16/05/2016 07:37 BST | Updated 13/05/2017 06:12 BST

Why Having Fun Is a Serious Business

As a choir leader and a manager at Tenovus Cancer Care, it's always been important to me to make sure the people I'm working with enjoy themselves. On a personal level, I seek enjoyment in my life in many ways (socialising, dancing, exercising) and I see no reason not to make my job a pursuit of enjoyment as well. Indeed, 'fun' is one of our three core values as a choir leading team - the others being 'fulfilment' and 'support' - and on an operational and quality level we only deem our rehearsals to be successful if there is a strong, visible element of fun.

However, I've long observed that putting 'fun' and 'work' in the same sentence is problematic for some people, especially when talking about the job I do and its impact on people affected by cancer. 'Work' mostly implies toil, seriousness and focus, and you often hear that hard work alone is the basis of success, achievement and impact. Furthermore, I work for a cancer charity and cancer is a serious illness. Anyone (myself included) who works with people affected by cancer knows just how serious it can be when we witness its often devastating impact on lives again and again. Perhaps that's why many find it difficult to appreciate the impact of singing as a 'serious' intervention - when you look at a laid-back, smiling and dancing choir of people how can the impact be real?

I've often wondered whether this is why the notion of choirs for people affected by cancer is sometimes difficult for people to grasp as a serious concept and why we have - ironically - had to work so hard to 'prove' our choirs have a measurable positive impact on people. I mean, if they're just knocking about enjoying themselves then this can't really be a 'proper' thing, right?

Wrong. And so my quest to prove the seriousness of fun begins.

In looking up the definition of 'fun', Google suggests it means 'enjoyment, amusement or light-hearted pleasure'. Interestingly, 'fun' can be a verb, too, meaning to 'joke or tease', which certainly raises an eyebrow or two when you're trying to convey the choirs as a serious therapeutic intervention. In asking some friends on Facebook what fun meant to them, I had a lovely time reading about peoples' pursuits of enjoyment: "Singing and dancing with my grandchildren", "Dancing - really going for it!", "having a laugh", "happiness shared with my family".

That's all well and good, right, but how does that really help people? Well, let's just have a look at what one of my particularly articulate friends said:

"Fun for me is seeing others happy and enjoying life as much as I do. Being able to try and learn new things. I also think fun is when you lose your inhibitions and do something completely different and reap the enjoyment. And fun to me is spending quality time with people".

The warmth and happiness in her statement is actually quite moving and the bit that really stood out for me was 'lose your inhibitions'. Consider how many inhibitions you collect when you're affected by cancer. Drastic physical changes, fatigue, anxiety, fear. And let's not forget the people who care for, and sometimes, lose, their loved ones, too. Their identity changes, they struggle to adjust and their confidence is often low. All things that to me define the notion of being 'inhibited' and are likely to make you want to hide under a blanket and never leave the house again. Indeed, cancer aside, if you've ever taken a knock in your life then you probably know what inhibition feels like, and I'm sure if you cast your mind back to that time you would have given anything to lose those inhibitions. That's when and how people become isolated and depression sets in.

To date nearly 3,000 people have walked through the door of one of our Sing with Us choirs and nearly every time someone new joins a choir it's clear that when we first meet them, they are somewhat nervous and apprehensive. Obviously, they're trying something new, but beyond that they all have a story that makes them, to a lesser or greater degree, inhibited.

So, within the first hour, we make sure to elicit a smile from those people. Yes, that involves being a bit silly, having a laugh, indulging in some banter (which, by the way, requires a lot of energy and 'hard work' on the part of the choir leader) but there's no greater feeling than seeing someone who was looking sad, look happy, even momentarily. In the days and hours outside the rehearsals we will of course also put an arm round those people and ask them how they're doing, but one of our jobs in that specific hour of a rehearsal is to get them to forget their worries, not have to talk about it and just have a bit of fun. For many, that first hour might be the first bit of enjoyment and release they've had in months. Many describe choir as a buzz like no other, which I think is down to them sharing fun they're having with a big group of people who know and care about what they've been through. And, of course, some brilliant songs taught by real professionals which give them satisfaction, pride and confidence - all lowering their inhibitions if just for that hour.

Beyond that first rehearsal we then add in the days, weeks, months and years of new friendships, new experiences, learning, dancing, performing, laughing with their choir 'family' and so we're right back to understanding what all my Facebook friends said about having fun. It means connection, being uplifted, feeling better. So when the scientific research we've done - real, serious research in a lab and everything - points to lower anxiety, depression and stress, none of us are surprised. And that's a real, measurable impact on those people.