A lack of play in young children has been linked to criminality, declining creativity and obesityAdam Whitlock/unsplash

Cambridge students are no strangers to overworking. Whether it be looming essay deadlines, upcoming supervisions or dreaded exams, it is not surprising to find students in the library at absurd hours of the morning.

While stereotypes about Cambridge students not having any sort of social life are, in the majority of cases, wholly untrue, there is still a ‘culture of overwork’. All-nighters are commonplace and stress is a somewhat permanent feeling, making burnout seem almost inevitable.

When balancing heavy course loads with extracurricular commitments, it can often feel overwhelming to try and stay on top of things. As a result, having completely unstructured fun can be de-prioritised and pushed to the bottom of the to-do list — however, science would argue that its importance cannot be overstated.

playful people are more likely to develop strategies to allow them to adapt to new situations

When we feel pleasure, neurons in a part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area fire, causing the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine that then communicates reward signals to different brain regions. This system has evolved to reward behaviour such as eating, drinking or exercise, all of which increase the survival of the individual and the species. However, activities such as exploring, drawing or chatting with friends are also pleasurable for most people, despite having seemingly no direct impact on survival. Why then do we feel joy when doing these things?

All these activities could be seen as a form of play, which according to Patrick Bateson, who was an emeritus professor of ethology at the University of Cambridge, is “almost any activity that is not ‘serious’ or ‘work.’” 

The drive to play is thought to arise in the limbic system, one of the most primitive parts of the brain, which controls memory and emotion. Yet studies show that juvenile play helps develop more complex regions of the brain, as rats barred from play struggle to have normal social interactions as adults. As a result, the evolutionary advantage of play is generally accepted to be that it allows juveniles to learn skills or tasks they will need to master as adults. Also, it’s thought that playful people are more likely to develop strategies to allow them to adapt to new situations.

It is no surprise then that a lack of play in young children has been linked to criminality, declining creativity and obesity. This means the cost-cutting council measures of closing playgrounds and reducing spending on play are particularly concerning due to the impact they may have on the development of children. Moreover, play is not only important in childhood. In adults, a lack of fun is also believed to be a reason for an increase in mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

Having fun helps to reduce stress by lowering the levels of the hormone cortisol, with several studies finding that spontaneous laughter can help us to better cope with stress. It can also increase serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that regulates processes such as sleep patterns, body temperature, memory and mood. 


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More fun can also increase both productivity and creativity, as well as improve memory and concentration. Furthermore, there may be a positive effect on relationships with others as a result, by allowing you to be more friendly and establish connections.

Overall, having more fun can improve almost all areas of life. So while it is difficult to devote time and energy to the things you enjoy when you are overwhelmed with work, prioritising fun may be highly beneficial. Taking some time out of a busy day to just have fun might allow you to complete the rest of your tasks more efficiently. And who knows? You might even enjoy it.