The science of having fun: Why pleasurable activities are important for your mental health

The science of having fun: Why pleasurable activities are important for your mental health

The pressures of the modern world mean most of us are pretty busy most of the time. It can be difficult to find the time to simply have fun. It might feel a bit indulgent to set aside your duties to do something you enjoy. In this article we challenge the view that time spent on pleasurable activities is time wasted. Re-discovering the value of recreation could improve your mental wellbeing, and even make the time you spend on vital tasks more efficient in the long run.

What are pleasurable activities?

What’s fun for one person might be another’s worst nightmare. So choosing which pleasurable activities to spend your free time on is a very personal choice. That said, there are some things to bear in mind. Firstly, it can be tempting to use ‘quick fixes’ for pain, stress, anxiety and depression, including overuse of alcohol, drugs or gambling. If you think you might have fallen into a pattern that you can’t control, there is help available – see the links at the end of this article.

Secondly, it’s good to get a balance of different types of pleasurable activity in order to maximise their wellbeing-improving benefits.

What are the ‘types’ of pleasurable activity?

We can sort pleasurable activities into four main groups: Physical, fun, mastery and social.

Physical activities are those which involve getting up and moving around. This doesn’t have to mean running a marathon. It could mean walking the dog, gardening or dancing. Fun or pleasant activities are those which, quite simply, you fully enjoy. This might be watching a great film, reading a book, baking a cake, gaming or a bit of pampering. Mastery or achievement activities are those which give you a sense of accomplishment, such as learning a new skill, doing something creative or getting your chores done. And finally, social activities are those which involve interacting with others.

Of course, some activities might fall into a number of categories. Playing football, for example, could be classified as physical, fun, mastery and social. Equally it’s OK to spend more time on activities that fit into a couple of the categories, but it’s good to bear in mind that getting a balance gives maximum benefit to your mental and physical health.

The barriers to pleasurable activity

It’s inevitable that we’re going to come up against barriers when trying to increase the amount of pleasure we have in our lives. These might be time constraints, a lack of energy, motivation, confidence or practical barriers such as money, health or family commitments.

Where there are practical constraints, the key is to find activities that allow you to try new things, have fun and challenge yourself within the limits of your circumstances.

The ‘I can’t be bothered’ barrier often comes from feeling overwhelmed and helpless to make definite choices. One reason we feel we ‘can’t be bothered’ is because we’re avoiding doing the boring but necessary tasks or chores that are so easy to put off. So we may end up feeling disorganised, behind in our tasks or overwhelmed and helpless. This can lead back to a sense of ‘can’t be bothered’. Sometimes we need to boss ourselves into completing the chore first, but then follow it up with a favourite task as a ‘reward’.

If you find yourself thinking ‘I haven’t got time’, bear in mind that pleasurable activities make us more productive in the long run – so really it’s an investment in becoming more efficient in our day-to-day lives.

My Possible Self is a digital toolkit, available via smartphone app or online programme, that helps you improve your mental health and wellbeing. Try our free module, Managing Fear and Anxiety, and start your journey to becoming the best version of you. Our new module, Increasing Pleasurable Activities, is now available to our monthly and annual subscribers – get the app now or, if you have it, simply install the latest update to get this new learning module.

Useful links – confidential drugs advice – NHS factsheet on alcohol support – a safe place to talk, any time – Gamcare gambling support

Sam Weston

I am a social media manager, content writer and audio enthusiast - I set a world record once upon a time!