Fun in Recovery: It’s a Need, Not a Want

fun in recovery

Today, we’re talking about fun. Specifically, we’re getting clear on why it’s important in recovery. In a nutshell, it’s a basic human need, it helps us get our necessary hit of dopamine, and having fun helps us learn new things. While reading about fun is fun, we also know that you might want more ideas. We’re not going to let you down. There’s a shortlist of things to try at the end of the post. 

Did you know that fun is a basic human need? It is, according to William Glasser, MD, the creator of Choice Theory. According to Glasser, all of our behaviors are put into play to meet some very basic human needs – survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. That includes the use and abuse of chemicals like alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs. 

If that’s true, then it’s easy to imagine how important it is, in recovery, to learn new and different ways to meet these basic needs – all of them. If you’re not convinced that fun is a basic human need, imagine a life that includes nothing but drudgery. Read on for more insight into why fun (and pleasure) are important.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of neuroscience. There’s no way for a neuroscientist to point to a spot in the brain and say, “this is the part of the brain that is associated with fun,” but what they talk about is pleasure, a direct byproduct of fun. According to David J. Linden, who published a book called, The Compass of Pleasure2 in 2011, here’s the gist: when humans experience pleasure, neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the brain light up, and the long tails of those neurons reach out into other areas of the brain – sort of like plant roots. When those neurons fire, they release dopamine to neurons in other parts of the brain. 

Dopamine is sometimes called the pleasure chemical, and the pleasure pathway has evolved with us and plays an important role in our individual and species survival. If we didn’t have this pathway, we wouldn’t care much about food or sex, and the species would ultimately die out. Humans have learned ways, both healthy and unhealthy, to activate that pathway. 

Drugs and alcohol do it, so do gambling, sex, and food. When we step into recovery, if we’re going to stay on the path and (1) avoid relapse or (2) avoid living an unfulfilling and dopamine-deprived life (of drudgery), we have to find ways to activate our pleasure pathway that are healthy. We’ve got to discover the fun in recovery.

At the start of this post, we said that fun plays a positive role in learning new things. That’s partially due to the pleasure pathway we talked about above. Having fun increases dopamine and other delightful chemicals like oxygen that make learning easier. 

Discovering new fun things to do, on our own and in groups often sets us up to learn new things too, and some of those things are important. We learn about ourselves by discovering what equates to fun, developing skills that help us grow our self-esteem, and if we’re having fun in groups, we often learn important social skills like social cue identification, communication, and boundaries.

For many people in recovery from substance use, important facets of learning that might have happened during adolescence or even earlier were stalled or bypassed due to family issues, trauma, emotional issues, addiction, or other challenges. Discovering fun in recovery can open huge windows for growth and development while also encouraging an ongoing sense of curiosity and fighting boredom. 

It’s important to understand that fun is subjective, so what one person finds fun might not be fun to another. It’s also imperative to remember that fun, while it seems like it should just happen, may not come naturally to some of us when we first step onto a recovery path. We may have developed the habit of only associating fun with being drunk or high, or we may have given up on fun entirely.

We might be (1) full of judgment and/or (2) out of practice. What’s important is accepting the fact that fun is critical to recovery (AND survival) and committing to finding your healthy pathways to the fun. We can invoke the principles of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness to help us in our quest for fun. Here’s how that works:

  • Honesty: Take an honest look at how you had fun in the past. Go as far back as you need to. Make a list of all of those things, and then cross off the ones you know are unhealthy and don’t support your recovery. Commit to finding a way to either try one of those healthy, younger-you fun things or find a way to take the essence of that past thing and discover something new.
  • Open-Mindedness: When someone invites you to engage in an activity or tells you about something they consider fun, suspend judgment. Take your open mind and body for a spin in this activity. 
  • Willingness: Sometimes willingness trumps want-to even when it comes to fun. Boredom and resistance are old habits, and they are often stronger than the new fun-seeking habit that we’re trying to develop. Sometimes, you might have to combine a small spoon of open-mindedness with a big dose of willingness just to get out the door and try something that could be fun. 
  • Back to Honesty: At the end of the day, go back and take another honest look at the activities you tried. Not all activities are going to light up your dopamine circuits, and that’s okay. Conversely, you might find things that feel fun to you that nobody else really understands, and that’s perfectly alright too.

Fun is a big deal. It’s important for the care and nurturing of healthy humans, and that means it’s a very important piece of a full recovery puzzle. Before we go, here’s a shortlist of things to try on your own and/or in good company that may help you meet that basic human need, light up those neurons, and helps you learn a few things about yourself and the social world:

  • Take advantage of the outdoors: Hiking, tubing, swimming, water-skiing, jet-skiing, surfing, snorkeling, SCUBA diving, snow skiing, golfing, gardening, playing disc-golf, walking, landscaping, bird-watching, and urban foraging are all ideas that cross the seasons, and while some activities might not be accessible for various reasons, Mother Nature always has something to offer. Even walking around your neighborhood and using an app on your phone to identify different bugs can be fun.
  • Learn a new skill: There are so many useful and just-for-fun skills out there to learn, and for some of us learning a new thing lights us up as much as skydiving does someone else. Learn to change a tire, patch a hole in the wall, fix a computer, darn a sock, work with ceramics, paint with watercolors, crochet or knit, whittle a stick, draw a cat, bake a cake, or shape a Bonsai Tree. It might be something you always dreamed of learning, or it could be some random skill that someone mentions off the cuff.
  • Group up: Playing with others is a great way to learn social cues and to practice communication skills and boundary setting. Start or join a book club, drawing club, comics club, or running club. Join sewing, knitting, or another craft circle. Play fantasy football with friends, go to a Comic-Con in cosplay costumes, or team up to create a film, a comic strip, or a song. Make your time with Mother Nature or learn a new skill at a group event.
  • Go down the rabbit hole: If something lights you up, follow its trail. Learn about UFOs, clowning, the history of women in medicine, Trickster mythology, the South American rainforest, famous dog breeds, or rainbows. Let your mind lead you in interesting directions, but always remember to come up for air and move your body around a little bit.

And with that, we’ll close. There are still hours left on this lovely day. We’re going out to have some fun. You should too.

1 Glasser, William, (1999). Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. New York: Harper Perennial. 

2 Linden, David J., (2011). The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasms, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. New York: Viking.