(Taken from Chapter 12 of Soul Health: Aligning with Spirit for Radiant Living)
Research shows that people who don’t take time off for vacations are at higher risk for serious health conditions and also shortened life spans. The Framingham Heart Study, likely the most comprehensive ongoing research on the development of heart disease, has followed twelve thousand men for over a decade to see if there are ways to improve both health and longevity. The study found that people who took frequent breaks or vacations from work tended to live longer. A survey done in the state of New York indicated that men who took annual vacations reduced their risk of death by 20 percent, while those who had taken no vacation within the preceding five years had the highest incidence of heart disease than any other men surveyed. The positive impact of leisure time is unquestionably good for mental as well as physical health. A study of women who took frequent vacations showed that they were less likely to become depressed, anxious, or fatigued, and they also reported less stress at home. Overall, leisure time consistently shows positive enhancement of health. Not only does time away from everyday stressors allow us to reconnect with ourselves, but there is clear evidence that intentionally planning leisure time into our lives promotes creativity, staves off burnout, recharges our batteries (both physically and mentally), promotes overall well-being, improves higher performance and productivity once back at work, and strengthens the bonds between people outside of work. Fun—our ability to let loose and play— is highly under-rated among adults. As our responsibilities increase, our pursuit of fun decreases, often drastically. And the longer we go without this pleasure, the less we seem to think it is a priority. Even so, how many people do you know who fantasize over working more versus playing more? It seems that even when we wish for more fun and time to play, we often don’t make a point of creating this in our lives. Biologically speaking, fun does more than soothe the soul. When we engage in playful activities, our serotonin level—the substance balanced by a typical antidepressant—boosts instantaneously. In addition, our stress hormones drop, our endorphins—the natural pain killers—increase, and sometimes adrenaline rises, too, which boosts our energy levels. If that isn’t enough proof that fun is good for our health, then consider that vicarious enjoyment—just watching others play or laugh—is also enough to boost these chemicals. Laughing at yourself also helps with managing difficult experiences within the human condition. This self-directed joviality has been shown to lighten our perception of stressful events and allows us to maintain a level of resilience in the midst of life’s battles. We cannot deny the issues that need work in life, but the research does offer hope for a healthier life when we can think of the events of everyday life as manageable. In other words, when we find humor in the human condition, we can heal many aspects of our soul health. Despite the positive effect of pure fun and leisure, many people nevertheless either avoid them or think they are unworthy of joy or unable to experience it. Unfortunately, they often turn to unhealthy substitutes such as alcohol, other drugs, over-spending, sex, gambling, or any other vice that may temporarily numb their stress. The problem with these substitutes is that they always negatively affect other branches of soul health. These substitutes for joy further disconnect people from their soul, often while actively damaging the health of other branches. This can create a vicious cycle; they dig themselves further into the ditch of ill soul health, only to continue seeking false relief through one of their vices. The ability to recognize that your recreational branch of health needs work takes honesty and courage, given that the work may go against what you were taught a child. If your caregivers were workaholics, overachievers, or simply naysayers about fun, your sense of self-worth may influence you to follow in their footsteps. If your parents weren’t playful or fun, you may not have learned to integrate it into your own life. But, no matter what the reason, if you don’t feel you have enough fun and leisure in your life, you probably don’t.