I actually ventured out last week. Other than just a small number of trips to the local grocery store, like many of you, I’ve been home for almost 5 months. I’m very grateful to have a home, to have a home office so that I have been able to continue working throughout the stay-at-home orders, and that I am healthy - so I don’t want this to be misinterpreted as me not counting my many blessings.
But I don’t do anything fun. I am not one of those folks who think exercise is fun, unfortunately. I’m taking my walks or doing my workouts because I know it’s important for my health, not because I think it’s fun. I set up a kiddie pool and TV in the backyard, as my own private “resort” on site. It’s okay, but it doesn’t really count as fun. Maybe relaxing. But not really fun.
I decided last week that enough was enough. One of the activities I find really fun is to travel somewhere, stay someplace that is non-conventional, and explore the area. With my options severely restricted, I chose a county here in Southern California that has the lowest infection rates anywhere around. I booked my stay at a 100 year old inn, with access directly from outside to minimize contact with other travelers. A big plus is that the Inn is across the street from the ocean, which I also find fun.
Thinking I had this all brilliantly planned out, I packed my swimsuit, my cooler, my beach chair and 7 masks so that I could wear a clean one every day. Upon arriving, I realized the beach scene wasn’t going to work because while I love just lounging at the beach with a good book, I didn’t think about public restrooms. I was not going to use one, so spending a whole day at the beach was benched on day 1.
I haven’t been to a restaurant in 5 months, so that was number 2 on the list. I like finding funky or off-the-beaten-track establishments and have had some wonderfully fun experiences here and in several other countries in the past. But looking for off-the-beaten track restaurants on this little jaunt didn’t seem like the safest bet, so I found a restaurant downtown that had moved outdoors. It was nice to eat the first meal I haven’t prepared in almost half a year, but it wasn’t really fun. The table next to me had 14 women celebrating a birthday party, all with no masks and shoulder-to-shoulder in their seats. I wasn’t at risk – they were a good 10 feet away from me – but it was a stark reminder as to why we’re doing so poorly at controlling the virus and that I needed to be super careful since not everyone is wearing masks or physically distancing.
To ensure safety, regular housekeeping at the inn was suspended. I’m sure I could have requested it, but again, why risk catching the virus by having a stranger in my room? The Inn’s restaurant was closed, so I had to figure out how to eat, safely, every day for each meal, which really wasn’t very fun. They had even removed the vending machines on site. The swimming pool was closed for health reasons, so that wasn’t an option for fun either. My swimsuit didn’t get used at all.
Perhaps it was good for my mental health just to get out of the house, but overall, I didn’t find my fun. I did recognize that while I’ve been saying we have to rethink almost everything because “normal” isn’t returning, I tried to do the very things that used to be fun for me, which is not following my own advice. Those things just aren’t fun anymore and I doubt I’ll find much fun out in public these days. So I’m on a new search, trying to figure out what is fun, now. A new hobby? Perhaps joining some kind of an online group?
It’s really challenging to imagine what will be fun when I have no past experiences to rely on. It’s more than a little ironic that unstructured play makes us more comfortable with uncertainty, while activating the prefrontal cortex (which stimulates all types of pathways for abstract thinking, emotional regulation and problem-solving), and I can’t even think of anything unstructured to play.
I originally thought people behaving recklessly was due to some form of denial about the virus, but now I’m wondering if it’s this lack of fun, or imagination, driving people to attend big house parties, to pack into bars, or to drive to Sturgis on a motorcycle to hang out with 250,000 other bikers, despite the serious health risks congregating together poses. Maybe they just can’t stand the lack of fun in their lives, and they can’t think of anything to do other than return to the activities they once found fun.
Thankfully, I’m very good at relaxing, so at least that’s a plus for my well-being. And maybe I’ll start with funny rather than fun, to get my laugh juices flowing, which in turn causes the brain to release feel-good hormones. But what’s funny these days? I ordered a small pool for my grandkids to cool off in and the company in China sent the wrong model, so seeing a picture of my granddaughter standing in maybe 2 feet of water and being able to touch the sides of the pool made me laugh hysterically. Looks like it might handle toddlers, not teenagers, but it was even funnier because the delivery had been delayed multiple times and we were all so excited that it finally arrived. And it’s not even big enough to lie down in or put a blow-up chair in.
Maybe that’s a key point. We need to find the funny. I could choose to be upset that the wrong pool was delivered and the odds of me getting a replacement or the right pool or even a refund are probably nil. Or I can see the humor in our situation. I say “our” because we’re all having similar problems. Things just aren’t “right” these days. And while there’s absolutely nothing funny about the virus or about people that are suffering economically, there are lots of us muddling through this and having bizarre experiences and doing crazy things to entertain ourselves - and in that, we can find the funny.
Just over 100 years ago, more than half of the population didn’t yet have electricity, most people worked 6 or 7 grueling days a week in very unhealthy and even dangerous environments, including children, and people had to walk or ride a horse to their destinations. People around the globe suffered and sacrificed for four years during World War I, and less than 20 years later, six more years during World War II. Here in the US, citizens suffered through the great depression for around ten years. Definitely not fun periods to exist, but I find it interesting that in the span of just 100 years, which could really be looked at much wider, like thousands of years, life wasn’t full of fun. But we’ve rapidly shifted into a world where we’re constantly entertained.
We’ve created so many forms of entertainment over the past 50 years or so, we’ve never had to worry about being bored, alone or to even have to think about how we could entertain ourselves. Sporting events, amusement parks, experiential restaurants (and no, I’ve never personally eaten blind-folded or naked, but it was available as an option), mystery clubs, giant indoor malls, bars, travel excursions, sky-diving, mega-concerts, bungee jumping, and, well, the list is pretty endless. And now we’re down to binge-watching TV as the only thing feeding us entertainment and we don’t like it.
We’ve obviously gotten a little spoiled and I even wonder if there’s a part of our brain that might have gone dormant – the part that creates our own entertainment instead of relying on external factors to feel like we’re having fun. I also wonder about our grit, that psychological determination that gets us through tough times. People during the world wars and the depression had a lot of grit. They scraped by for years, deprived of any luxuries, much less entertainment, and somehow came through on the other side. We’re all going crazy after just five months of what is, compared to what they went through, not that bad. We may be deprived of fun these days, but most of us are perfectly comfortable and safe in our own homes, and working from home or going to work in an environment that has been made safe for us. We may be complaining like we’re having to sacrifice unbearably, but seriously, compared to past un-fun periods, things could definitely be a lot worse.
Perhaps if we find the funny, that will help our brains expand creatively and we can start creating new ways to have fun. But in the meantime, maybe we can work on accepting that this is simply not a fun period of time. It’s a tragic time for those who have gotten ill and it’s an extremely stressful time for those out of work, but for the rest of us, well, we’re simply bored with the monotony of life these days. We crave fun, but until we start generating our own, it’s probably not coming any time soon.
I think one of the reasons we’re craving fun so badly is that we want a distraction from our condition. But what if instead, we looked at our discomfort through a mindful lens, non-judgmentally and with acceptance. Assuming you’re well, take some time to contemplate your current condition. Are you safe? Do you have food and water? Are you deprived of anything that you actually need? When you think of something you want and can’t have right now, what happens in your body? Is there an ache or pain? Does your stomach clench? What causes that?
As you explore how interesting our minds and bodies really are, you’ll notice that the discomfort lessens, at least a little. The more you practice accepting what is and exploring how your mind and body respond, the stronger those observations dissipate the discomfort.
If we could talk to a person say from 1920 and compare notes about our living conditions, could we honestly describe our current experience as suffering? What would that conversation sound like? Looking at our situation through this different perspective really helps clarify that while we’re inconvenienced and uncomfortable, most of us have much more to be grateful for than to be upset about.
I’m going to focus on accepting what is. While I miss all of my previous fun activities, they just aren’t available now and may not return, so there’s no sense in making myself more miserable by bemoaning the point. It’s going to be 107 degrees here, so I’ll get my blow-up chair that does fit in my kiddie pool, barely, grab something to drink, and lay in the water watching a funny movie. I’ve got to start making my own fun somewhere and I’m very grateful that I have a kiddie pool to sit in to contemplate what might be fun to do next.