The General Social Survey’s findings on Americans’ happiness levels are troubling. Only 19% of those polled in 2022 said they were very happy, the lowest percentage since this survey began collecting data in 1972.

So what can we do to feel more joy? One huge factor may involve how and how much time we devote to play. Here to discuss ways we can infuse more fun into parenthood is the author of the new book The Fun Habit, Dr. Mike Rucker.

From being intentional about what we choose to focus on, finding ways to play with and without our children, and breaking down the difference between passive and active leisure, this episode will have you walking feeling a renewed sense of optimism, and a game plan for moving past burnout.


Click here to listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Dr. Mike (00:00):

The American Psychological Association just came out. That one in four people are so burnt out, they don’t even have energy to do anything once they get home. The social survey, the last one was done pre pandemic, but even that one wasn’t great. We’re only 39% of Americans identified as very happy. We’re now down to 19%. That’s telling, right?

Dr. Sarah (00:25):

Sometimes in parenthood we get so caught up in the monotony of the routine and the stress and pressures of keeping little humans alive and engaged and resilient that we can sometimes lose touch with our need to have fun. And that is just what I’ll be talking about with today’s guest, Dr. Mike Rucker. Mike is an organizational psychologist, behavioral scientist and charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association. He’s also the author of the book, the Fun Habit, which is out now. Today we are tackling our society’s obsessive focus on happiness. We’re also going to talk about the importance of play and we’ll take a deeper look at whether what fills our cup in the moment actually serves to fill us up over time.


Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.


Hey everybody, I’m super excited to introduce our guest today, Dr. Mike Rucker. Thank you so much for coming on today.

Dr. Mike (01:53):

Oh my goodness, thanks so much for having me.

Dr. Sarah (01:55):

I’m really excited because I really love how, first of all, I just really having psychologists and researchers on the podcast because I love when people who do research can translate it for parents and translate in ways that people can actually use it and what better thing to have usable research on than how to play and how to have fun if we need that so badly right now.

Dr. Mike (02:21):

Yeah, I think so. It’s been an interesting journey and I think for sure parents are some of the most fun starved, it seems like a pretty interesting thing happening in the West. I talk about it in the book a bit and I’m certainly not an expert, but one thing, something that was sort of illuminated to me because I’ve lived it, it’s a social norm of our environment, is how unique this idea that we have to be best friends with our kids is fairly Now I totally buy into it cause I like it, right? Yeah. I mean I enjoy having my kids also be my friends and playmates, but in collectivist societies where there tends to be a patriarch and things of that nature, you really do share those responsibilities. And so the relationship you have with your child is just different. And so it’s an interesting thing here where the world’s gotten a little less safe subjectively, at least most of us feel that way because I think free range parenting certainly was more prevalent in my generation and you just don’t see that now. And so this idea that we always do need to be on is a fairly recent phenomenon, but it’s a truth, right? We can’t skirt it. It’s not bad or good, it’s just interesting and new.

Dr. Sarah (03:41):

Yeah. But I think there’s a way, and I see this a lot in the parents that I work with, there’s an anxiety in parenting. Not everybody, but a lot of parents feel this anxiety that I have to be, like you said, always on, always entertaining my kids or always protecting my kids or always teaching my kids or all always something.

Dr. Mike (04:01):

Yeah. I quote a comedian in the book where it’s essentially a form of performance art at this point. If you’re not doing a Frozen musical with your child to get them to sleep, then somehow you’re a bad parent. And it’s an overarching theme of just adulthood in general that we served at. We’re so hyper focused on motivation and what others are doing that it’s planting our own goal posts becomes problematic. And I won’t get us off on a tangent, but I think it’s a component of that, right? We you calling them role models is a bit interesting, but there’s just so much information and most of that information is curated. So oftentimes that anxiety and guilt that you’re describing is so artificial because you’re comparing yourself against things that aren’t really real. Our parents didn’t have that. They were like, yeah, their litmus test is, am I doing a good job? They don’t have to compare themselves to a hundred different parents.

Dr. Sarah (04:58):

Totally. We are now comparing ourselves to what seems like the whole world, our whole social media feed at least. So that, as we were just saying, is a driving force behind parents feeling that need to always be on. But the other thing you talk about a lot, which I think is just as important, is this concept of time poverty. And I think for parents it’s of particular importance because I mean we can’t make more time. So what do we do to improve our presence in the time we have to make it feel like it’s more used or more effective?

Dr. Mike (05:34):

It’s an exercise in mindfulness that it really starts with a simple time audit is usually a great place to start. There’s only 168 hours in your week and whenever you do these time-based surveys where you look at people in mass, even the most time poor group, which by no surprise is female mothers in heterosexual relationships just because there still is a parody with regards, even though we’re trying, data looks good, but we still have a long ways to go talking to us fathers that are listening. But even for busy moms, there’s generally at least two hours of leisure. That is where if you honestly look at how you’re spending that time generally in a passive leisure state. So it’s trying to find opportunities where you can switch what you’re doing, whether that’s creating better give and take with your partner. There’s all sorts of strategies. So we could go down that bullet list. But to answer your question discreetly, it’s seeing how you are spending that time and then seeing what particular variables you could play with. Because you don’t want to prescribe fun just as another thing to do on your to-do list, right?

Dr. Sarah (06:52):

Right, that’s the same reason people roll their eyes when they say, just do self-care. And people are like, wow, do you, thanks, great advice. It’s like, well, if you say just have some fun, just play, people are going to feel equally. I imagine. Okay, that would be real nice, but how am I actually going to do that? And that’s where I feel like some of your strategies are helpful and some of just are, your reframes are helpful.

Dr. Mike (07:14):

Yeah, I think, well first it does require, I didn’t like this word at first, but it’s clear that it applies. It does require a radical reframe. We’ve been so socially conditioned either, and it runs the gambit, so it’s hard to talk about. Cause you almost have to give a lecture of all the headwinds that are against us. Is it the Puritan work ethic? Is it because we have these devices that have really been rigged? They’re not as nefarious as some people make them out to be. But the reason we call it the attention economy is true, is that they are meant to steal our attention away from us. We do feel kind of artificially good when we’re keeping busy, whether that’s through passive leisure, looking at social media or even something insidious is answering emails that we don’t really need to answer at eight in the, yeah, excuse me.


Eight at night. So there are those things. And then guilt, you’re like, you know, have good intentions and you want to serve and that’s part of your ethos. And you feel somehow that if you give it away, you’re not being a good steward to your family. And so all three of those can be unpacked. And I think the biggest one is the last one. How do you get past that field? And so what I bring up in the book, and it was my big light bulb moment cause I’ve kind of just been playing with these ideas. And then I got my hands on this piece of research. It’s out of Stanford, Harvard and MIT and it’s called the Hedonic Flexibility Principle. And essentially it’s a huge sample size, 28,000 folks that they followed around and did extensive time audits. And what they found is that when we’re ground down to a knob, when we’re not having fun, when we’re essentially doing that, all the habitual activities and just kind of living for others, that when we do have time for leisure, it tends to be what we call passive leisure. Things that aren’t really leading to our betterment again. Displacing boredom, displacing discomfort, displacing anxiety things that are essentially pacifying activities that…

Dr. Sarah (09:20):

They feel very, like, survival mode.

Dr. Mike (09:21):

Yeah. And they’re just trying to get past it or it feels artificially comfortable. Right. Because again, I cite neuroscientists in the book, but I think we kind of oversimplify the role of dopamine and the role of oxy oxytocin. These things are important, but just to say, oh, you need another dopamine hit neuroscientist after student neuroscientists. Can we just stop saying that? Cause it’s not exactly true. So I won’t do that here either because I made a commitment. But it does make us feel comfortable. I think this idea, this psychological idea of valence, we’re either attracted to something that fills us up or we are displaced, something that makes us feel uncomfortable and we’re repelled by it. That anxiety, what you shared, that guilt that we want to get out of that, we want to get out of that discomfort and those things can just distract us. They’re not necessarily filling us up. But again, channel surfing, doom scrolling, things of that nature.

Dr. Sarah (10:24):

And it’s not really a clinical term, but the thought, the word that keeps floating through my mind when you’re describing this is numbness. Sometimes we want to numb out and parents will people, but parents will often say, after my kids go to bed, I just want to numb out. I want to have three glasses of wine. Or I want to watch 10 Netflix episodes. I don’t want to do anything that requires me to actually do work to have the fun and the leisure. I don’t want to do a hobby, I just want to numb out.

Dr. Mike (10:57):

Which is fair. And so again, that’s why this to go back and kind of surmise it and get through it with the Hedonic Flexibility Principle, what they found is folks that do have rigid transition rituals so they know when work ends, and these are even folks that work hard. So it could still be a 50 hour work week for you, but when the work day is over, the phone turns off. And then you’re engaging in what is called active leisure in ways that really do fill you up. Those folks are the ones that are way more productive the next day. And so I often think that’s good in the sense of allowing people to reframe. Now the challenge is, and maybe you see this in your own practice too, is to get there takes two to four weeks. Because if someone is reconnecting with a new hobby, generally the dissonance of those first couple weeks, especially if it was something they really enjoyed early on, let’s say playing or dancing, and they get back in that class with their peers and they’re like, I’ve forgotten it all.


This is horrible. Why am I here? Why? But generally, and again because we have this predisposition, this work from Timothy Wilson out of University of Virginia but again, and Dan Gilbert was involved, there is an evolutionary purpose for us discrediting having joyful thoughts because that back in the early days we did need to be quite mindful of what could hurt us. Now we have enough safety mechanisms, there’s certainly issues where we could get in trouble, but the ability to prioritize pleasurable thoughts is a lot more advantageous than it ever has been. And so getting in that mode of understanding that once you do get yourself in that space, how restorative becomes important. But again, that initial lift can become problematic. Right? And so how do you get there? Yeah. Do you see that in your own practice?

Dr. Sarah (13:00):

I do. I see it in my own life. I, after bedtime, I’m get me on my phone. But what’s really interesting is I’m also aware that that doesn’t make me feel better. And it does just really leaves me feeling more depleted. But it’s hard to break that habit because it’s just become so ingrained. And I think it’s a product of burnout for a lot of people that you get entrenched in these what you call passive passive leisure activities, which I think is a really nice way of describing it because it is leisure. But I would wager that if people really took an honest reflection on it, that their passive leisure activity is feel good in the moment but don’t feel good later. They don’t actually give us a product of rest or self fulfillment or confidence or pleasure or affect our mood in a positive way.


And so it makes sense to me to just from a personal, it totally makes sense that more active leisure, and maybe that’s not going to happen after bedtime when I’m super tired after my kids go to bed, not my bedtime. But maybe it needs to happen on, I don’t know, maybe I need to carve out a couple hours on a weekend day to go do something for myself or do something with my kids. I think there’s a way in which, I don’t know, I’m totally relating to what you’re talking about cause I do get in the traps.

Dr. Mike (14:29):

Well, and I think it’s about equity. There’s a couple things there. So one is it’s insidious to your point, I think if I were to write another book, it’s clear as I was going on the book tour that folks are in a state where it’s hard to do that reframe. We are all also out. And there’s some really interesting things brewing where and not to get too political, but you’re seeing this parody where a lot of folks realize they’re giving a lot more away than they thought for folks that aren’t necessarily interested in their wellbeing. And then I think it’s really hard to actualize that when this behavior habituates over time, to your point, it depletes slowly. It’s almost like a death by a thousand cuts, right? So it does feel good in the moment and often at the onset you’re not going to feel guilty about it.


But when you’re looking at the same sort of images for the 12th time, then I think you do, it starts to eat away at you. And where I was going with that is you look masse at the statistics that we’re facing, The Social Survey just came out, the last one was done pre pandemic, but even that one wasn’t great, where only 39% of Americans identified as very happy. Now down to 19% is whoa. Is that totally because of burnout? I don’t. Or I think some has to do with the pandemic, but it’s still, that’s telling, right? The American Psychological Association just came out with this, just hit LinkedIn the last couple weeks. That one in four people are so burnt out, they don’t even have energy to do anything once they get home. So just no pleasure in life at all. Right?

Dr. Sarah (16:21):

And I wonder if there’s a bit of a creating a self-fulfilling prophecy or creating a bigger problem, a vicious cycle maybe where the more we feel burnt out, the more that affects the way we show up as parents, which makes our kids who are going to feel that more dysregulated, more tricky, more apt to have power struggles and resist and be a little bit more like, ugh, icky, which is going to make us feel more exhausted, more burnt out you. So it’s as much as our burnout begets more burnout within the parenting system, I wonder if on the flip side are finding more effective ways to engage in joyful leisure activities that are more satisfying, more fulfilling, perhaps more work, but also have a greater impact on our mood and our sort of self states. When is going to make parenting potentially easier because that’s going to translate and felt by our kids and it’s going to have the kind of a positive cyclical nature.

Dr. Mike (17:30):

I think social contagion backs that up. And so I’m making big leaps, but I’m pretty confident in my assertions there that the way I describe it is most of us are in this downward spiral. And I believe the data supports that. Again, we don’t have any reductive studies to show it because those become difficult because there are so many different factors. But it’s clear we’re in a crisis. And the thing that I feel like is really illuminating is we’re the last in line to figure it out. You’re seeing countries across the EU start to protect the wellbeing of people in interesting ways because they see this happening. So you see multiple countries in the EU playing with four day work weeks. I don’t think that would, how entrenched our social norms are would work here. But the one I really like is how many countries by mandate, by law are insisting that unless there’s a reason for it that work email servers have to shut down at five on Friday so that everyone’s weekend is protected. Right? Because

Dr. Sarah (18:37):

These are probably also the countries that have paid family leave.

Dr. Mike (18:42):

Yeah. Well that’s because most of them accept us. Again, another similar stat, I cite it in the book, but it was revalidated for 2023 we’re second to last with regards to company giving, companies giving us leisure. 10 days, days off is the average for one year’s worth of work. And there’s only one country in the developed world that’s worse. That’s Micronesia at nine. So we’re second to last. So again, just another stat that highlights what have we done. And the other thing I find really interesting is we are still empathetic. We’re a very kind group of people. I don’t want to get down, I think the, there’s some issues and we discuss them, but it’s sort of our empathy needs a reframe. You go to someone in the EU or I’ve got friends in ocean in Australia, if someone’s going on a vacation with their family, the employees get together and go, we’ve got your back.


When you come back to your desk, there isn’t going to be anything for you to do. We got you. And here the inclination is even if it’s just a weekly report that doesn’t have too much impact, it’s like, oh, I got to get that done because no one else is going to do it. It’s just a very strange world that we live in here in the states. That same empathy applies. So it’s not like we’re villains or we’re doing, it’s just sort of in reverse. I don’t want to let down my fellow colleagues. And how toxic is that? Because that means you’re never spending any time, at least from what I’ve found, and again, it’s not original research, but as soon as you answer an email on vacation, it’s an extension of work. You’re not on vacation anymore. It’s not a healthy escape. Oh okay. This is a working vacation.

Dr. Sarah (20:35):

And I think that that could be applied too. I’m always thinking in terms of how does this map onto parenting? But I think of parents who are like, well, I can’t go on a vacation because I can’t leave my kids. Or I couldn’t possibly leave my partner alone to parent my kids for a weekend. That wouldn’t be fair or it would be too hard. It’s not worth it. And in some ways, parenting kind of maps onto that work and going on date nights.

Dr. Mike (21:01):

And it does exactly right. Yeah, it’s hard. I meant because essentially it is domestic work for, again, just using the objective term. And I think that is, if you’re so in that state, I talk about it in the book, it’s like what kind of variables can you play with? Again, if everything is from a sense of duty with just a little bit of creativity, there’s likely moments for you to just change the tenor of that sentiment. So one of the pieces of work that I really like is Dr. Cassie Holmes. I’m not sure are you familiar? No. She did a really interesting study out of UCLA of just having folks. And again, it was only a prime to go into their weekend and treat it like a vacation. No other, not anything to do. Just realize this is your time. And so what people did with their time didn’t change much.


Some of it did, but some of it didn’t. But just that understanding like, oh yeah, I can relax my shoulders. This is my time and if I want to work, I get to work. If I want to spend time with my kids, I do. Maybe I’ll do some more things for renewal. And everyone came back to work that, not everyone obviously, but a majority of folks came back to work way more invigorated and ready to tackle the week. Now is that type of reframe where you’re sort of tricking yourself, going to work habitually? Pretty sure based on my understanding of psychology, it won’t, you’re eventually going to go, it’s not going to be novel anymore. But I think it’s a good understanding to highlight when you approach things going, you know what? I have a little bit more over this control over the situation than I think then you can start to play with the variables.


I tend to look at fun the people that we spend our time with, the activities we’re doing in the environment we’re in. Maybe it’s like we just need to get out of the house. You know what? I need to watch you kids, but we’re going to go on a nature hike and by the way, I’m going to put on headphones and listen to my favorite music and you guys figure it out. I’ll still pay attention to your wellbeing and make sure you don’t pick up poison ivy or whatever it is. But you know guys, figure it out a little bit of free range play or whatever it is. And I’m just so surprised, again, I didn’t know this work was going to hit the way it does. Wait, I’m allowed to do that. Of course you are always were.

Dr. Sarah (23:24):

Yeah. And I love this idea too of our thinking has a huge impact on our mood and our behaviors. And so if you go into the weekend thinking, here we go another weekend of work, and in this case I mean parenting work, here’s my second, here’s my third, fourth, fifth shift, whatever that’s so going, that’s going to have a big impact on our mood. And it would be, how could we contrast that by what would it feel like if I went into my weekend saying, okay, here’s a time to find some pleasure. Here’s my chance to do something different with my kids this weekend. Or I know I have to do this amount of these hours with my kids. I have these tasks to do. How can I think about that less as a tedious chore and more as a time to connect with my kids in a positive way? And again, not in a toxic positive way, not in a discounting the fact that we’re tired. And this doesn’t always feel good, absolutely. But to say, I get to choose the way I perceive things and I get to choose what I focus on and that can impact our mood.

Dr. Mike (24:46):

I meant that’s the thing, the blessing and the curse of getting this book together is that there are so many different tools and some aren’t going to be appropriate. So it was the same thing where I fell victim to some of the science of positive psychology. You forget these things are aligned on a normal curve. And one of the things I bring up in the book is how Sonja Lyubomirsky out of University of Riverside kind of shined a light on the fact that gratitude had gotten over-prescribed, right. gratitude is an amazing tool that for almost everyone is going to be helpful in context. But the fact that life coaches and other folks that didn’t necessarily truly understand the concepts were now saying you must find three things a day to be grateful for. And when the motivation doesn’t hit and it creates that dissonance, that’s where problems a arise.


And so you’re exactly right. Anything that just seems like another prescription might not hit, but understanding that you have control of the pick which one of these tools might work because maybe it is you just need a break from your kids. You know, might have someone who’s not neurotypical. That is a lot of work and so you love them and you enjoy spending time. But again it might, for whatever reason, you just need your own space. And so maybe it’s having a play date with another set of parents that are in a similar situation and not feeling guilty about it. Because guess what, again, it’s additive, right? They’re going to be grateful because generally when you, again, tribe up some of the stuff we were talking about at the beginning that used to be accessible to us each person feels that relief, it’s additive. Maybe they have a little bit more work than they would’ve for those three hours that they’re watching your children, but the time that they get back to be able to have that space and breathe and have that time for renewal, they’re going to be super grateful for. So there’s all sorts of ways to take back your time as it were, or create time affluence. And some might not work for you, but there’s going to be some that will. And so again, I guess what I wanted to piggyback off of what you were saying is if one thing doesn’t work, don’t feel like the world’s collapsed on your things are helpless. Because oftentimes you see that, right? That’s just not going to work for me.

Dr. Sarah (27:00):

Yeah. And not everything’s going to work for everyone. It’s also all this is making me think too of quality over quantity, which I talk about a lot when we are with our kids, we, I, I’m totally guilty of this, but if we’re multitasking, if we’ve got our head in our work while we’re being with our kids or we’re with them, but we’re like our mind is doing 10 other tasks that doesn’t really feel good for us and it doesn’t fill them up. But if we really recognize that we multitasking actually frazzles us and it depletes us more and we can sort of say, okay, I’m going to take 10 minutes, I’ll set a timer on my phone 10 minutes and then put my phone in my pocket so it’s not in my eyesight and just be with my kids with no agenda, no no task, we have to do that. That can be incredibly filling for us and for them. And it also, it’s like when we fill them up, that frees us up because then usually once they’re filled with our attention and our focus and our presence, then when that time is over, they usually feel more capable of independent play and sustaining their focus on other activities and tolerating us not meeting their needs in that moment. So we get a little bit of a break. So I think…

Dr. Mike (28:37):

Well, and there’s another component about that that I’ve been unpacking. Again, I kind of just touch on it on the book, but it goes back to that downward spiral that you were talking about. And again, I’m throwing a huge boulder out a glasshouse. So then we’ll just both confess that life is a work in progress. But I was, I was trying to figure out whether I wanted to go the clinical route or the organizational route because my affinity has always been peak performance and positive psychology at the onset of my foray into education. And so I don’t know if you remember I’m, I’m going to butcher the name, but it was, I think it’s called The Bobo The Clown Studies or something. Do you remember that? Of kids modeling behavior when we could still do things like Skinner’s Box or it was still okay to put kids in labs.


But for folks that don’t know that you can find this all over YouTube, it’s the early studies of looking at kids’ modeling behavior. And so this lovely lady comes in and she essentially beats the living business out of this clown and the kids are left to their own devices and they do within seconds just start doing what she did violently beating up this clown. Why I’m bringing that up is when they see that we’re half on our phones and then at two hours later we don’t know why they won’t get off roadblocks because they, you’ve normalized that behavior and again, don’t hard because there’s that discontinuation of like, wait, don’t, why aren’t you doing what I say? Well that’s because they wanted your attention and you were answering while you were looking up, looking down, looking up down. You’ve normalized that. So you know can say do what I say, don’t do what I do. But that’s, especially now, it’s not very helpful.

Dr. Sarah (30:28):

And I do think giving kids half of our attention all the time, it’s really unfulfilling for both people. And actually it sounds counterintuitive, but giving kids all of your attention a portion of the time is actually more effective. I think we were talking at the beginning of this, this myth and this pressure that parents feel that causes so much anxiety. I always have to be on to be entertaining or I always have to be teaching or stimulating or doing something. That’s where we get into that trap of having to do a little bit of us all the time and we can’t sustain it. So we start to fragment off and we’re doing all this stuff but we’re not there because we couldn’t possibly be. If you’re trying to parent a hundred percent of the time, you are going to half parent all the time. And so if you start to recognize I can parent fully some of the time and I cannot parent at all some of the time, I don’t mean let your kids play with electrical outlets and forks, but if they’re in a safe place, you can sit back and have a cup of coffee and be separate from them as long as you and then or go do something you need to do that feels good for you or that’s an obligation you have.


And then when you are with your kids, and I think it’s especially nice to sort of use double duty use time that you’re already having to do caregiving activities for your kids. This comes from Magda Gerber and her parenting philosophy of caregiving moments are fill-up moments. Use them that way. Make the diaper change be a fill-up moment. Give them your full undivided attention. Let it last three minutes instead of one minute. And let it be playful. Let it be interactive, let it be a quote, time suck and then you’re done. And put your kid down and let them play and go have a moment to yourself. So it’s like when we’re doing these caregiving moments, bathing, diapering, dressing, feeding, getting them ready for transitions, we have to do these anyway. If we can use that time more efficiently by using it to be being fully present in those moments, then we’re going to feel better about it. They’re going to feel filled up by us. And then it gives us permission and balance to be able to, and space to be able to not be doing constant parenting the rest of the time.

Dr. Mike (33:02):

And I’ve been surprised. So there’s two things there. One, because I don’t want to lose sight of it. It’s funny because as you pointed, we’re bouncing between the macro topics that I talk about in the book and how they can be applied. But what you just described, and you might know it already goes right into Matthew Killingsworth work about mind wandering when we are mindful about whatever we do and we’re not letting our mind sort of wander to your point. We just know that we, for whatever reason, the byproduct is we feel happier and fulfilled. And I think we just know similar to gratitude how effective mindfulness is in all aspects of life of being a useful tool. Because for whatever reason, when we’re letting our mind sort of wander that’s when negative rumination happens and things of that nature. Another, and I write about this in the book is again, it goes back to those transition rituals.


I think I talk about a friend of mine who came to me describing exactly what you just said, right? And it was during the pandemic, I’m in this state of performative theater because I feel I don’t want to name drop either. I was about to say her son’s name, which isn’t fair to her, but so she, she’s caring for this little kid and feel he wants her attention. And it was really just a directive. I was like, have you tried to tell him that you just want to read a book and that for an hour? Can you just do solo water play? Cause he loved to play in the sprinklers and play with the hose. She’s like, I haven’t tried that. Okay, try it. That’s all it took. She just tried it. And he is like, of course. So he played, she sat there on the porch, she lives in Chicago, sat on the porch, got to read her book, got to hear the giggles of her son, which lights her up. But she didn’t have to be an active participant at all. And that goes right into what you were saying. And then the hour was over and she felt renewed and then they went back to their normal routine. But it’s really just that invitation that it’s possible, right?

Dr. Sarah (34:58):

And that we have a right to ask for it and make space for it. It’s okay for us to say, I can’t play with you right now because I’m going to drink my cup of coffee or I’m going to read my book for a few minutes and then I can come play with you. Or this comes up a lot and I know I really want to talk to you about play. Cause I think play both with our kids and by ourselves is incredibly important. But I also so many parents, but I don’t really like to play with my kids and I’m like, me neither. And it’s okay. And I think there’s a big difference between playing with your kids or entertaining your kids and being present while your children. And I think those are three different things and they’re all for better or have pros and cons.


But I think playing with our kids because we actually really want to, and it’s this mutual enjoyment of play and creative expression and connection. Awesome. Entertaining our kids. I usually say check in on that, do you have to? And then being present while your kids play is probably the thing I would hope parents do the most of. Because I think within that’s usually what’s the most effective f and most fulfilling for both parties because the kids are very, very happy for us to just be present with them while they play. We can just have our sort of space to observe them and get filled up by watching, like you say, hearing their giggles and watching them solve problems. But you can’t force want force playing with your kids because if you don’t like it, they’re going to feel that they don’t need that with you.

Dr. Mike (36:35):

Yeah, yeah. Again, my background is in clinical, but I stole this from the clinical lit literature and it just is essentially backs up what you said is that if you aren’t enjoying watching them play, as long as you’re a loving parent and it’s not depleting again, if you’re so burnt out, we have other problems to start off the foundation. But if you can get into the mental frame, I do this at jumpy houses that again, something, an anecdote I bring up in the book, but I hate those. I they, I just didn’t want to go to another jumpy house. But now when I am in that environment, I get into the mindset of, okay, again, this is time that I have committed to them because it’s an activity they enjoy and I really focus my mind on their enjoyment. I’m glad that I have this ability, but again that it, it’s a reframe trick, but it seems to be really helpful.


Again, use very episodically, use it too much and you realize you’re given too much away. Right? Sure. With regards to playdates, I’m not a play expert, but with regards to social connection that I feel confident in talking with is that creating play dates. I just had one with my best friend cause we both turned 50. Those are the things we know that from this amazing loneliness study that just came out. If we’re not doing those things, if we’re not creating opportunities for fun so that we have that spontaneity, we have those rich encoded memories with the folks that we really like living outside the sense of all of these things that do feel like a burden, then what are we doing? It’s clear that that’s a key component to whether you want to call it self-care or not. It, it’s just an important component of living.


What I think, I don’t know if it was brought up in what you mentioned in the three, but I think not enough of us either take a step back and realize that we can co-create experiences with our kids. Just like our kids don’t want to play with jerks. We see them and everyone’s having fun, but they’ll storm and norm and form fairly quickly and be like, Ugh, that person’s not fun. I don’t want to do that. The same goes with parent and child again. There are times where if you’re trying to teach your kid baseball, that might not necessarily be fun. That’s an activity of mastery where you’re meant to be a teacher there. My mentor is a gentleman by the name of Michael Dravet and he took me to task with that and I was like, well that’s trying to teach him a skill.


So there that might not be an unadulterated fun experience. So what I’m describing right now is I want to have fun with my child. I love this person and I want to do it co-create that experience. If you don’t want to play matchbox cars on the floor because your knees hurt, you have the ability to go, Hey, do you want to go play Nerf guns? Or for me it was taking a dance class with my daughter. I wanted to engage in dancing and I was essentially just taking her to this rudimentary tumble class where I was killing an hour sitting on a bench and I realized, hey, this is something I’ve wanted to do. And as essentially this activity that I I’ve prescribed to is really to only get her out of the house. How can we do something together that I find enjoyable and co-create memories together?


And so again, I don’t want to give a listicle with that because what happens if those five things don’t hit? But I imagine anyone listening now could be like, you know what? I think the two of us would like that. Whether it’s woodworking or dancing or even improv. I’ve heard of pre-teens and adults going to improv class together. So what is it that you two might enjoy? And that is not to discount what you did say and that is that you definitely need time outside of that you, I say start with two to three hours because supposedly we have 14. When I present that often I saw your visceral response too. I imagine that. So, but two or three out of 168, if you can’t find that again, maybe there’s deeper work that needs to be done to ask why can’t you take that time off the table and then just start. And again, remember the benefits might not be actualized for two to three weeks. Yeah. The first couple weeks are going to be like, ah, that guilt’s still going to be there. And the change in your habitual routine. I had to drive 20 minutes to get here, really the hangup. Okay.

Dr. Sarah (41:10):

Yeah, no, and again, that’s like what do we choose to focus on? Do we choose to focus on, oh God, it took me 20 minutes to get here and then I only got to do it for 30 minutes and that’s going to take me 20 minutes to get it’s, or we could say that 30 minutes felt good.


We do get to choose what we focus on if we can notice what we’re focusing on. And I, I feel like there’s these two pieces to the play, the good play, the good, authentic, fulfilling play as parents. And one is the play that we do with our kids in this co-created way that where we’re both joining together or perhaps where we’re just present, being present while our children play. If we aren’t in the mood to co-create the play and just sort of observing them with presence. But then there’s this other piece which is not involving our children, that’s just for us. Where are our grownup play dates? Where are our connections to other people? Or perhaps to pursue a new skill or a hobby or some type of personal enjoyment that’s not necessarily about productivity or product or outcome, but just like to be in the moment and enjoying ourselves and having fun.

Dr. Mike (42:24):

Another effective strategy, again, not my idea, this comes from a buddy of mine by the name of Near Eyeall, but if you have a small tribe, so you have the three sets of parents that you really like creating sort of a round robin where you guys are doing dinner dates and the kids of those parents have clear boundaries. This is meant, you know, set up some sort of environment where they are, they’re separated and they know they can come in if someone needs a bandaid or whatever. And then the play date’s really for the adults and there’s that separation. But it’s sort of a spin on the sharing childcare duties with a trusted person because that really works well too. You can, whatever it is, whatever the six of you find fun for him, it’s like he’s an intellectual. So they literally, one of ’em comes with a Ted style presentation and entertains the other five, which I think is kind of cool cause I’m a geek too, but it could be whatever you guys enjoy.


Maybe it’s just a few drinks, not overindulgence of course, but then just enjoying each other’s company or whatever it is. But there’re, there are ways to get creative and again, it just takes a little nudge. I’m sure you see this too. My favorite part of all this is it’s once someone accepts the invitation, there’s not a lot of work to do afterwards. Generally, once they get a taste of it and it’s like, wait a second, okay, I get it. I was worried about this kind of servant leadership, but I’m a way better version of myself when I actually do have a little bit of fun. That’s just for me. It’s not a selfish act.

Dr. Sarah (44:06):

No, I mean this is an old saying, but you can’t pour from an empty cup. We have to do things that feel good for us and also modeling for our kids that we take care of our needs in that way. That we prioritize our own enjoyment, we prioritize our interests and we pursue them and we experiment with different things and we try new stuff. And I’m going to take a dance class this weekend and we’ll see how it goes. It might be fun, it might be hard. Or I’m going to start creating some type of art project. My kids get to watch me do that and that’s cool for them. They don’t need to participate in that, for them to observe something valuable in our attending to that part of ourselves. And I, it’s funny because it makes me think about this fact when I’m working with patient adult patients, whether they’re parents or not, one of the first things that I’m checking for when I’m looking to assess for depression or for just functioning in general is what is your balance of work, play love.


And most adults don’t play. And I’m always like, okay, well if that pie is not balanced then we have to look at the, usually play is the smallest of the slivers of those three categories. And it’s like what can we do to reconnect you to play? And it might not look like Legos. It was when maybe you were seven, but maybe it does. I mean my mom is obsessed with levels. Legos is my mom’s play. But play can come in any form. It can be something that is a memory from your childhood or it can be something new, a little bit more sophisticated. I don’t know, there’s just so many things. But I think it’s very important people to do a little bit of an audit of their play.

Dr. Mike (45:57):

That’s the first thing I prescribe in the book. I meant it’s been around for ages. So it’s one of those things, it’s hardly an original idea. So it’s hard to write. For me, I was introduced to it by Laura Vanderkam who wrote a book literally called 168 Hours. But why we all talk about it because it’s such an effective tool and it’s not fun. It’s a little bit boring, right? But I think if you approach it with curiosity and you’re open to poking fun at yourself, like holy cow, if you need the nudge to start, I think a majority of could just open up the health meter on our phone that those are some very telling statistics. Oh really? You can’t find two hours just, maybe it’s not all on Instagram or Facebook, but tally up all of your apps and then round out the top three and tell me you can’t find three hours in there.

Dr. Sarah (46:52):

Right? Yeah, no, it’s totally true. I think this is all really helpful. I have some important takeaways that I’m going to have to go look at myself and be like, where is my play right now? Cause I’m not playing enough. It’s important for all of us and I think it’s good for us and if it’s good for us, it’s good for our kids because if we are modeling that kind of self health, healthy self behaviors they’re going to benefit from that.

Dr. Mike (47:17):

And you tell me, but my understanding, because again, it’s not my forte, but creating that type of autonomy away from your kids as long as it’s healthy, makes them realize that they can be independent adults as well when you’re attached too much. We co-slept way too long, I think, and it became quite problematic. Again, throwing rocks at a glass house. But again, going back on the fact that kids really do look to us for how they’re going to navigate their reality. If they’re always kind of insistent that you guys need to be together, they’re going to pick up on that and feel when you leave too. They’re not going to feel safe, right? That’s my understanding, right?

Dr. Sarah (48:00):

Yeah. I mean it, it’s makes total sense because I think at least with anxiety, and I’m sure other things that are kind of off the anxiety spectrum, this is true as well. But the more that we as parents communicate a lack of confidence in our child’s ability to tolerate something, the less they believe they can tolerate it. So our ability to validate and communicate confidence, this is hard. You don’t really want to separate right now. You don’t want me to go read my book for an hour. I get that you want to play with me right now. I know that you can handle this. I know that we will get together in a little bit and we’ll have a lot of fun then.


And maybe if your kid’s little an hour is too long, maybe it’s 10 minutes, but it, you build up, you got to start somewhere and to say, yeah, you know what? I need a little bit of a break. It’s hard to say goodbye, but I’ll be back in a little bit. And we’ll play then that confidence in their ability to cope with your absence. Again, I’m not saying leave your child alone, leave them with another adult, but you can go take time for yourself. And that confidence that they can handle that is really important. They’re going to internalize that.

Dr. Mike (49:21):

Do you find with your clients, because this is what I find, so you, let’s say you suggested what you just said and they’re like, oh, I guess I’m just supposed to get a babysitter every night. I get that. So I’ll say, Hey, why don’t you take two hours off the table? And what they hear is, oh, so you want me to go to Burning Man? That’s what you heard. That’s what you, that’s that’s how this directive got filtered in through your brain. So I don’t know how our culture has gotten us to that state, but we always go to these extremes, right? Like no, that’s not what has happened is we’re on the other side. We are so depleted that it requires a radical course correction, which is mild, just the littlest thing to let you feel like you have some ownership over the way you live your life. That’s all we’re sort of suggesting.

Dr. Sarah (50:14):

Your friend sitting on the porch, reading her book while she set her kid up with some water play and maybe the first time she does that, he can play for five minutes. Let’s be realistic. Let’s set realistic expectations. If you set a kid up for water plan, you go read a book the first time you do that, guess where they’re going to want to be right next to you, bugging you about the book. But if you continue to do it and you continue to set it up and you continue to show where the expectation is and you practice it and you extend it a little bit longer, a little bit longer, a little bit longer, eventually they get into a rhythm, they learn the frame of the expectation and they can thrive inside of it. So it’s not going to work right away, but it does work over time. So I also think that’s another piece is we want to have developmentally appropriate expectations. If you’re saying this to your 14 year old, you can expect that they can handle an hour while you read a book and they can go do something for an hour in the house while you’re doing your thing. But if you have a four year old, it might be five minutes and that’s also okay. And we get to six minutes, can we get to seven minutes? Build up the tolerance.

Dr. Mike (51:18):

Another interesting thing I brought up in the book was this came from child development specialists of how much we I guess underestimate kids’ ability to do chores. And I’m still getting better at this, but a seven year old can do the dishes, but so often we’ll only give them one chance. We, I’ve seen that in my own household. None of us got any skill doing it the first time. So you’ll ask your kids to do the dishes and it’s horrible and it’s like, oh, they can’t do this. So you did, because those are amazing ways to get time back in your schedule as well. Allow, allow the family to share in domestic duties. And I think, again, this is more kind of life hacky, but I found that really interesting how young, as long as you give them a chance, folks, kids will step up to the plate and alleviate things that you’re kind of doing and you might not want to be doing and take some responsibility for it if you give them the chance. And it goes along with exactly what you said, okay, maybe the dish is going to kind of be gross the first three times. Allow them to learn so that they can take that off your plate and maybe that will free up some time to do something else.

Dr. Sarah (52:29):

And it’s like if you want, it’s almost like you kind of have to work towards that, right? If you want your kids to be able to do the dishes, that might start with, you set a bucket on a towel next to you in the kitchen with a cut, an half an inch of soapy water and a brush and a plastic plates, and they do the dishes, quotes, say it, I love it. Quotes, well, you do the dishes and now you guys are playing because that’s play. Yeah. And then you know, slowly have them come step on a step stool in the sink and help you do it. And then doing things together, these tasks, these life tasks, doing them together, making them enjoyable for your child and a time for connection. This is that sort of double duty kind of stuff. I have to do the dishes.


If I can slowly and over time help my child participate in this with me they will love this. I guarantee you this is not, when we’re like, you’re asking your 14 year old to do the dishes and they roll their eyes at you this is when you start young. They just want to be with you. They just want to do what you’re doing. And if you give them that responsibility, they will eat it up. And so it’s like you start with low expectations and you make it fun and about connection, but over time they build mastery over that skill and then you can say, okay, I’m going to go sit and read my book or listen to my podcast or go for a quick walk on the treadmill or paint or whatever you want to do. And you practice doing this all by yourself, and if you need me, you call me. I’ll be right in the other room. You whatever. You kind of have to build your way up to. These things don’t happen instantly. We can’t say to a kid who’s never done it before, go play by yourself for an hour and I’m going to be here. They don’t have the skill. This is a slow skill building thing. You have to work up to it, but it can be done.

Dr. Mike (54:32):

Yeah, I love it. Yeah, I have very little of to add. I think the only thing I would suggest that, and you’ve already alluded to it, is how do you take the outcome out? Obviously you’re moving towards mastery and it’s going to get there, but the more you focus on the outcome of I just want them to do the dishes you’ve already lost, right?

Dr. Sarah (54:53):

Right. It’s not about the dishes anymore, it’s just about connection. Occupying their time and building mastery slowly one day you might get some dishes done from them, but that that’s a lucky byproduct, but that’s not the point.

Dr. Mike (55:09):

And another great thing is you’re not adding another thing in the book. I call it activity bundling essentially. I would argue the way you described it, because I was literally started to smile because I remember doing the same thing more with cooking with my kids. But that’s a way I think for most of us, that at least have somewhat of a loving relationship and hopefully a really thriving, loving relationship with our kids. Similar to what I talked about, taking my daughter to dance classes that would create amazing memories before we hit play, I knocked over tea all over the place. I shared that with you guys. If your kid knocks over soapy bubbles all over and you’re just like, oh, this is bananas, that those are those playful moments that happen as honest accidents. I don’t know. I think those are some of the funnest things. It’s when I look back, sometimes they’re not that great in the moment, but as long as they were done in the process of getting towards where you want to get to go, they generally are pretty amazing memories in the rear view mirror.

Dr. Sarah (56:15):

And I think the difference between a person when their kid knocks over all the soapy water onto the floor and who gets really frustrated by that, and the person who can laugh and say, oh my goodness, look, we’ve made such a mess. Let’s clean it up together, is probably determined by what you’re focused on at the outset. If you are saying, the goal of this is to get the dishes done as fast as possible, and now you’ve just totally derailed it. Now we have a huge master cleanup. Well, yeah, you’re going to feel super frustrated, but if you think the goal of this is just for mastery building and exposure and connection and double duty, I’m going to do the dishes anyway, so we’ll get there. Then when the soak gets spilled, you recognize that’s part of the process and you’re like, okay, we can handle it. So it’s like what goal we’re focused on can determine a lot of our resilience when things don’t go the way we expect them to.

Dr. Mike (57:12):

Yeah, it’s amazing. I mean, it goes this better than I, but it, it’s clear that all of these thoughts, again, I think what I tapped into is that if you can use mindfulness as a tool for one, enjoying yourself, but then also getting out of that state of rumination, whether the underpinning is cognitive behavioral therapy or ACT or whatever the latest sort of science is with regards to how our thoughts really are a major contributor to mental hygiene, that if we can stack the deck in our favor and sort of bias ourself, whether that’s just simple reframing or really taking an active role in how we plan out our activities. We get out of that mind wandering rumination trap, and we realize, Hey, life’s actually a lot more fun than I gave a credit. Right?

Dr. Sarah (58:02):

Yeah. So I guess that’s our homework. For everyone listening right now, go figure out one way today or tonight or whenever you’re listening to this, to just go find one fun thing to do there. There’s no agenda. You’re not focused on outcome. You’re focused on process, and you just see where it goes.

Dr. Mike (58:21):

And definitely check in with yourself if you can do it a couple times, check in with yourself afterwards and see how you feel. Yeah, see if it’s worth doing again.

Dr. Sarah (58:29):

Yeah. I love that. Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your wisdom with us.

Dr. Mike (58:34):

Oh my goodness. Thanks so much for having me. This is a pleasure.

Dr. Sarah (58:43):

Mike and I talked about how overwhelmed, exhausted, and burnt out parents today are feeling, and how we need to start being intentional about what we’re using for self-care to be sure that it is genuinely filling us up. To help you get started, I’ve created a simple weekly calendar so you can be intentional about addressing your cognitive, emotional, and physical needs. Plus, I have created a kid version to help you teach your child how they can themselves relax and refuel in ways that actually benefit their development and their mental health.

If you want a copy of My Weekly Banish Burnout and Banish Burnout Kid Edition calendar, all you have to do is rate and review this podcast. Send me a screenshot of your review to info@drsarahbren.com, and I’ll send the calendar straight to your inbox. That’s info@drsarahbren.com. I really appreciate you being here, and your reviews make a huge difference in helping the podcast get into the playlist in the ears of more parents just like you. So thank you and don’t be a stranger.

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92. Is fun the antidote to burnout? How play could be the key to mental health and well-being with Dr. Mike Rucker