On the surface, you might think that it’s easy to tell the difference between having fun and numbing out: after all, one is enjoyment, and the other is pretty much the absence of feeling. How similar can they really be? And in an ideal world, there would be no similarity, no confusion, and we’d all be blissfully happy whenever we wanted.
We do not live in an ideal world.
We live in a world where nobody taught us how to deal with painful thoughts, how to sit with fear and uncertainty, or the difference between feeling good and feeling distracted. That complicates things.
If you can’t deal with painful thoughts, then they run roughshod over your mind and your life. If painful thoughts are running your life, then everything hurts. If everything hurts, then you’ll do just about anything to make it stop. If you don’t know how to actually deal with the problem, then you’ll settle for ignoring it. If you’re ignoring it, then you need something to distract you from it. If you need a distraction, then you’ll reach for a numbing behavior.
What is a numbing behavior?
Numbing behavior is anything that distracts you from what is going on so that you don’t have to feel any more. It’s not about feeling good, but about suppressing present reality.
It doesn’t feel good, but it doesn’t feel bad, either. It feels like nothing.
I am hesitant to list specific numbing behaviors, because anything I put down could conceivably be part of legitimate fun, too. It’s not about the activity, but about the motivation and the state of mind with which you partake of it. That being said, some activities are more prone to numbing than others.
These include: watching TV, surfing the internet, eating junk food, gossiping, and others. But any of those (except maybe gossiping, though I could be wrong) could be quite enjoyable. Watching your favorite TV show or enjoying a slice of cake can be part of a downright delightful experience…. but it often isn’t.
Supposedly healthy activities can be numbing, too. I have used long walks to numb myself. How? Instead of paying attention to what was going on around me, or processing my thoughts, or indeed taking any sort of joy in the endeavor, I turned it into a death march slash opportunity to sulk. It was procrastination and avoidance, and there was no joy to be had.
Then what is fun?
Fun means enjoying yourself. If you can’t tell the difference between this and the above, then you probably haven’t had fun in awhile. It’s ok – we can fix that! But it’s important to admit the truth, if just to yourself.
Fun – proper fun – involves smiling and laughing. It may evoke feelings of wonder, or of playfulness and curiosity. These are very positive things, linked to increased immune response, energy levels, vitality, and productivity. Those are things that you want, I’m sure of it.
You know that. It’s not that you don’t want to have fun, but that you don’t know how any more. So how do you do that? Unfortunately, joy is highly individual, so I can’t give you a fool-proof three step process guaranteed to work. But I can give you suggestions to try.
- What did you enjoy as a child? When you’re a child, you have fewer expectations of you, and more free time. What did you enjoy doing with it? Personally, I enjoyed swing sets, riding my bicycle in circles around the neighborhood, reading, writing, and playing alone in my yard, making up stories and talking to the trees. These are things that I still enjoy today (though swing sets are harder to come by). Not in exactly the same way, but they can all be adapted to adult life. How can you adapt your childhood passions? It can be as silly as you like – just make it something you enjoy!
- Listen to your heart. I love reading and writing, but not about everything. The fastest way for me to loose interest in either of those activities is to adhere to what somebody else thinks I should be reading or writing about. I bet you do the same thing. There’s nothing wrong with using your talents and passions for work or gain, but if you never allow yourself free reign to follow your heart within those pursuits, it’s easy to loose the spark. Of course, it’s possible that you can’t hear what your heart is telling you any more. In that case, check out Pings of Happiness for ideas on how to regain that connection.
- Be still. This one is risky. Sometimes, sitting quietly HURTS. If there’s a lot you’ve been hiding from, stillness is going to stir it all up. But it also has the potential to unleash a lot of really great ideas, if you stick with it. Give yourself a block of unstructured time, away from any kind of a computer screen, and just let yourself be. Let your mind wander. See what comes up. There could be golden ideas for having fun.
- Be social. Conversely, you may need to get active. If you have a friend who seems to always be having a blast, see if you can tag along with him or her to some activities. There’s the risk that your interests just don’t line up, there is also a very real possibility that you may break out of your routine, try new things, and have an unexpectedly great time. It’s worth a shot, right?
Lest you misunderstand my meaning, I want to make something very clear: it’s ok to numb out sometimes. I totally understand that something you don’t have the energy to do something more legitimately enjoyable, and zoning out to the TV is the best you can do. If you think I’ve never decided to have a Netflix marathon to avoid feeling something unpleasant, then you are quite wrong. But it can’t be how you deal with everything; that way lies depression, disconnection, and a whole host of ills.
Sometimes, it’s really hard to motivate yourself to do something that might actually be rewarding. What I like to do in those cases (and what I recommend to my clients), is to make myself a deal. I’ll try the more productive thing for 5, 10, or 15 minutes….. but if I’m still not feeling it after that, then I can zone out.
The important thing is to start trying to fit some real fun into your life. The more you do it, the easier it’ll be, and the better you’ll feel. The better you feel, the easier it’ll be to actually deal with whatever had you so stressed that you had to numb in the first place. And the easier it is to deal with that, the easier it is to have fun, thus creating a lovely, self-perpetuating cycle of joy.