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The Healing Value of Fun

by David Spero, RN

“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.

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