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A few years ago, Catherine Price had a minor crisis. She was sitting on her couch, in the middle of a 24-hour break from screens, and her young daughter was napping. She could do whatever she wanted.

“I had a glorious free hour in front of me — and I realized that without any screens to fill my time, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “And I totally freaked out.”

Price was shocked to find that somewhere between graduate school and this moment, she’d forgotten how to have fun.

So she asked herself a question she’d posed to research subjects for her book on screen addiction: What’s something you say you want to do but supposedly don’t have time for?

“My answer was, Learn to play the guitar,” Price says.

After several weeks of guitar classes, she sensed a change in herself. “The lessons gave me this boost of energy, this feeling of nourishment, that really ­carried through for the whole week.”

One dictionary definition of fun is “lighthearted pleasure or enjoyment,” yet the lessons had a deeper, more lasting impact on Price. She decided to give a name to what she’d felt each week at guitar class: true fun.

Since then, she’s made fun her mission — and, being a journalist, her new research project. Her most recent book is The Power of Fun, and her Substack newsletter is called How to Feel Alive.

Most of us know what true fun feels like — a buoyant, joyful, sometimes silly energy. It connects us to the present moment. It can arise during a belly laugh or a goofy Zumba class. It can show up in quiet moments of concentration during shared activities, such as assembling a puzzle.

Like a refreshing breeze, true fun is mostly visible in its effects: We feel better after experiencing it than we did before.

So why do we so often neglect to make time for fun? This is what some experts think is behind the abandonment.

Fun as Foundation

a woman swingsMost adults have been misled about fun. We’ve been taught that it’s a waste of time or something we deserve only once we’ve accomplished enough of the hard stuff.

But fun is not frivolous. Silliness and joy are good for your health, your relationships, and even your career.

“Those who incorporate fun into their lives are not just happier in the moment,” says Mike Rucker, PhD, a behavioral scientist and organizational psychologist who writes about the science of fun in his book, The Fun Habit. “They are also better at pursuing long-term objectives, balancing their emotional states, and nurturing their mental health.”

Fun gives us more than immediate gratification, he adds. It helps us build “a foundation for a more fulfilled, balanced, and resilient life.”

Yet many of us feel as Price once did: We’re no longer sure where to start.

Fun often comes easily to us as children, when we typically have fewer responsibilities. As we grow older and have more obligations, however, many of us become vulnerable to a stringent work ethic, Rucker says. “This tired cultural norm emphasizes hard work, discipline, and frugality, often at the expense of well-being.”

Some cultures are more vulnerable to this type of thinking than others — American culture being one of them. A 2022 poll conducted for the American Psychological Association found that 27 percent of Americans are “so stressed they can’t function,” a likely indicator that life has become all work and no play.

Still, observes Price, if we make it a habit to seek out playfulness, connection, and flow, we are on our way to having more true fun.

A Recipe for True Fun

In The Power of Fun, Price identifies five conditions for true fun: total engagement, the absence of self-consciousness, going all in, detachment from outcome, and the presence of other people. To cut loose and feel joy, we usually need a little help from our friends.

Similarly, Price discovered that true fun typically involves the confluence of three factors: playfulness, connection, and flow. This is how each one contributes to true fun.

1) Play

Playfulness is a good antidote to worry — and the first component of true fun.

Opportunities to be playful are everywhere once you start to look for them. Sarah Routman, a certified laughter yoga teacher, recounts a recent trip to the movies with her family. As they realized they were the only ones in the theater, Routman began walking up and down the aisles, saying, “Excuse me, excuse me, pardon me for blocking your view,” which made them all laugh.

She had expected an enjoyable night but found that some playfulness made it truly fun. “Yes, we liked the movie,” she says, “but what was fun is that we weren’t expecting to be the only people in the movie theater, and so we did goofy things.”

Routman is comfortable with her family, so playfulness comes easily. She’s learned from facilitating corporate workshops how much trust enables fun. “You don’t usually allow yourself to do silly things unless you’re with someone you feel comfortable with,” she says.

Self-consciousness, she notes, is one of the greatest obstacles to fun, and it’s a common hurdle for team-building exercises.

She suggests practicing silliness with someone you trust. Intentionally partaking in a playful activity together can help you bypass those self-conscious reflexes.

“Take yourself to a playground with a friend. And swing,” she advises. “When you swing or skip, those activities remind us of childhood. And when you allow yourself to become that child, you find your arms swinging back and forth, you’re fully present, not thinking about anything else.”

2) Connecta intergenerational family enjoys time together

The company of others is often vital to true fun, Price says. These others don’t have to be close friends or family. Just think about the last time you cut loose in a Zumba class or played a pickup basketball game. You may not have known anyone’s name, but the presence of others engaged in the same activity helped create an environment for true fun to emerge.

Price thinks it is possible to have fun alone, but most of the stories she heard about fun during her research involved other people. And when she asked subjects if anything in their own answers surprised them, she often heard comments like this: “I’m a self-proclaimed introvert, but all the stories I just told you involved another person.”

“Think about the times you’ve laughed really hard,” Routman adds. “You don’t usually laugh really hard while alone.”

Although most of us don’t need convincing on this point, science does affirm the social dimension of fun. The title of a study published in 2016 in the Journal of Positive Psychology says it all: “Fun Is More Fun When Others Are Involved.”

3) Flow

Few things feel as good as becoming utterly absorbed in an activity. It could be anything — cooking, playing Frisbee, swimming laps. Deep engagement is a hallmark of a flow state, which is the third part of Price’s true-fun trifecta.

The late University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, introduced the concept of flow in the 1970s, defining it as a state in which you’re so engrossed in an activity “that nothing else seems to matter.”

“Flow states are fun,” says Mark Congdon, author of The Ideal Life. “Across all types of people, they’re identified as the most enjoyable moments of their life.”

One way to uncover flow, Congdon says, is by practicing a new skill that’s neither too easy nor too hard. To achieve flow, we need to do something difficult enough to keep us engaged, but not so hard that we get frustrated.

“When you deliberately practice a new skill and push yourself out of your comfort zone, you’re elevating the levels of cortisol in your blood system, but not enough to make you distressed,” Congdon explains. “You’re actually getting the optimal level of good stress to allow yourself to be successful and develop the skill.”

a man cooks in his kitchenAny activity that brings us into a state of flow that’s also playful and communal is almost sure to produce true fun. This is what Price experienced while learning guitar with a bunch of other adults: It was just hard enough to keep her engaged, silly enough (adults learning a new instrument!) to be playful, and communal enough to build trust.

It’s the same when we play a team sport with a reasonable level of skill or get totally absorbed in a board game with friends or family.

Still, Price notes, plenty of ­activities that don’t qualify as true fun sustain us in other ways.

“Many things that are just enjoyable or nourishing in some way might not lead to the active, energized state of playful, connected flow,” she says — things like reading, solitary walks, or long baths. “But those activities are really important, too.”

Find Your Fun

If you feel like you really don’t know where to find fun in your life, try setting a modest stretch goal that pushes you out of your comfort zone, Congdon suggests. It doesn’t even have to be something that sounds especially fun; you’re seeking the satisfaction that comes from pursuing a new skill. Then you can build on that feeling of full engagement.

“So, rather than put too much pressure on the result, focus on the process that leads to the result,” he says. “That’s much easier to control, and it’s going to result in the outcomes that you want.”

You can also do what Price calls a “fun audit.” Conjure up some memories of playful, silly, engaging experiences, then write down the ones that stand out.

These don’t need to be profound. One of Price’s interview subjects shared a memory of going out in the rain with their grandfather when they were a child, no umbrellas. They allowed themselves to get soaked. “I love that,” she says, “because it shows how fun can be mundane but also deeply meaningful.”a person plays the guitar

You might also write about the last time you laughed hard, smiled so much that your face hurt, or felt really alive. Where were you? Who was there? What were you doing?

As you start to build out your own personal fun history on paper, search for themes. Most likely, you’ll find some activities surfacing repeatedly — certain people and settings too.

Price calls those activities, people, and places your “fun magnets,” and they’re clues to your own personal “fun type.” Understanding what type of fun appeals to you makes it easier to find more of it and to take a pass on ­activities that you know won’t light you up. (For more information about fun types, take the quiz at What’s Your Fun Personality Type?)

In addition to fun magnets, we all seem to have “fun factors” as well. These are the characteristics that make certain things feel fun to us, she explains, and each of us has a different collection.

Maybe you’re drawn to physical activities, like dancing or playing sports, or to intellectual ones, like Scrabble or witty wordplay. Maybe you have the most fun when you’re in nature or while cooking or eating with people you love.

Finally, Price suggests cultivating a fun mindset. This is less about identifying preferences and more about opening yourself to possibilities. A fun mindset helps you seek chances to “create — or appreciate — humor, absurdity, playfulness, connection, and flow,” she writes.

It also enables you to have fun in nearly any context. “I’ve had fun in doctor’s appointments,” Price says. “You [can have fun] chatting with an Uber driver or in other random moments.”

In short, knowing ourselves and what we enjoy can help us have more fun. We don’t have to wait for permis­sion or perfect conditions either. Playful, connected, engaged fun can almost always coexist with whatever else we have going on. We just need to be willing to drop our guard and let it in.

How to Spark Fun

Catherine Price, author of The Power of Fun, created a framework with the acronym SPARK to help guide people to their “personal fun North Star.”

The first step is to make space for fun, by clearing mental and physical clutter. This might mean clearing out the garage to have room to roller skate, but it can also mean freeing up time, mental band­width, or emotional space bogged down in resentments.

Next is to pursue passions. “Hobbies and interests tend to result in relaxation or pleasant engagement,” Price says, but passions invigorate us. “They’re essentially interests or hobbies that have been turbocharged.” Set aside any embarrassment and purse a passion you’ve harbored. Who cares if the neighbors don’t like accordion music.

a group of people jump off a dock into a lakeConsider how you can attract fun. Opportunities for playfulness, connection, and flow surround us all the time, she says. “The better we are at attracting and appreciating them, the more fun our lives will be.”

Think about the fun people you know. Are they spontaneous? Fearlessly silly? Vulnerable? Consider ways you can open up and let yourself play a little bigger to attract more fun.

Rebel — within reason. In the proper doses, writes Price, “irresponsibility and indulgence (and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones) are very good for us.” She’s not recommending anything illegal; there are many ways to rebel, including playfully. If you’re raising teenagers, pretty much everything you do will break one of their rules — so wear those ’90s jeans proudly and let them wince. Consider it practice.

Keep at it. We need to continue to prioritize fun, she argues, so it doesn’t become lost in the sea of things competing for our attention and time. “And we need to commit to [making fun a priority], not just for the next day or the next week but for the rest of our lives.” In the end, we’ll be glad we did.

What Is Fake Fun?

Phone scrolling, binge watching, and needless online shop­ping are all examples of what author Catherine Price calls fake fun. These “fun impostors” can be tricky, because we associate them with relaxation, and we may very well lose track of time while we’re doing them. But fake fun is really just spacing out.

That’s fine if it’s what you mean to do, Price says, but spacing out won’t satisfy your soul the way true fun will. Fake fun is likely to leave you drained and dull, while true fun makes you feel energized and renewed.

We have skillful engineers to thank for how much of our time gets consumed by fake fun. Social media apps, including TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram, are designed to hold our attention. Scrolling has no automatic off-ramp. Likes and other notifications give us quick dopamine hits, convincing us that whatever is on the screen is more reward­ing than what’s in the room.

All of this amounts to a state of distraction, which goes hand in hand with disconnection. MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation, has pointed out how leaving a cellphone out on a table during a meal is likely to prevent the conversation from going too deep — when we know we can be interrupted at any moment, we stick to shallower topics.

“True fun and distraction are like oil and water,” Price adds.

She shares plenty of strategies for reclaiming your attention in a previous book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, such as putting a rubber band around your phone to make it more noticeable when you pick it up. You can also remove time-sucking apps from the home screen.

Overall, anything you can do to remain present — including noticing when you grab your phone to distract yourself — can help you stay in control of your own attention.

(For more ideas on how to break free from tech, visit “How to Break Free of Tech Addiction.”)

This article originally appeared as “Joie de Vivre!” in the July/August 2024 issue of Experience Life.

Jessie
Jessie Sholl

Jessie Sholl is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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