In the current issue of Sports Illustrated, there’s an article about the Olympic sprinter Noah Lyles sharing that the antidepressant medication that he took for depression helped his low mood yet made it more difficult for him to experience the excitement and anticipation of a race that made it fun and meaningful to him. Sound familiar? It’s common among people who take antidepressant medications.
Anxiety and depression are often associated with an inability to experience pleasure
Mood stabilizing medications can effectively reduce the “lows” of these conditions. However, they can also make it harder to experience the “highs.” While some people work with their health care providers to try a different medication or adjust their dose, you don’t have to make any changes. The solution? Try expanding your definition of joy and fun and you will experience more of both.
“Have fun!” How often have we said this to a family member, a friend, or a neighbor going off for a weekend or just an afternoon or evening? I was puppy-sitting a neighbor’s recently acquired dog when she went off to a dentist appointment. “Have fun!” I called after her. Then, I questioned what I had said. Who has fun going to the dentist?
You can make your experiences fun
It occurred to me that being able to leave the house to attend routine appointments like a teeth cleaning probably feels…if not like fun, then at least a diversion from some of the restrictions this past year due to COVID-19. Certainly going to have one’s hair cut, or buying plants at a garden center, are activities we had to forgo a year ago, or do with caution and perhaps anxiety over being exposed to COVID-19. A friend who ventured into her supermarket once a week told me that this was her major entertainment, indeed her only positive diversion. ”I used to hate food shopping but during the pandemic, it became fun.”
What is fun?
Her experience brings up the definition of fun. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, its definition of fun sets a relatively low bar for having fun. The puppy sings to her squeak toy and watching her is fun. A bus tour of an unfamiliar city is fun. Kayaking without (or maybe with) getting soaked is fun.
The reality is that it’s not the activity that is fun but it’s our experience of it that makes it fun. For example, while many people would agree that there are negative aspects of getting our teeth cleaned, traveling by air, and being on hold with the internet provider, focusing on the negatives makes us feel more negative.
Positives and negatives at the same time
The key is finding the positives in an experience while still acknowledging that there are negatives. For example, you catch up with the hygienist you’ve gotten to know over the years, the plane allows you to meet someone in a nearby seat, and being on hold gives you time to attend to things on your to-do list.
Are we paying attention to situations that are providing amusement and enjoyment? Or in response to our overcommitted lives, are we not noticing when something could be giving us pleasure?
Learning to appreciate what’s fun even when you’re overwhelmed with “life”
There are people who are unable to take pleasure in situations or relationships that fit the definition of fun. Such individuals are said to be experiencing anhedonia. They feel incapable of even attempting to find pleasure; nothing brings them “fun’” and often they withdraw from social interactions or activities because they seem pointless. Anhedonia is associated with depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder. Fortunately the inability to experience pleasure can be improved with the treatment of these disorders by taking away the significant lows that can get in the way. However, medications cannot, by themselves, give us the “highs” that make life joyful and meaningful.
Compounding the situation, many of us are so overwhelmed with our commitments, obligations, and responsibilities that we don’t even recognize fun when we are in front of it.
My neighbor told me that she was in a line of cars that stopped at a very busy intersection because a mother duck and several ducklings were, very slowly, crossing the street. Almost everyone stuck their head out of their car windows to take pictures and smile at the “Make Way for the Ducklings” parade. But one driver scowled at the birds and yelled at them to hurry up. Clearly this driver, unlike the others near him, was not allowing himself to derive pleasure from the scene; i.e., to have fun.
A young mother told me that she has to keep reminding herself to take pleasure in her children even when what they do increases her work and exhaustion. “I had just washed the kitchen floor—a big mistake to do before lunch—when my toddler upended a bowl of mashed bananas on her head and then threw the rest on the floor. My first response was to be annoyed and angry. But she was giggling and I began to laugh as well. She will grow up and forget this but I won’t…It was fun!”
Fun in the unexpected
We often plan events and encounters with others that we anticipate will bring us pleasure. And unless something unexpected happens, we do experience enjoyment. And often it’s the unplanned events and encounters that end up giving the most joy. A few days ago, while doing an errand, someone called to me from across the street. It was someone I had not seen for 20 years. What fun to be able to catch up and reminisce; it was an unexpected pleasure.
Many years ago, our laboratory area was witness to an impromptu fashion show when one of the researchers who was engaged to be married came back from shopping at a heavily discounted bridal outlet with several gowns. She wanted all of us to tell her which one to get and during lunch, changed into several gowns and then walked up and down the hall in front to show them to us. (It was an MIT version of “Say Yes to the Dress.”) Everyone got involved, from the director of the laboratory to the dishwasher. It was fun.
The benefits of fun
We might overlook the pleasure that our taking pleasure in something (or someone) gives others. A shared laugh, story, or experience, even with a stranger, improves the moods of everyone. And often, if we hold onto the memory of the fun experience, watching a parade of ducks or meeting an old acquaintance while going about the mundane experiences of the day, it makes the stress of those less fun encounters so much more bearable.
If you’d like support and guidance around how you can bring more joy into your life – and anything else that will help you be as successful as possible, we’re here for you! We invite you to sign up for a consultation to learn more.