In 1966, an engineering student and former Marine climbed a tower at the University of Texas and began indiscriminately shooting.
In the chaos, 14 people were killed and 31 others injured. At that point, it was the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States.
In the weeks that followed, the Governor of Texas launched a campaign to try to understand why this tragedy occured. Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist at Baylor University of Medicine, was brought in to investigate. He made a surprising discovery. Dr. Brown pointed his finger at the perpetrator’s lifetime lack of play as a major contributor to his violent outburst.
Play isn’t just for little kids on the monkeybars.
If you want to live a healthy life—one that is vibrant, meaningful, and potent—you have to play. Dr. Brown, who went on to start The National Institute for Play, has found this in his research time after time. Unfortunately, most Americans have forgotten how to do this.
Despite the advances of modern medicine and our supposed “enlightened” way of living, Americans are less healthy than ever before. We’re more prone to disease, both physical and mental. We’re more stressed out, more addled with numbing addictions, and less happy. When it comes to life expectancy, we’re 46th out of 191 nations—falling right below Cuba. Cuba?! Seriously?
We’re a mess. And that was before the cancerous election cycle. Before the looming threat of COVID-winter. Before the economic turmoil of the past year.
2020 was a difficult year, and the experts aren’t projecting much different as we begin 2021. But you aren’t powerless. The one thing that can dramatically change the trajectory of your life isn’t getting back into the office. It’s not getting the candidate of your choice elected. It’s not finally finishing every one of your house projects, or never having another Zoom call again. It’s putting fun back into your life.
Believe it or not, fun is a spiritual discipline—one that must be acted on. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.
I had a lot of fun in college.
That’s one of the reasons why it took me seven years to earn a four year degree. But after getting into my profession of choice, the pendulum swung hard in the other direction. For about 12 years, I had my head down, plowing through meetings, leading building campaigns, hiring staff, and speaking to thousands every weekend. Fun was not part of my day-to-day, or even my year-to-year. I had important things to get done.
Then, a friend invited me to rent motorcycles in Las Vegas and cruise around the Grand Canyon. On that Harley, for the first time in years, I felt alive. I was excited, anticipating what would happen next. Most importantly, I wasn’t thinking about my work. Something else was occupying my mind. It rejuvenated me to the point that when I got back into the office, I performed at a higher level than I had before.
Too many of us think God is towering above, judging us on our productivity, our budgets, or the four-letter words we let slip out. God cares about those things, sure. But He’s not an overbearing micromanager. He’s a Father. Good dads care about their kids’ decisions, but they also want them to have fun; to enjoy their lives; to laugh and feel a lightness about them.
The Bible gives some great advice about fun—go have it, because life is hard. Ecclesiastes 11:8 says, “If a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many.”
In 2020, we experienced days of darkness.
As we head into 2021, we need to stockpile good times. Why? Because tough days will come back around. That’s not a popular message, or even an encouraging one, but it’s true. Life goes up and down. When it’s up, we need to enjoy it, so we have the stamina to make it through the downs. For many of us, the weight of 2020 was compounded because we’ve forgotten how to have fun. Ecclesiastes 3:13 sums it up: “Everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.”
Since that motorcycle trip to Las Vegas, I’ve included fun as a spiritual discipline I regularly practice. Why? Because too many men I know burn out and have become lifeless. Because too many men I know have forgotten how to laugh. Because too many men I know make terrible mistakes that ruin their lives. No matter what your profession—from CEO of the business to CEO of the home—the same could be said of you.
If you can’t remember the last time you had fun, then you’re what we call normal. Now isn’t the time for shame. Instead, it’s time to do something. Here are some quick hits I’ve learned on my 15-year journey of rediscovering fun. I hope they push you to get moving, and laugh more, in 2021.
YOU NEED IT
If you don’t believe Dr. Stuart Brown, or me, perhaps you’ll believe a friend of mine who used to run a lab for the National Institutes of Health. He remarked that the scientists with the biggest breakthroughs weren’t the ones who slaved for 80 hours in the lab each week. Instead, it was the researchers who knew when to walk away—the ones that took their vacation days, that went home at a reasonable hour, that actually took their lunch breaks. Why? There is power in knowing when to stop. They needed to shut down their circuits for a while, let their brain rest and breathe—and when they returned to work, fresh, the breakthroughs came more naturally.
Play re-creates you. It re-makes you. It takes away the fog of war that we’re all walking through, and allows your mind the space it needs to reset. Sometimes, a hard reset is just the thing we need.
IT DOESN’T HAPPEN BY ACCIDENT
You will never accidentally stumble into fun. You may be invited in by a friend. You may spontaneously make a decision to do something fun. But you will never accidentally have a fun day. It requires planning. It means making aggressive choices about your time, your finances, and your relationships. It means saying no.
Like anything else that matters in life, fun takes effort. That’s why I’m calling it a “discipline.” And it’s worth every ounce.
IT’S BETTER WITH SOMEONE ELSE
You might be an introvert, but you weren’t designed to be a hermit. We all need other people in our lives—you aren’t the exception to that rule. Fun is always more fun when it’s shared. The closest friends I have aren’t the people I work with (although I love and appreciate them), they aren’t the people I coach and mentor (although they’re great too). Instead, my closest friends are the guys I camp with, the guys I ride motorcycles with, the guys I go shoot elk with. Why? Because fun frees you up to just be. We have great conversations. We laugh. We get brutally honest. Fun draws you together like nothing else. Fun by yourself is okay, but fun with someone else will change both of you.
IT SEEMS UNPRODUCTIVE
I know a lot of people who settle for imitation fun. Going to the gym? That’s not fun. Teaching yourself a new language? That’s not fun. Taking a class to become a better listener? Not fun. All of those things are great. But they’re not fun. Why? They aren’t mindless. They aren’t unproductive. They each have an obvious way they will improve your life.
Riding a motorcycle—fun. Finger painting—fun. Working in your woodshop—fun. On the surface, these pursuits all seem unproductive—they aren’t adding something tangible to your life. And because they aren’t, they allow your brain to work in ways it normally doesn’t. You aren’t pressured to get that new max, learn how to conjugate that verb, or try to listen better the next time your mother-in-law is over. True fun comes with no strings attached.
But just because it seems unproductive, doesn’t mean it is. As my friend from the National Institutes for Health noticed, fun is often the doorway to a new breakthrough.
IT WILL COST SOMETHING
I can hear the passive excuse-makers now: “Must be nice to be able to have fun! Must be nice to be able to go on a hunting trip! Must be nice to have a motorcycle!” You know what? It is nice. You should try it sometime.
Fun, just like anything else in life, will cost you something—time, money, or effort. I don’t have fun because I’m independently wealthy. I have fun because I’m willing to save. I’m willing to set time aside. I’m willing to work hard to get there.
I went on an incredibly fun elk hunting trip a few months ago. How much did it cost? About $3 a day, saved throughout the year. That’s less than a standard coffee at Starbucks. How did I buy my gear? With some side-gigs that earned me extra income. There’s an answer for every excuse.
But fun doesn’t have to cost money. Get outside and ride your bicycle. Visit state parks around your home. Go fishing. Write a story. Go star-gazing. Pick a class at your local community college and audit it, just to learn some new skills. The possibilities are endless, and don’t have to cost you anything but your time and effort.
IT’S A MINDSET
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, fun is a choice. It’s a mindset. It’s choosing to make enjoyment of life a priority. It’s kind of ridiculous that I have to write that last sentence, but here we are, living in a society that constantly reinforces that our worth is tied to what we can produce. Fun turns that equation on its head.
The Bible says that “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength” (Proverbs 17:22). We’ve had enough strength-sucking from everything that’s happened last year. Let’s not begin the new year in the same blur.
Tomorrow changes by making a different choice today. Go out and do something fun. Get some joy, some good medicine. It has the power to change your 2021.
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