Remember making mud pies as a kid? Think of how squishy the wet soil felt between your hands, and how you loved to shape the patties. Or how about the time when you rode your bike for hours around the neighborhood, stopping only when you got tired?
The days of pure fun, when you could run around without a care in the world, may seem far away with today's endless list of things to do, but it may be possible to recapture some of the enjoyment of childhood and incorporate it into a busy adult life.
How? First of all, before figuring out how to integrate playtime into the juggernaut, it may help to know exactly what we're trying to fit in.
In order for something to be enjoyable, experts agree that freedom of choice and the perception of control are critical factors. For example, a person who loves gourmet cooking might not necessarily find pleasure in preparing a dinner that he or she feels roped into doing. Likewise, people who think they ought to schedule leisure time into their lives may be defeating the purpose.
It's another should in the day, explains Gina Dingwell, RN, coordinator of the Mind-Body Program at the Tzu Chi Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Vancouver. Dingwell says people tend to go on overdrive and pack even their off-work time with too many activities they think they should be doing, such as sports or social events. Instead of stacking up the shoulds, she recommends finding ways to ease up, and having compassion for ourselves.
"It's about checking in," says Dingwell, noting that the following questions might help determine whether an activity is the right thing to do at the moment: Is this going to energize me? Is it going to be putting me in a place where I'm going to feel better? Or am I just going to feel more like this is a duty?
The answer to some of these queries entails knowing yourself, whether you are a social person, or someone who prefers more intimate settings. It will involve knowing whether you like playing softball, figuring out crossword puzzles, or watching the opera. The crucial element is that you are doing something that is inherently delightful to you, and not partaking in it because of other incentives such as guilt, pay, or social status. Take the little child who is making mud patties. He is doing it because he is enjoying himself and for no other reason.
Howard E.A. Tinsley, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at Southern Illinois University, says the proper level of stimulation is also key to enjoyment. For instance, if a person who likes to work crossword puzzles finds the clues too easy, he or she may be bored with it. On the other hand, a puzzle that requires knowing a technical vocabulary may be so difficult that there is no opportunity to feel good about filling in the spaces.
Have Fun, for Health's Sake
The concept of fitting in leisure time in a hectic schedule may seem impractical for some people who think they lack the hours, money, or other resources. Experts say, however, that failing to let loose may mean the difference between sickness and health.
"You don't have time to make yourself sick," says Blair Justice, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Texas School of Public Health and author of Who Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods, and Thoughts Affect Your Health.
Justice says people who are stressed get into a "state of dis-ease," in which harmful chemicals such as cortisol and norepinephrine can wreak havoc on the immune system, often causing edginess and hostility. He points to studies that show a link between high levels of such chemicals in the arteries and plaque buildup leading to heart disease.
In addition, in his work with patients at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Justice says women with breast cancer often tell him that they were under a lot of pressure prior to being diagnosed with the ailment. Stress may not have caused their illness, but it is reportedly an important factor among many (including genetics and the environment) that determine what happens inside the body.
On a brighter note, the benefits of leisure time seem bountiful. Besides the fact that it's enjoyable, it apparently elevates levels of dopamine and serotonin -- nerve transmitters that are known to have pleasurable and calming properties.
Depending on the chosen activity, leisure time provides a chance to connect with people, look inward, enhance skills, or get fit. It can also renew, relax and work off steam. Among the ill, it is known to promote recovery and a sense of well-being despite disease.
"You feel happier, healthier, and more fulfilled when you can do things that provide the kind of satisfaction you're looking for," says Tinsley. "Over the long term, the ability to do these kinds of things leads to a greater level of physical and mental health, and to a higher quality of life."
But many of us don't need much convincing about the rewards of play. The challenge is usually how to build it into the hustle and bustle of our lives.
Making Space for Play
The scientific literature has suggested that people tend to find things such as nature, water, pets, poetry, hobbies, and the company of other humans enjoyable.
"People take drugs like heroin and cocaine to raise serotonin and dopamine, but the healthy way to do it is to pet your dog, or hug your spouse, watch sunsets, or get around something beautiful in nature," says Justice, who recently hiked the Colorado Rockies with his wife and two dogs.
A full-fledged vacation is not necessary, though, to get the benefits of playtime. In fact, health advocates say it might be better to interject leisure into the scheme of the day.
The best things to do depend on the person, but some suggestions include taking a walk, listening to music, window shopping, browsing through a magazine, talking to a good friend, or looking up jokes on the Internet.
For the really busy folks, it might help to periodically stop what you're doing and just breathe. There may not be anything that can be done about the stress of the moment, but it's crucial to allow ourselves permission for downtime, and to recognize when our lives are so packed that we don't have time to reorganize or pause for perspective.
"We may not completely restore and rejuvenate," says Dingwell, "but you're still a minute ahead of where you were before."
It is even possible for people to have fun while working. Those who find their jobs interesting can lose sight of the fact that they are working for a paycheck, and try to perform the appropriate tasks because they find joy in doing them.
There are formal tests available to determine the careers that best suit individuals. Such exams can be found in vocational counseling centers, universities, employment agencies, and psychologists' offices.