Can doctors prescribe fun to patients?

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published February 10, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Many Americans are burned out, depressed, and lonely, which can impact both their mental and physical health.

  • Research shows that close relationships that bring joy are positive predictors of longevity. As a result, it may be worth getting to the root of the medical condition (loneliness, stress, etc.) to improve signs and symptoms.

  • Doctors are now using “social prescriptions” and “nature prescriptions” to encourage patients to find true happiness and enjoy the resulting health benefits.

In addition to being an enjoyable way to spend one’s time, medical research has found that having fun can have actual health benefits for patients.

The connections between enjoyment of life with longevity and sustained well-being are so strong that some physicians may prescribe fun to their patients, who often benefit as a result.

The effects of hard work

Enjoying leisure time, socializing with friends and family, and rooting yourself in your community are all positive ways to improve one’s mental and physical health.

Unfortunately, Americans as a society tend to work hard in their careers, regardless of whether or not they bring us happiness.

As a result, many people are overworked, burned out, and unhappy, which can affect our mental health and physical health in terms of obesity, cardiovascular health, chronic pain, and other chronic health conditions.

Social connections tied to longevity

A study in adult development conducted by Harvard University over 80 years, which included the college’s students from the Great Depression era as well as their offspring, looked at which factors were important contributors to living happy, healthy lives.[] Published by The Harvard Gazette, this is considered one of the longest-ever studies of adult life.

Researchers set out to study participants’ health trajectories and many facets of their everyday lives, including marriage, family, career satisfaction, and life’s successes and failures.

The investigators concluded that close relationships kept people happy and healthy throughout their life, which has led to the theory that positive socialization is a strong predictor of physical health.

“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.” the Harvard Gazette author wrote. “Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”

The Harvard Gazette article also cited other studies that found that the satisfaction people had with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of their physical health than their cholesterol levels.

"The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80."

Liz Mineo, The Harvard Gazette

Nature as a remedy

It is not just healthy relationships that improve longevity. Time outdoors and laughter are also considered huge contributors to one’s overall happiness and well-being.

In the wake of extensive research findings on the positive impacts of spending time in nature, doctors are now prescribing time outdoors.

In a 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv wrote about what he termed nature-deficit disorder, citing about 60 scientific studies that looked at the benefits of time outdoors and the problems that can come with isolation from nature, according to a New York Times article.[]

Inspired by hearing Louv speak at an American Academy of Pediatrics meeting and then reading his book, Robert Zarr, MD, MPH, a pediatrician at Unity Health Care in Washington, DC, founded Park Rx America, a nonprofit organization that encourages doctors to prescribe park visits.[]

For residents of some states, the Parx Rx website enables a doctor to search for parks near their home address, and to write a prescription with the park’s name, recommended activity, duration, and frequency of visits, according to the New York Times.

Can doctors prescribe socializing?

As chronic physical health conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, a growing elderly population, and declining mental health impact the US, prescription medications may not be the magic wands they are often expected to be, especially as people are returning to normal from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether it is ballroom dancing, cooking classes, volunteering at an animal shelter, biking or hiking groups, art classes, or Mommy and Me groups, “social prescriptions” are anything that gets people connected with others while doing what they enjoy, according to an article published by Time.[]

It's important to view a patient and understand what matters to them rather than whats the matter with them.

Physicians often need to write prescriptions for medical conditions. But what if they started getting to the root of the cause of that condition, which is frequently a sedentary, unhappy lifestyle?

Writing a prescription for—or simply recommending—leisure time could possibly add years to the lives of overworked, overstressed patients, as well as more than a few smiles.

What this means for you

Research indicates fun and relaxation could benefit patients’ longevity and well-being. Some doctors in the US are writing “social prescriptions” and “nature prescriptions” to help patients unwind, engage in physical activity, increase their dopamine levels, and find joy as ways to help treat both medical and mental health conditions. These “prescriptions” may not be common yet, but they have been gaining traction since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read Next: Nature Rx: Should you prescribe the forest to patients?
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