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Goofing Off: Psychological & Physical Benefits of Having Fun

Playing "for the hell of it," simply because it's fun, is very important to do

A few years ago I wrote two essays about nonhuman animals (animals) playing just for fun (please see "Do Animals Play Just for Fun? Watch this Dog" and "Do Animals Play for the Hell of It? Watch This Fox"). Numerous animals love to play either with other individuals or alone, often with objects or simply with themselves. They engage in social play and solitary/self-play to their heart's content. It seems like they can never get enough of it. And, when I watch animals play I can't get enough either, for I can feel their joy as they energetically and tirelessly frolic.

"You’re a heavy-duty organic power generator with a fresh tank of fruit sugar fuel, and this log is just lying there waiting to be tossed around"

Along these lines, I just read a great story that's available online called "A Quick Bear Story" by renowned biologist, naturalist, and author, Douglas Chadwick. In this essay Mr. Chadwick tells the story of a grizzly bear he watched that made me think of the animals who I've seen play simply because it's fun. He writes:

Before long, I had an adult bear in view at a lake. I dropped from the ridge to a lower band of ledges and set up a telescope. The animal was wading out from shore with only portions of its back and snout showing, furry alligator-style. This grizzly wasn’t in the water to hunt for fish or for anything else, though. It wasn’t there to drink its fill or to interact with another bear. It was just doing what any of us might while free-roaming the slopes on a hot afternoon—getting wet and keeping cool. Feeling fine. Every so often, the bear would stand to swipe at the surface or pound it with its paws to create a splash. At other times, Aqua-Grizz would submerge completely and then rise on its hind legs again to shake itself, whipping rings of water from its head and upper torso.

Returning to shore, the bear came upon a washed up tree trunk. After rolling this around for a few moments, the grizzly lay on its back among the green sedges, wrestled the heavy length of wood atop its body, lifted it, and began to juggle the thing with all four feet. Why? Well, why will a grown-up grizzly repeatedly slide down a tilted patch of snow? Why does one foraging in a meadow sometimes break into a wriggly, loose-limbed frolic, swinging its head and zigzagging this way and that? I think the better question—and also the answer—is: Why not? Imagine you own hundreds of pounds of muscle packed atop muscle, claws that measure three to four inches along the outside curve, and the ability to accelerate from zero to thirty-five miles per hour in seconds. What you want to do, you can do, no worries. You’re a heavy-duty organic power generator with a fresh tank of fruit sugar fuel, and this log is just lying there waiting to be tossed around.

Mr. Chadwick also writes:

While science can’t quite bring itself to say that grizzlies like to goof, the experts acknowledge that, young or old, these bears do devote an intriguing amount of time to play behavior. Exuberance is part of what defines them. So is a strongly developed sense of curiosity. ... The grizzly eventually lost interest in the log and waded back into the lake. There, the bear resumed whapping the water with its paws, alternately dunking and rising to do the subalpine swimming hole shimmy-shake. For a few minutes, it spent more time than usual with its head underwater. I thought the bear might be investigating something below. That was before a closer look through the telescope revealed that it was blowing bubbles with its nose."

I wrote to Mr. Chadwick about his lovely essay, noting that of course wild and captive animals love to goof around. I told him I once watched a young elk in Rocky Mountain National Park sliding across an ice field for fully 30 minutes; he'd slide across it and slightly downhill, get up, try to run up the ice field, and when he couldn't he'd run around on the dirt and grass and slide down it again and again. I could feel his joy.

Some might wonder if this young elk was really having fun? Of course he was, though some scientists might say something like, "We really don't know why he was doing this." I don't think it's rocket science to say that the grizzly bear, the young elk, and other animals like to goof around when they can, when the pressures of life in the wild or elsewhere aren't there. Science simply has to catch up with what other animals actually do to have fun. This is a point Jessica Pierce and I make in our book called The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age.

Concerning goofing around, Mr. Chadwick wrote back to me, "Goofing around is a pretty widespread mammalian enterprise. Mountain goats seem to specialize in those snow patch slide-’n’-frolic sessions, whirling and tossing their heads, especially after a long snooze on a hot afternoon. One of the grizzlies I watched do repeat slides down a patch was a mother who placed two cubs on her chest and went glissading down on her back, head-first. Someone even sent me a video of a wolverine spin-leaping it’s way down a steep snowfield, obviously just for the hell of it. I’ll bet you’ve done the same. I know I have."

I couldn't agree more with all of what Mr. Chadwick writes. Why shouldn't animals play because it's fun? Why shouldn't they goof around when they can, when the pressures of life allow them to do so?

Why do animals play?

Various theories have been offered about why animals play—why it has evolved—and there's no one explanation that fits all examples of animal play. Comparative data show that play is important in social development, physical development, and cognitive development, and also may be training for the unexpected (Spinka, Newberry, and Bekoff 2001). Based on an extensive review of available literature, my colleagues Marek Spinka, Ruth Newberry, and I proposed that play functions to increase the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks such as the loss of balance and falling over, and to enhance the ability of animals to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations. To obtain this "training for the unexpected" we suggested that animals actively seek and create unexpected situations in play and actively put themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations.

Animals may also play because it's fun—for the hell of it, because it feels good—during which time they're also benefiting from engaging in the activity itself. If you want animals, human and nonhuman, to do something, make it enjoyable and fun.

The benefits of goofing around

Playing for the hell of it—because it's fun—has psychological and physical benefits. It can relieve stress and also provide exercise in stress free situations. Play can be used as an indicator of individual well-being. One marker on the road to recovery by Asiatic moon bears who have been tortured in the bear bile industry is play, splashing around in water and just running here and there as if life is just grand. This video from Animals Asia called "Freed from a bile farm – is this the happiest bear ever?" will make you smile with joy and may also make you teary. When dogs stop playing, many people note it's a sign of psychological stress or illness. When they begin playing again it shows they're getting better. And, goofing off and having fun is a good way to avoid burning out (for more on this please see "Empathy Burnout and Compassion Fatigue Among Animal Rescuers" and links therein).

There are many good reasons why goofing around has evolved, and why all animals should do it when they can. Why not have fun while you can?

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. Marc's homepage is

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