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OK, I realize that fun may not feel like a top priority right now. It may not even feel like an appropriate point of focus. After all, this country is fighting two wars. We’ve got all manner of social, environmental and public-health problems looming. And we’re in the midst of a totally un-fun economic crisis. Cornerstone industries are imploding, retirement accounts are hemorrhaging and layoffs are leaving those who still have jobs with more work on their plates than ever.

It’s enough to put a major hitch in your happy dance. In fact, you may be tempted to put your nose even more firmly to the grindstone simply to avoid looking up and seeing whatever bummer might be coming next. But if your health and happiness are important to you, that would be a dreadful (to say nothing of dreary) mistake.

You know that saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”? Well, it turns out that a deficit of fun and enjoyment can make hardworking, hard-stressing Jacks and Jills downright sick and depressed, too.

A lot of it comes down to endorphins, or, rather, a lack thereof.

If you’ve been reading this magazine for a while, or if you’re just generally hip to how the human body works, you probably already know that in response to certain mental-emotional states (like happiness and delight) and physical experiences (such as sustained exertion or pleasure), our bodies produce a variety of feel-good chemicals known as endorphins.

Some of these naturally manufactured compounds are the biochemical equivalents of the opiates found in heroin and morphine and the cannabinoids found in marijuana. They dock in the same cell receptors and produce similar feel-good results — without, thank goodness, all the negative side effects typically associated with their illicit counterparts.

Although not addictive in the same way that mood-altering street drugs can be, some of these internally
produced endorphins are — molecule for molecule — every bit as powerful. Far from being damaging, though, they act in positive, critically important ways that impact not just our moods, but our appetites, energy levels and even our immune systems.

It turns out, in fact, that more than 90 percent of the receptors on our immune-systems cells (think T-cells, B-cells, thymus cells and so on) are endorphin receptors. The takeaway message here is unmistakable: Our immune systems rely on and take their orders from our endorphins.

It follows that, in the absence of adequate endorphins, our immune systems are not going to be very well equipped to fend off bacteria and viruses (from influenza to papilloma), much less cancer and autoimmune diseases. Nor will our immune systems be as effective at supporting the key repair functions that help us heal wounds and recover from intense exercise.

So while light-hearted amusements may not seem like a top priority right now, getting daily doses of fun, joy and comic relief may, in fact, be more important than ever.

Why? Because stress and anxiety tend to depress many of the very same endorphins that fun and pleasure augment, leading to a potentially severe endorphin-deficit situation that could leave you vulnerable to illness, listlessness, weight gain, mood swings and depression. (For more on how this works, check out “A Real Pleasure” [December 2008] and “The Healer Within” [May 2009] in the archives.)

I, for one, am not about to let my precious endorphins dwindle without a fight. So I am making a particular point these days to stop and smell whatever’s blooming, to get out on the occasional trail run, to play a little catch with my niece, to go look when my husband tells me the dog is doing something adorable.

I’m even clicking on some of those pesky forwarded links I used to ignore: hilarious segments from Britain’s Got Talent, clips of Eddie Izzard doing his great “Evil Herbivore” and “Cake or Death?” bits, grainy video of beatbox geniuses making extraordinary music with nothing but their mouths and a microphone, or irrepressible types doing whimsical happy dances in all four corners of the globe.

All of this stuff makes me smile or laugh or breathe a sigh of relief, and it gives me that lovely surge I’ve come to associate with a healthy release of endorphins. What gets your endorphins flowing may be entirely different, of course. The point is, if you want to stay healthy and resilient (particularly during stressful times), you need to make some room in your life for whatever feels fun to you.

Consider this issue of Experience Life your invitation — and permission — to put your personal fun account back in the black.

Thoughts to share?

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