Article by Dr Cheryl Hurst, Lecturer in organisational behaviour, Henley Business School
This was my response to a colleague who recently asked why I made a decision about my career that seemed out of the ordinary. They laughed, and perhaps thought I was a bit naïve. But now, more than ever, I think we should all be prioritizing fun. And it’s not as easy as it used to be.
There are a lot of reasons not to have fun. There’s the guilt attached to having fun when we should be working, or when other people can’t have fun. There’s the idea that fun is the anthesis to a successful career (other than that “work life balance” everyone is always talking about). And it often boils down to the fact that we don’t have more fun because we just don’t have time.
But a night out with your friends (or whatever you deem fun) makes you better at your job.
As an organisational psychologist, I’m interested in how people choose, progress, and experience their ‘careers.’ I spend a lot of my time balancing the ideas that (1) we should feel fulfilled at work and (2) work shouldn’t be the only thing that fulfils us. This is where fun comes in. If over the last year you’ve not felt like yourself, you’ve been less engaged at work, and you’re done with doing yoga in front of your TV – it’s time to include fun in your daily routine just like you would brushing your teeth and exercise.
Although there are definitions for fun available and many linguists could argue the differences between fun, joy, play, and pleasure – this article uses them to describe amusement that is lively and playful. What is fun for you might not be fun for someone else. Science suggests that the best form of “play” is that which involves at least one other person. The activity doesn’t need to have a point but it shouldn’t be passive. This means that you won’t reap the benefits of fun by zoning out in front of the TV.
The point of this article is not to shame you for not having fun or add something to your to-do list. The point is to alleviate any guilt you might feel about making time for fun during our busy lives. It can be as beneficial to your body and mind as regular exercise and eating vegetables. If that doesn’t convince you – it also makes you better at your job.
What I have colloquially called “having fun” is also referred to as “adult play.” If you have children, it’s likely you put pressure on yourself to ensure your kids have unencumbered play time, but you might not realise it’s good for you, too.
According to experts in psychology and development, adult play has substantial benefits to our brain. It can relieve stress by triggering the release of endorphins that promote a sense of well-being. It is also shown to promote and improve certain brain functions, like those tied to memory and problem solving. Studies also show that playing and having fun fuels our imagination and makes us more creative and better at learning new skills.
At work, enjoying an activity and having fun while doing it improves things like teamwork and worker resiliency. It helps to build trust and improves communication. While it might seem obvious that having fun at work would improve retention and team morale, some people are surprised that fun actually promotes a better learning environment. It doesn’t just have to be a specific work activity that’s fun, either. Creativity breaks for puzzles, card games, or joking with colleagues can all promote positive learning environments.
Spontaneous play has the most benefits, so “mandatory” break times don’t work in the same way. Promote play by bringing a deck of cards to work or having a puzzle on your desk. Share jokes or funny stories if everything is virtual. It used to be thought of as a “distraction,” but science shows us it’s necessary for promoting happiness and for success.
The benefits of fun in your personal life extend to your working environment and vice versa. Laughing helps us cope with stress and reduces negative emotions in stressful situations. Having fun is good for your heart and happiness can improve our immune system activity.
Overall, having fun – the spontaneous-try something new, go-out-with-my-friends, take-a-cooking-class, hike-up-a-mountain, play-charades type of fun – is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Consider this a prescription for more fun.
Dr Cheryl Hurst is a Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and Research Methods at Henley Business School with expertise in leadership, diversity, and inclusion.