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The Benefit of Fun as We Age

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

By Kaye Olsson, I Start Wondering Columnist

Do you ever find yourself doing something that might be considered frivolous or fanciful? Something that has no other purpose than to bring you joy?

I recently had such an opportunity during a weekend trip to Idaho to attend the Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic. Each morning 40 hot air balloons would launch into the crisp fall air and fill the skies with their dazzling colors. The highlight of the festival was the evening “balloon glow,” when the balloons remained on the ground but turned on their burners to light up internally. The effect was mesmerizing as they literally glowed against the dark night.

As I watched this production, it occurred to me that a great deal of expense and effort was required on the part of the balloon operators. They had to lug their equipment around, unload, inflate, then carefully navigate the selected air currents. It made me wonder about their underlying motivation—why did they do it? Then the answer dawned on me. The bright colors, the enthusiastic spectators, the feeling of flight—all of these added up to a joyful experience. They were participating for the sheer fun of it!

For Joy’s Sake

As I’ve grown older, I’ve gradually realized that we don’t always need a specific reason for doing something. Like a young child splashing through a water puddle, sometimes just the joy and delight of the process can be the entire point.

This really hit home during the pandemic as many of us were cut off from regular activities that routinely made us happy. Traveling, hanging out with friends, exercising at the gym, and enjoying food at restaurants all became very limited. But why exactly would activities like these make us feel good? And why did we miss them so much when they were gone?

Scientists tell us the culprit is dopamine. Dopamine is a major neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood, sleep, learning, memory, motor control, and the ability to focus. It is a chemical that is in charge of our brain’s pleasure-reward system and is an integral factor in addictions. It can be triggered by exercise, novel experiences, or pleasurable sensations. When dopamine levels are too low, we become depressed and discouraged, so raising our dopamine levels can have a beneficial impact on our mental health.

Increasing Dopamine

As we enter midlife, our brains change in subtle but measurable ways. Researchers at University College London have discovered that throughout our adult lives, dopamine levels fall by up to 10% every decade. Older brains synthesize less dopamine, which could explain why we are less likely to seek pleasurable rewards. To counteract this effect, we can engage in physically protective behaviors such as regular exercise, a healthy diet, and low to moderate alcohol intake.

If you are like me, most days are consumed with “adulting”—performing all sorts of responsible tasks and taking care of others’ needs. So it’s important to remember to treat ourselves to some fun every once in a while. Go ahead and take that road trip, dance in your kitchen, or perform a random act of kindness. Actions like these can lead to pleasurable feelings that linger even after the activity is over. This not only brightens our overall mood but can improve our brain health by increasing dopamine levels. Creating a lifestyle that is both physically and mentally healthy may be the best defense against the changes of an aging brain.

Of course, this does not replace medical advice in the case of a severe mental illness that requires prescription intervention. But these techniques appear to be useful as preventative measures to enhance our sense of well-being on a daily basis and help ward off the gloominess that can often accompany an aging brain. Doing something simply for the joy of it can lift our spirits, increase our dopamine levels, and give our brains a boost.

When was the last time you did something for no other reason than the sheer fun of it? I encourage you to give it a try. Your brain will thank you.

Can you relate to this? Please share your experiences below.

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