Around the County

Are we having fun, yet?

Posted 10/8/19

It’s a rhetorical question, one I once assumed to be infused with sarcasm and not a bit of irony.

“Are we having fun, yet?” Our instructors asked over and over, even as we …

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Around the County

Are we having fun, yet?


It’s a rhetorical question, one I once assumed to be infused with sarcasm and not a bit of irony.

“Are we having fun, yet?” Our instructors asked over and over, even as we emerged scratched and muddy and shaking with cold from a bramble-crammed ravine after a border-crossing exercise. Ho Ho Ho.

“Are we having fun, yet?” I would ask myself while writing early morning after-action reports, blinking bleary eyes and weary to the bone from walking miles of a surveillance detection route the night before to meet a marginal agent.

Somehow, despite everything, no matter how physically exhausted or frustrated or wrung out, it was true. I was having fun. Amazingly enough, I could smile, look forward to the next challenge and consign the negative but, nonetheless, enjoyable experiences to the “war story” file — one to be shared with colleagues when next I would encounter one.

So, what’s with this “having fun” thing? How can such experiences be “fun?”

Public broadcasting recently aired a documentary about the challenges faced by members of a family-owned dairy eking out a living making craft cheese. The wife, whose lot it was to birth and raise four children, manage the home, keep the books, craft the cheese, and sell and deliver it, made a comment that resonated with me. Filmed with eyes red from lack of sleep squeezing fresh mozzarella into balls, she said, “You have to find your fun in the everyday things you do.” Or, possibly, she used the word “pleasure.”

I just listened to a TED Radio Hour program (titled “Press Play”) on the importance of turning what we do into forms of amusement, how play is essential to our stability and how it can make us “smarter, saner, and more collaborative.” The latter is their take on the topic and, after listening to their experts talking about play, I think they may be on to something.

In fact, there’s an organization called the National Institute of Play that studies how play affects the brain and behavior. One such study, described by Dr. Stuart Brown in a TED talk, examined serial killers and others who ended up on death row and who (in those studied) shared one major commonality — they weren’t allowed to play as children and never learned to incorporate any form of play into their lives.

No play. How could that be? And, how totally deprived ... how lacking in learning about trust and companionship and teams and friendship and on and on.

Then, there were the rat studies. (Aren’t there always?) One group of rats was raised with normal rat play and socialization. The rats in a second group were kept from engaging in any type of play. Then, all the rats were exposed to a collar that had been worn by a feral cat. The rats — every one of them — ran and hid. The play-deprived rats never emerged from hiding, even when starving. The rats conditioned by play, however, did come out to investigate and explore the collar.

It’s not so much that play as a youngster helped the rats understand how to deal with a feral cat collar as it taught them to explore, to innovate and adapt to changing situations. It conditioned them to exercise their curiosity. Or so the experimenters concluded.

Play, it seems, performs a bunch of functions all while we’re having fun. Among the long list of attributes, play also acts like a vacuum cleaner in the brain. A playful (fun) experience can light up the prefrontal cortex where we find our executive functions and that sucks up bits and pieces — loose fragments stuck in neurons — from all over the brain.

An important qualifier here that I’ve yet to make clear. “Play” isn’t necessarily done on a playground by children or on sports fields by teams or on rolling greens with golf clubs. Play for kids or adults can be as much an attitude as an activity. The cheese-making mother knew that.

Another TED speaker talked about game playing in everyday life and how she used it to address the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury with debilitating headaches.

She had been told to cut out anything in her life that would stimulate the brain. No exercise. No television. No books. No spicy foods or wine or beer. No activity of any sort. In short, as she put it, she was to eliminate everything from her life that made it worth living. Inevitably, beset by pain unrelieved by any pleasure, she fell into a suicidal depression.

To save herself she turned her situation into a game. She developed rules and enlisted several family members to “play” her game with her. This didn’t heal her brain or eliminate the headaches but did get rid of the depression and enabled her to stay on the ordered regimen until she did heal.

This underscored another point, that the opposite of play isn’t work, because work can be play. The opposite (this is Dr. Brown speaking) is depression. Hmmn.

How much play should we be enjoying? A group of hospice workers were asked to question those in their care about what they most regretted in their lives. No surprise, a common answer was: “I wish I’d spent less time working and more with my family.”

I’m guessing those were people who didn’t enjoy their jobs and who kept their work and their families strictly segregated.

That wasn’t me, and I hope it isn’t you.

How much play, though? The answer may be in that question from my training officers: “Are we having fun, yet?” If you can say, “You bet,” then I’m betting your days are infused with play and you should be enjoying a good and empowered life. If not?

Keep asking.