Think back to your elementary school playground. If it was anything like mine, it was a case study in how to have fun in a pure and free way, completely devoid of any self-conscious thoughts. On the blacktop of my alma mater, a group of gym-class heroes played kickball with World Cup-level intensity. In front of the school, the popular girls jumped rope and practiced their older sisters’ cheerleading routines until their voices were raspy. Yet another adventurous clique would flip and leap from the monkey bars, while across the street, the less athletically inclined kids (AKA me) would lose themselves in some elaborate game of make believe. The through line here is that we were all having joyful, thrilling fun. As I’ve grown up though, the very concept of fun has fallen victim to adulteration, a word whose very definition implies the act of corrupting something to make it impure. Basically, I’m confused about fun: how to do it, what it should feel like, and whether or not it’s even possible for adults.
On the whole, it’s safe to say that when we talk about adult revelry, the mood is usually a bit more… well, serious than it is when watching kids at play. Society has conditioned us to believe that adulthood means “acting your age” and adopting a calmer, more contained demeanor in order to fit in—even when you’re enjoying yourself. It’s hard for many people to break free of that construct (without the aid of a happy hour drink, that is), which is partly why, for me, sitting on my balcony with a good book and a coffee is peak “fun,” even though it probably wouldn’t look that way to many others.
While my reading oasis is restorative and happiness-boosting for me, is it exhilaratingly joyful, the way recess was during playground days? Definitely not. And for many of my peers in their thirties, those moments of really letting loose are few and far between, and when they do come about, it’s tough to stay present in the moment. And, according to mental-health pros, this widespread fun confusion came to be for a number or reasons—none of which are our fault, per se.
Many millennials were raised to value hard work and success over fun and frolic, says therapist Marly Steinman, MFT. “If your parents were Boomers, there was this concept of working hard, having goals, and achieving things,” she says. “There’s a feeling that you have to burn the candle at both ends and work in a way that’s never-ending.” That adds up, because how can you not skew serious when you’re working wild hours to pay off your student loan debt and afford your overpriced rental apartment?
That feeling of always having to strive for something more can prevent a person from letting their guard down fully, which is critical for having fun. “Let’s say you are out with a group of friends, having dinner and catching up,” says therapist Alison Stone, LCSW. “If a large part of your mind is distracted—by the upcoming meeting you have, unreturned emails, a stressful project you’re behind on—it is difficult to be fully present in your current experience.”
When taken to extremes, the physical symptoms of stress and burnout make it even harder to kick back and have fun, says Steinman. If someone is drowning in deadlines and social obligations, their endocrine system dials up the production of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and it takes time for the body to come back into balance. This is why, even when a person goes on vacation, it sometimes takes a few days before they’re able to truly relax.
Work obligations aside, there’s another reason the nature of fun changes with age: the fact that many people feel pressure not just to have fun, but to also curate and document it for the world to see. “Before social media came into the picture, the only people who witnessed our free time was ourselves,” Steinman says. “Now, the perception of fun has become more important—it’s about what’s going to look desirable in a post. [When you’re at a big concert,] how many times have you seen more people taking videos of the concert than enjoying the concert?”
“The perception of fun has become more important—it’s about what’s going to look desirable in a post.” —therapist Marly Steinman, MFT
This has led many of us to start equating fun with big-ticket experiences that require money and access—and there’s a subtle misperception that one needs to go big in order to counteract all the stress in their lives. “I think it has started to feel like ‘getting away’ and attending specific events are our rewards for working so hard,” says Stone. “It’s important to have things to look forward to, but it’s also important not to feel that spending money or traveling are the only ways we can unwind and let loose.”
So how does an overworked, Instagram-loving gal get out of her head and just live, already? According to both Steinman and Stone, the first step is to ditch your phone when you’re trying to have fun. That means no checking texts while your date’s in the restroom, no snapping pics of your dinner, and no scrolling through Instagram to see who’s having a more photogenic Saturday night than you. “All of this takes away from what we are supposed to be doing in the moment, which is enjoying others’ company, making new memories, listening to our friends or partners, laughing, joking, observing, people watching, and experiencing small moments of authentic joy and happiness,” says Stone.
If you want to have fun, you should also prioritize the activities that truly bring you joy, and obviously not just what you think is going to look good to other people, says Steinman. She also recommends taking time to decompress with meditation, a workout, or a walk in the fresh air before you embark on any sort of play time. These things will help you release any lingering tension and clear your mind of the day’s stressors so you can be fully present for fun.
Finally, although it may sound counterintuitive, Steinman and Stone both say that deliberately scheduling out downtime can actually make it easier for some personality types to loosen up. “Many people find scheduling to be anxiety-reducing,” Stone says. “You can have fun, and be present and uninhibited as a planner—not everyone is spontaneous.”
Ultimately, having childhood-level fun really just requires you to tap into your childhood self—pre-career and pre-social media. “Think of kids—they’re silly, they have no inhibitions, and they’re not worried about what they look like,” says Steinman. If that’s the case, my upcoming weekend is going to involve lots of friendship-bracelet-making and choreographing dance routines to Paula Abdul songs—how about you?
Want to have more fun right now? Try re-creating your first date with your partner or hosting some out-of-town friends for a weekend (without spending a million dollars).