Little-known fact: You can’t feel overstimulated and playful at the same time.
“Would you just lighten up?” “Maybe you’d have more fun if you weren’t so serious all the time.” “Come on! Lighten up and have some fun!”
If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you’ve probably heard versions of these your whole life. The admonishments come from mostly well-meaning people trying to get you to enjoy life the way they do.
So if you rage-clicked this article, ready to refute yet another attempt to get you to “just have some fun!” I see you and I’m with you.
Who gets to decide what’s fun anyway? I don’t need to convince you that one person’s idea of “fun” is another person’s nightmare. Yet fun isn’t just for happy-go-lucky types and it isn’t one-size-fits-all. With a little reimagination, HSPs can define fun and embrace their “play ethic” in their own way.
Why ‘Fun’ Matters Extra for HSPs
It’s important to point out — and likely reassuring to HSPs — that researchers define “fun” as “pleasure without purpose,” wherein pleasure is referred to as “doing something that you want to do.”
Similarly, Dr. Travis Tae Oh, a researcher on the psychology of fun, says, “Fun is an experience of liberating engagement.” In his work, he sees two primary characteristics that define fun: “hedonic engagement” (active involvement in something just because it’s enjoyable) and “a sense of liberation” (the freedom to enjoy the activity however we choose).
So if the idea of “fun” feels like pressure to you, try letting go of society’s definition of the term, and instead, think about what calls you to liberating engagement. Think of having more fun as a necessary antidote for all the overwhelm you experience as a highly sensitive person.
In fact, “liberating engagement” is the exact opposite of how I feel when I’m overwhelmed. As HSPs, we are constantly taking in so many stimuli, and as a result, we are more susceptible to overstimulation. For HSPs, overstimulation is essentially a stress response. In part, this is because we are wired to use our “pause-and-check” instinct to scan incoming stimuli and feel threatened when we can’t keep up with all the stimuli we are taking in.
It’s easy to see why overwhelm and playfulness don’t mix. Since overstimulation is a marker of high sensitivity, HSPs must be intentional about calming our nervous systems in order to truly let down our guard, play, and have fun.
So how can HSPs have more authentic fun in our lives? Not surprisingly, we have to do it our way. Here are 10 little ideas to get you started.
Like what you’re reading? Get our newsletter just for HSPs. One email, every Friday. Click here to subscribe!
10 Ways HSPs Can Have More Fun in Their Daily Lives — And Combat Overwhelm
1. Channel your inner Mister Rogers.
Mister Rogers, also known as Fred Rogers, exemplified HSP fun by bringing his seriousness and playfulness into harmony. He was serious about children’s need for imagination, creativity, and play, and honored his calling while never taking himself too seriously.
While we all know Fred Rogers was a kind and earnest advocate for children offscreen, too, I was surprised to learn of his affinity for humor and pranks. His wife shared that he would often humor her at a drab social gathering by catching her eye, shifting in his seat, and passing gas. I’m not one for practical jokes, but I have learned from him that having a little more fun in life doesn’t negate my serious and sensitive nature. And it doesn’t have to negate yours either.
2. Pursue a little novelty — “the HSP way.”
Novelty can be tricky for highly sensitive people. Initially, we may like the idea of trying something new, but quickly spiral into anxiety over all the unknowns and risk until it sounds worse than pulling teeth.
HSPs love routines and are often content to stick with the familiar. But life is too short to stay stuck on dry land when you really want to swim.
So care for your sensitive sensibilities, follow your pause-and-check instinct, and then dip your toes into a new activity or experience when you want to. Sure, sea kayaking could be scary, as you can’t necessarily see land as you can with lake kayaking. But once you talk yourself out of the what-ifs, you can focus on all the benefits instead, like the fresh sea air and the beauty of nature all around you.
3. Look for the missing “fun factor” in dreaded or mundane tasks. (And if you can’t find one, use a reward system!)
What’s something on your schedule this week that you’re dreading? Whether it’s a dentist appointment or just another day at your boring job, imagine what might make those obligations more enjoyable. Something small, like saving a favorite podcast for the dentist’s chair, can infuse a little fun into a dreaded event.
If you’re stuck with a task, or a life circumstance, where fun feels like a facade, try implementing rewards for doing what must be done. Because research shows there is a lot of overlap in the pleasure and reward pathways in the brain, rewarding yourself can be a helpful trick to get in touch with your playful side. Break down tasks into small steps — as small as you need them to be — and then reward yourself after every single step. After all, HSPs excel at single-tasking anyway, so just focus on one at a time and see what happens.
4. Appreciate your secret silliness and inside jokes.
There’s that iconic line from The Office where Michael Scott says, “I love inside jokes, I’d love to be part of one someday.” As a viewer, the line leaves you feeling comedic pity for him, as per usual. As an HSP, it makes me think of all the inside jokes I have with myself.
Now, I’m an introvert, so I embrace my inner world. Whether you’re an HSP introvert or extrovert, you have a rich inner life due to your deeply processing mind.
My partner has grown accustomed to my appreciation of my inner world. He’ll notice my smirk and ask, “Laughing to yourself again?” I’ve made a habit of responding with another Michael Scott quote: “You wouldn’t understand, it’s a secret.”
It’s okay, even important, to allow yourself to enjoy your rich inner life, including that sense of humor and silliness that perhaps few others ever experience. So go ahead and chuckle to yourself at that witty thought you’ll never say out loud. It’s one way to nourish your sensitivities for your own sake, as well as to bring a little more fun into your day.
5. Have some fun with all that observing you do.
HSPs are sensitive to subtle stimuli — it’s a cornerstone of the trait. Picking up on little things can be irritating more often than not, as the faintest smell or most fleeting noise can completely throw us off.
But don’t forget that we notice the fun, too.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been enthralled by something no one else seemed to notice, whether it’s someone’s body language, a kid saying something hilarious in a grocery store line, or an unusual insect on a trail. Allowing ourselves to notice these seemingly little moments can brighten an otherwise dull day.
We can’t help how we notice everything, so we might as well have some fun with it!
Want to reduce stress and thrive as a highly sensitive person? We recommend these online courses from psychotherapist and sensitivity expert Julie Bjelland. Click here to learn more.
6. Experiment with “eustress” to better focus on fun.
“Eustress” is defined as positive stress — that is, stress that yields a positive reaction or effect. It’s feeling excited instead of nervous, and perceiving adversity as a challenge to face instead of a threat to avoid.
You bring eustress to your fun when you work on mastering a new knitting pattern or play a high-strategy board game. Just remember that eustress, by definition, is short-lived and manageable. That means, if it gets to be too much, it’s no longer positive stress.
Incorporating a little eustress in our hobbies and pastimes can help ground us and focus our minds away from the constant HSP overthinking and mental chatter. It can also keep us from getting understimulated in our play.
7. Follow your childlike instinct to have “serious fun.”
Child Psychologist Jean Piaget famously said, “Play is the work of childhood.” Anyone who observes a toddler fiddling with a toy, or mastering a new gross motor skill, knows this to be true.
My son went through a serious Thomas the Train phase as a preschooler. I was mesmerized observing his relentless pursuit to design and build elaborate train tracks just the way he wanted them. They would often sprawl throughout the entire living room, all of them intricate and interconnected. It was inspiring to watch him play so hard.
Who says fun can’t be serious? Children’s willingness to meet a challenge with liberated engagement is something we would do well to emulate. So satisfy your HSP desire to engage in some fun by having some deeply serious fun.
8. Mix your “virtues and vices.”
When it comes to the science of fun, researchers look at what lights up the pleasure pathways in the brain. They note two primary sources of pleasure: hedonic and eudaimonic motivation.
Hedonic behavior refers to enjoyment for its own sake — things we enjoy doing just because. They may or may not have any other value associated with them. Eudaimonic behaviors, on the other hand, are more about purpose and meaning in life — doing good for others, self-actualization, and gratification from a life well-lived.
Both hedonic and eudaimonic behaviors are necessary for our well-being. David Linden, the author of The Compass of Pleasure, suggests we “mix our virtues and vices” to add more pleasure to our daily lives. It’s worth a try, right?
9. Don’t deny yourself conventional, and unconventional, types of fun.
At a recent wedding reception, I was one of a handful of people who enjoyed the party as a spectator, never gracing the dance floor. I was content with this choice, but I recognized that part of me really wanted to join in on the conventional fun.
In contrast, the first time I took my kids to a trampoline park, I noticed all the parents lined up along the walls, sitting on benches, most of them on their phones. (And listen, I get it. Any spare second to tackle a task, or just mindlessly scroll social media, can feel like a luxury sometimes.)
But I couldn’t shake my urge to join in the trampoline fun. And so I did. I jumped among the sea of kids, trying to ensure no little ones fell prey to my double bounce. It was, in fact, a lot of fun.
Don’t put yourself in a box just because you’re highly sensitive. Sure, you may rarely agree with everyone else’s idea of fun, but when you do, join in.
10. Find your “flow” and follow it.
If terms like “play” and “fun” still put you on edge, explore the concept of flow. Flow describes that feeling of being totally immersed (or “lost”) in an activity. It’s the sort of enjoyment where you lose track of time, are completely focused, and even find the challenges enjoyable. When in a “flow state,” we are immune to distractions and the overthinking that normally plagues highly sensitive people.
Flow state usually requires just the right amount of eustress and liberating engagement. In fact, Dr. Elissa Epel, author of The Stress Prescription, says flow state is the ultimate positive stress because it allows us to feel safe, even when we’re doing something hard. It’s the ideal which children exemplify in their “serious fun.”
HSPs can gratify the deep processing they love and crave by finding their flow state. I’ve learned that little assists, like selective noise, help placate my sensitivities so I can find, and stay, in flow.
HSPs, what would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments below!
You might like:
- How to Embrace Your ‘Play Ethic’ as a Highly Sensitive Person
- 4 Reasons Why HSPs Are the Best at Reading Body Language
- How to (Actually) Find Your Purpose as a Highly Sensitive Person
This article contains affiliate links. We only recommend products we truly believe in.