Playing is the first coping skill we develop. Think back to childhood and recall your favorite toys. Did you ever bring a cherished matchbox car or stuffed puppy with you to visit some place new? When children get together, the first thing they desire is to play. Toys are not even really needed—children create fun by inventing toys and games. This is the way they overcome uncertainty and adjust.
Virtually every animal on the planet plays. Horses kick up their heals, race, and gently nip each other. Dogs wrestle, play-bite and pretend-growl. If you have pets, you certainly see this behavior in action. My cats have a running game of “tag,” teasingly pouncing each other on a continuous basis. In 2008 in Manitoba, Canada, German photographer Norbert Rosing captured images of a wild polar bear playing with his domestic Husky. The scenes are remarkable – two carnivores surrendering their predatory natures to pure amusement. The outstanding photos lead many people to debate why the polar bear did not eat the Husky. The answer was very simple: They were having fun. Biologists have reported similar behavior observed in the wild with grizzlies and wolves.
During play, our burdens become weightless, we explore, have adventures, and experience joy and happiness. Playing with others is a social thread that interconnects people with refreshing energy. The National Institute for Play states that this activity goes even deeper—it shapes our brains to make us more able to adapt to situations, allowing us better coping capabilities.
Understanding what is fun for you is an imperative element for quality life. Although this may seem obvious, if you stop to think about how much fun you are having on a regular basis, you may easily be all work and no play. Depression is a major concern for many Americans. The National Institute for Mental Health reports that almost 15 million Americans are currently diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. Depression is the leading cause for disability in people ages 15–44. Much debate surrounds the causes of depression, which include neurotransmitter deficiency or overproduction, abnormal brain development, genetics, environmental toxicity to name a few theories. However, while these ideas are valuable to consider, it is important to not overlook that depression is, at its core, a fun deficiency.
To say this world is stressful is a vast understatement. The answer to the question “are you having any fun?” is an important a vital sign. Cortisol and adrenaline are the star stress response hormones. Perceived stress summons these hormones, which alerts responses in the body (increased heart rate, respiration rate, decreased digestion). Cortisol in particular increases glucose (your body’s energy source) in the blood stream. It has been postulated that daily stress induces chronically excessive cortisol production, thus contributing to increased blood glucose levels. Increased glucose gets converted to fat, attributing to obesity. Merely dealing with stress is enough to contribute to metabolic issues like weight gain and diabetes.
If having fun decreases stress and improves health, then why don’t we do more of it? Maturation to adulthood is inevitable. With increasing age comes mounting responsibilities, pressures, and stakes. During this transformation, the desire for play should remain welcomed. Unfortunately we are encouraged to grow up which somehow implies shedding fun. While clinging to a Peter Pan existence is not the answer, fully rejecting fun is recipe for disease. There is much wisdom in child-like discovery, giggling, and adventure. After all, it is Never-Never Land “where dreams are born, and time is never planned. Where you think of happy things, and your heart will fly on wings, forever.”