“You’ve got to laugh sometimes or you’d go mad!” isn’t such a flippant comment as you might think. In this era of 24/7 stress, constant change and rapid pace of life, the degree of mental illness has grown alarmingly. It’s become essential that you have an interest that takes your mind right away from your problems – and as often as possible.
Switch off and switch on
Like a car that regularly needs re-fuelling, it isn’t enough to simply stop and rest. You need to switch your mind off from stress-generating responsibilities and switch it on to an energy-replenishing experience. Any experience that you totally control, allowing you to enjoy creatively expressing your natural talents simply for the sheer enjoyment of doing so. Because it’s about keeping the mind healthy, it isn’t necessarily about what you do but how good it makes you feel about yourself. Choir singing does it for me.
State of flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [i] calls it a ‘state of flow’:
- The mind is totally absorbed in the experience to the exclusion of all else
- It provides a gently stimulating challenge to your talents and skills, and
- It takes your thinking away from the stresses and pressures of life for the time of the experience.
- Afterwards you perceive the world and your problems from a refreshed, often more positive perspective.
Nature never saw a distinction between work and leisure, only the good use of natural talents, passionate interests and the creative potential to grow. It is us and our economic and social demands that created the work/leisure dichotomy and then only in the relatively recent times of industrial evolution. What we seem to need today is a harmonious mix of interests we have to do with those we love to do.
Suggesting leisure helps to keep us mentally healthy may seem simplistic in the context of the intensive work being done by health professionals in the war against mental illness. Yet there are many anecdotal examples, including my own, in which an absorbing, enjoyable leisure pursuit is a natural stress manager and a lasting anti-depressant (provided you take your ‘leisure medicine’ regularly).
More than 30 years working professionally as a leisure specialist, helping people of all ages and interests, has given me a unique perspective on positive human behaviour, mental health, wellbeing and personal development.
Leisure's changing image
For many generations, leisure had a quaint image in which businesses and busy people saw leisure somewhat disdainfully as the “fluffy stuff of life”, a waste of good productive time, even a competitor to work. Being a hard worker was the core of life’s success.
What leisure is hasn't changed. The change is in recognizing what leisure does to sustain mental health. Mind you, peoples’ perceptions don’t necessarily change as rapidly. Many business people, particularly managers – still see leisure in the old way, which can generate a sense of guilt and perceived weakness. This of course happens to be one of the major obstacles still to be overcome in beating mental illness.
Prevention is better than cure
The overwhelming advantage of this approach lies in its preventive medicine emphasis, as distinct from curing mental illness. Fun is a natural part of our being, requiring only the acknowledgement of every person’s right for a passionate leisure interest to take its place in the management of their personal health, growth and development.