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I just want to be chill

Be sure to get to the end for a free download to use with students!

I hear this a lot and I’ve got to be honest. It kind of bums me out. When I ask kids how they wish to be or what they wish to achieve in the week ahead, you’d be surprised how many times I hear this as the goal. OK. But what about fun?!?! I want to yell. But I hold back.

I believe them. I used to think that kids are so desperate to chill because this is a generation that gets so overscheduled, who didn’t have enough free time and space in their younger days to just dawdle around so they feel desperate for it now.

But, when I heard my own 14 year old say those exact words to me at the table the other night when I asked him what he wished for in an ideal high school, I was pretty dismayed. I mean, this kid has had and continues to have plenty of free time. We really don’t do a whole lot of activities around here and he dawdles around plenty. So why are so many teens and young adults walking around like they just put in a hard 60 hour grind at the office all week and need a long Don Draper style retreat to relax their weary, teenage hearts, minds, and body?

I know the answers to that question are super complex, especially when kids are complex, so I’m not going to even try to attempt to cover all the potential answers, but I did find something pretty interesting in a training I’m in about the science of well-being and teenagers. 

The phenomenon of “junk flow” and “fake fun.” 

This is basically defined by any activity that sucks you in when you have some free time that you engage in, usually not with a lot of pre-thought about it, to cope with feeling tired or bored or stressed, but leaves you feeling, at best, just “meh” and at worst, even more tired, stressed, and now guilty that you just wasted time trying to relax, but don’t feel much better and now have less time and energy for the stuff you need to do. 

When I share this with students, they are pretty quick to identify their sources of junk flow and fake fun. And I bet you’ve guessed it to. It lurks behind screens that fit right in their hand. Social media, texting, scrolling.  We feel this to be true in our bones, I think, but the correlation between the significant drop in teen and young adult mental health statistics and the significant spike in smart phone and social media use over the last decade is just as convincing.

But junk flow and fake fun also existed before the prevalence of screens. It’s any negative coping. Binge eating, substance abuse. And this last one hurts because I llike to think of myself as an expert in this field: excessive daydreaming. Some of it is really good for us, but too much of it can definitely turn into fake fun. 

To cut down on junk flow and fake fun, we need to get a good handle on true fun and real flow. Here’s how both are defined by the experts: 

Real Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the psychology researcher who defined this mental state that’s highly conducive to productivity says that real flow is defined by these characteristics:

  1. Challenging but attainable goals
  2. Strong focused concentration
  3. Intrinsically rewarding activity (don’t care what you get at the end)
  4. Serenity
  5. Lose self consciousness
  6. Time passes without noticing it
  7. Just focused on the activity and not on other things, past, or present

As I put it to a student last night: It’s something you learn about or attempt to make just for the fun and pure interest in it, not because anyone is asking you to or you feel you should. That really got some light bulbs going for her: making fairy gardens, painting by numbers, learning to play the guitar…

True Fun

Journalist Catherine Price who studied the research on fun and wrote a book about it (can you believe what people get to do out there for a living?!?) defines true fun as a combination of these three elements: 

  1. Playfulness
  2. Connection
  3. Flow

You can definitely have fun when any 3 of those are present, but all three at the same time is fireworks level of fun. 

There’s a great activity in Catherine Price’s book that I think would be, well, fun, to do with a teen in your life who pines to chill and has a lot of junk flow and fake fun going on right now. 

Here’s how I modified Price’s activity to show I introduce it to students in this age group: 

The Fun Audit for Students:

Remember 3 times in your life when you just had so much fun. This should be a memory that makes you smile a little when you think about it.  Give each one a title: 

That time when …

That time when…

That time when…

It’s ok if it was a long time ago. It doesn’t have to be recent, but it can be. It also doesn’t have to be a big event, but it can be. 

Really try to relive the whole scene in your mind one at a time for a few moments, then answer these questions about each one: Who was there? What were you doing? What was happening around you? Where were you? What were the sights, sounds, smells, and/or tastes? What did fun feel like in your body?

These are your fun factors! Now you can seek out in small or big ways to bring more of that into your free time and less of the fake fun version.

Plan it: 

The ironic thing is to get more real fun into life, we have to do something that actually doesn’t seem like a lot of fun. You have to plan on it. 

Pick a day and time this week for real fun. Actually block it out in your schedule and find or organize a thing to do.

Treat this like an experiment. It’s ok if it takes some trial and error to get to that sweet spot of fun. And even a little fun is better than none. 

P.S.   I say this alot, but I think we could all stand to hear it every day. The best known way to support a student who struggles with executive function and stress at school is to take care of our own needs for stress reduction, physical vitality, and social connection. And that’s not me talking. That’s the research. I always felt in my gut that was true, but Dr. Adele Diamond who has been researching and presenting and innovating in this field for more than 30 years is the one who taught me that, so I feel pretty certain that if the fun audit exercise goes no farther than your own application in your life, we’re still doing even better for the students in our lives. 

And because I’m a total weirdo and one of the things that puts me in real flow is making graphic organizers, here’s a hand out to make this super easy to do with your student(s) because when you draw boxes around questions, for some reason, they have a much easier time filling the space with their bright ideas and insights. Enjoy and please share! 

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