenal levels increase, and the fight or flight response begins: blood flows to our extremities and brain function is compromised, because our bodies are gearing up to either fight, or run away from, the impending “danger” that we associate with stress. However, modern day triggers for the fight or flight response aren’t necessarily physical, but our bodies just haven’t evolved to a place whereby there is a separate response for internal stress that allows us to think logically. Our bodies just act the way they always have done: incoming stress equates to incoming danger that needs to be fought or fled from.

This is further emphasised by the fact that we have one ability that animals don’t: in some ways, our ability to think in a more complex fashion is quite debilitating. We have the ability to pre-empt outcomes, and can allow fear to dictate this. Physiologically, we reverse the sense of joy. Pre-empting fearful events is what causes our cortisol levels to start rising before that potential has even had a chance to occur (or not occur). Imagination is more than powerful enough to cause havoc with our emotion control on a physical level, and there is a disconnect here between what is happening “now” in our surroundings, and what is happening “now” in our mind.

So the lesson here is play! Playing games and laughing isn’t just for kids. Have fun. Laugh at little things. Be silly. Make faces. Smile. It isn’t just a matter of principle, it actually helps condition our body to respond more easily with joy than with fear, and once we can do that, we find ourselves with far more energy and stamina to face the tougher things in life.

Posted on Monday, December 30, 2019
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Anjali Singh-Mitter | BA (Hons.), Dip. Hyp., Dip. CBT | GHR & GHSC, CNHC
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