Summer as an adult is not quite like summer as a kid. I spent part of my summer days on chores, but mostly, I sat around and watched TV, read books, and hung out with friends. We’d splash around in the sprinklers. Or we’d go on long bike rides into the forest with some made-up goal in mind — let’s find a haunted house! — only as a pretense to have an adventure. We were along for the ride. Even then, I realized this time was limited. I remember propping up my tan legs on the old box TV in front of a Charles In Charge rerun and thinking, “This is the life.”
A few years later, I entered the working world. Then I went to college, then I started a career. And summer vacations would never be the same. Sure, I take time off and travel the world — which brings its own kind of joy — but there’s something different about the carefree, go-nowhere-and-do-nothing summer vibe of childhood. Back then, without a car or money, there wasn’t much you could do but live in the moment.
I look for ways to recreate that feeling as an adult. It’s a playful feeling. When I interviewed positive play coach Jeff Harry, he defined play as something you do that brings you joy and also doesn’t have a bottom line. “A lot of us do everything hoping for a result,” he explained. “It’s always, ‘What am I getting out of this?’ Play has no result.”
When I think about it, even my vacations have a result. When I plan a trip, I’m so attached to it being “the best trip ever” that I plan every detail, schedule every excursion. I make an itinerary that I send to friends, even though I know we won’t stick to it. To my credit, vacations are expensive! And time off is precious: You want to make the most of it, and that becomes the result. It also tends to suck the play and spontaneity out of everything. As a kid, the options were limited: I could watch TV, do my chores, talk on the phone, draw, go bike riding — that was it. There was a certain degree of freedom in the lack of choice. Without an infinite stream of activities to choose from or places to visit, I could enjoy each activity without worrying about what I was missing. I was not attached to a result.
On the flip side, I was also bored a lot as a kid, especially during the summer. As my mom cooked breakfast on Sunday mornings, I would lie on the floor and whine to her about how I had nothing to do. “Do you want to mow the lawn?” she’d ask, and of course I did not. “Then figure it out,” she’d say. And I always did: I collected rocks. I hosted garage sales with my cousin. I read books front-to-back for hours, then read them again. Sometimes I’d just let my mind wander. As an adult, when I’m bored, I scroll Instagram or check my email for the hundredth time, which, ironically, becomes quite boring.
“Treating yourself as a passive consumer may mean you are more likely to feel bored,” writes Elle Hunt at the Guardian. “Boredom is not an absence of things to do, it is the struggle to find value in any of the options available to you.” A better option, Hunt argues, is to sit with the boredom — perhaps the way we were forced to as kids — so you can process it. So you can figure it out. In some ways, our proclivity toward meditation is about allowing ourselves to be bored. Stillness feels so uncomfortable, but it’s also the thing that helps you live in the moment.
Play is the antidote to boredom. In trying to relive my childhood summer vibe, I try to look at boredom as an opportunity to find ways to be playful. I no longer collect rocks, but I find other joyful tasks that have no end result: I experiment in the kitchen or go camping or simply let my mind wander.
But I’m also not beating myself up for endlessly scrolling Instagram. Sometimes it’s just what I want to do. As a kid, I watched television the entire day and couldn’t be more excited about it. As adults, we become aware of our limited time, then overthink how to make the most of it. We beat ourselves up for not doing enough, not being enough, even not relaxing enough. Self-improvement culture feeds into our anxiety by telling us how to live better, which suggests we are not living well enough in the first place. I wonder if this only compounds the problem. What if we spent less time on improvement and just enjoyed ourselves as we are, the way kids do?
Being an adult is hard. It feels nearly impossible to be playful with a heavy work schedule, social obligations, and the persistent anxieties of present times. Part of the reason summer was amazing as a kid was the absence of all of that: no responsibility and limited options. As grown-ups, we’ll probably never get back to that feeling entirely, but maybe part of reliving it requires less planning, less improving, less pressure to live correctly. The perfect childhood summer was about being along for the adventure, wherever it happened to take you.