Opinion | Here’s How to Have Fun. Also, What Is Fun?

By Jessica Bennett

Photographs by Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet

Ms. Bennett is a contributing editor in Opinion who writes on gender, politics and culture.

I did something called survival camp as a teenager, an entirely voluntary activity, ostensibly for fun. Survival camp entailed being dropped off in a remote section of the forest outside Seattle with a backpack and a plastic garbage bag, which could serve as a poncho, and spending the next 24 hours alone. During this time, I was to build a sleeping hut out of sticks and ferns, make myself some canned beans (which I couldn’t open) over a fire (which I couldn’t light) and … survive. When my time was up, somebody would fetch me.

Of all the things I experienced in those 24 hours — boredom, disgust, hunger, fear — fun wasn’t one of them. And yet somehow, as a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I’d been tricked into thinking this was pleasurable. Seattleites love to suffer, and they love the outdoors, so this combination of extreme outdoorsiness with the reward of not being dead at the end was so ingrained in me as the apex of fun as a kid that it would take me years to realize I hated it.

This is, perhaps, when I first developed the longstanding sense that, as my spouse likes to put it, I “hate fun.” And indeed, I dislike board games, card games, puzzles, sports, camping, anything that requires being split into teams. No, I don’t want to take an improv class. If I wanted to hike, I would have moved to Los Angeles.

For most of my life, this state of affairs was fine. Other people could pretend to enjoy museums, poker nights, hot yoga classes and theme parks (ugh!) or force themselves into gorpcore for various forms of enjoying the great outdoors. I was happy enough to spend hours scrolling through TikTok in bed, sitting on a park bench and people watching or gossiping with friends. I didn’t need to Have Fun to be fun!

But in the pandemic, even I — a known fun hater — started to feel starved for joy, for delight, for euphoria. You know the feeling, because you probably had it, too: stuck at home, sick of our partners, our roommates, our children, even ourselves. Nobody wanted to touch or dance or, God forbid, have sex; there wasn’t even anything to gossip about. Instagram, which used to be filled with pictures of fun, was now filled with pictures of bread. Eventually, even the thought of enjoying oneself felt distasteful. How could anyone possibly have fun with all the suffering around?

When the world opened back up again, things should have gotten better, but they didn’t. There were new variants, war and wildfires. Hot girl summer came and went, and nothing replaced it, except for a heat wave — not the same thing.

I found myself Googling “What is fun?” which my therapist might say was a sign I needed to get off my computer and go outside, but I decided to Google “Am I fun?” instead. Google told me what I already knew deep down: I — never great at fun to start with — was in a fun rut. Maybe science could help me get out?

What is fun, exactly? Unlike happiness, fun is not a state of being, though happy people do often report having fun. “Fun” is not an action verb like “play,” though of course, it can be sparked by an action. Fun isn’t necessarily guaranteed by leisure time or access to things considered to be leisure — vacations, rest — though you could argue that these things would free a person up to have more fun. And unlike pleasure, which sparks a very specific cortisol response in the brain (and has been studied in rats and humans), it is challenging to analyze a brain on fun, in part because for humans, fun inevitably becomes unfun as soon as you’re sitting in a brain scanner — and how to tell if a rat is having fun?

“Fun is elusive,” said Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and the man who would eventually become my fun coach, although he didn’t know it at the time.

I called Dr. Reis after stumbling on a study he conducted that involved undergraduate students playing Jenga (research paper title: “Fun Is More Fun When Others Are Involved”), in the naïve hope that researching fun could teach me how to have fun again. But not only is there nothing universally considered fun — what is deemed fun varies, as you might expect, across class, culture, identity and age, among other factors — but fun is also a feeling, and feelings are difficult to plan, organize or concoct; everyone (except your employer) knows that forced fun is not real fun. Fun is: You know it when you’re having it.

There are many types of fun, according to Dr. Chris McManus, a professor of psychology and medical education at University College London, who I spoke with after seeing he co-wrote a research paper on the taxonomy of fun. Dancing, roller coasters, Game 7 of the N.B.A. championship — these activities might be described as “ecstatic fun,” according to his categories, full of excitement and unpredictability. Drugs, escapism or sex was “sensual fun, while gardening or reading a good book was “contentment fun.” “Sociable fun” was the kind that involved other people, though most researchers tend to agree that there is a clear relationship with other people in yielding fun across all categories. (There’s a famous study about bowling, Dr. Reis said, in which it was determined that people have more fun when they achieve a strike if they can look at other people after it occurs.) Last, Dr. McManus said, is “achievement fun,” or the kind that includes a goal or accomplishment, which might describe bowling or even survival camp. (He noted that, interestingly, women in his study reported more social and less achievement fun, while older respondents tended to gravitate toward contentment fun.)

What’s your fun vibe?
An unscientific quiz.

Have you ever ordered a party sub?

But after talking to Dr. Reis and Dr. McManus, I quickly ran into a wall in my efforts to achieve better fun through science. Because there isn’t really all that much research out there on fun.

For years now, the study of happiness has been treated like the holy grail of positive psychology, a relatively new subset of the field that looks at things like joy and gratitude. Across the social sciences, economics, neuroscience and even politics, researchers now study what makes people happy, tracking it across class and culture. (See: the Global Happiness Report.) In the United Arab Emirates there is now a minister of happiness. In Bhutan the government famously charts progress by G.N.H. — gross national happiness — in addition to G.D.P. At Yale an introductory psychology course on happiness, taught by the psychologist Laurie Santos, is its most popular class so far.

But fun? Fun has just a few published studies. Dr. Reis said that, to his knowledge, no psychology textbook has “fun” anywhere in its index. Happiness is seen as weighty, important, meaningful. Fun, meanwhile, is viewed as trivial. At his university, Dr. Reis told me, they have something called Dandelion Day, which occurs each spring right before finals. There are games, food trucks, live music, trivia contests and carnival rides. The idea is to get students to have fun, basically. But it’s branded under the guise of stress relief and well-being.

Dr. Reis suggested I keep a fun diary: a record of my day-to-day activities, which I would then rate from 0 to 10 on a fun scale, effectively turning the pursuit of fun into homework. But the goal, he said, was to help remember what I, Jessica Bennett, non-fun-haver, truly found fun, since I had seemingly forgotten.

Day 1. Gossiping with a co-worker about another co-worker: 5 on the fun scale. Is fun at someone else’s expense still fun? Yes, but would have been higher if the gossip had been more salacious.

Day 2. A stimulating conversation with a group of sociologists that got my brain buzzing: 9. Bonus point for being fun and professionally useful.

Day 4. Lying in bed, ignoring my email, sinking deep into a rabbit hole of pro-Johnny Depp fandom: 4. Fun while I was doing it, felt gross afterward.

Day 5. Feeding my dog a new homemade treat that I took an hour to cook and he devoured in two seconds: 10! Fun! Is this what parenting feels like?

Day 6. Sitting under the single umbrella at my coffee shop as a torrential downpour rapidly hit, soaking everything around me. The staff members and other patrons huddled inside and waved at me — spontaneously fun! Then fun again when I related the story, a tactic scientifically proven to boost your mood: 9.

Day 7. Working a shift at my local veggie stand, managing the clipboard and separating vegetables while chatting with neighbors — a thing that I’d been dreading but turned out to be super fun, satisfying both my need for power (the clipboard) and joy in mundane organization. Bonus points for being unexpectedly fun: 8.

I was just starting to notice some patterns — that most fun for me involved other people and in some cases dogs and that fun with a sense of accomplishment was particularly gratifying — when my experiment went off the rails. Day 8 coincided with the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade: 0. Not only not fun, it sent me into a spiral of doubt about my frivolity for spending time on what felt like a silly, self-indulgent project. A few days later, I got Covid. I promptly abandoned the assignment.

All of this was important, Dr. Reis said encouragingly when I called him to report my failures, because humans often tend to let what’s bad crowd out the possibility for fun. That’s not a terrible thing, he assured me; it means I have empathy. “I think the fact that other people’s suffering is so much more available to us now,” with social media and the like, he said, “makes it hard for us to be in the moment and enjoy what we’re doing.” And yet depriving myself of fun wasn’t actually going to change the outcome of a Supreme Court ruling or anything else, and it was probably going to make me feel worse.

When I spoke to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and one of the originators of positive psychology, she told me a story that stuck with me: After Sept. 11, when the field of positive psychology was still in its infancy, there was a moment when she and other scholars wondered whether they should abandon its pursuit. “We were asking ourselves, should we really be studying this when everything is so awful?” she said. And yet where they landed was the opposite: that it was actually more important. “The most common emotion people reported after 9/11 was gratitude. And in part it’s because when you’re depressed, depressed people don’t get things done. It’s the happier people who can actually change the world.”

You’d have thought that story might have convinced me that what I was doing was not shallow but significant and worthwhile. It did, in a way. In a culture that is obsessed with work, in which even the act of rest has somehow become a thing to optimize or make productive, we need fun.

It would be easy enough to make a case for the importance of fun. Emma Seppala, a psychologist and the author of the book “The Happiness Track,” noted that injecting incremental moments of fun into our daily lives has been linked to greater happiness and reduced stress. People who have fun at work are more productive and creative, while those who are perceived as not much fun were viewed less favorably, particularly if they were women. Humans, when they’re in a state of true fun, report feeling focused and present, free from anxiety, self-criticism and perfectionism, said the science journalist Catherine Price, who has spent the past five years interviewing people about fun for her book “The Power of Fun.” “They laugh and feel connected, both to other people and to themselves.”

All of this might be true, and yet …

One of the side effects of recognizing the importance of happiness has been the rise of a sort of happiness-industrial complex, complete with coaches, apps, sleepaway camp, loungewear and luxury body wash. It would be a shame for fun — a thing that anyone can have, even in small spurts, one that shouldn’t require money or status or privilege — to suffer the same fate.

But I’m not even sure that it could.

In his book “Fun!: What Entertainment Tells Us About Living a Good Life,” Alan McKee, an Australian media studies professor, defines fun thus: “Fun is pleasure without purpose.” In other words, the same qualities that seem to make it so hard for me to have pure fun — I need purpose! — make it hard to optimize for; put it under a brain scanner, and it has a tendency to disappear.

My experiment, in other words, was fundamentally flawed. Fun is supposed to get you out of your head. I was trying to think my way into fun.

In researching this story, I spent weeks cataloging different ways that people in my city had fun — barbecuing, block partying, riding motorbikes, playing dominoes in the park, dancing, hula hooping, stargazing, picnicking in the nude. All of these people were just out living their lives and having fun while I sat at home reading essays and self-help books, dissecting how to have it.

One group of guys, who call themselves the Citi Bike Boyz, takes Citi Bikes (bikes you can rent throughout New York City) to remote corners of the city to do tricks. These bikes are clunky, 45-pound tanks. The Boyz jump them off cars and over people; they hop railings and fences in public parks; they glide down staircases of government buildings. It’s fun with a tinge of danger and the possibility of a traffic ticket, which makes it extra fun.

On a 95-degree Saturday, a photographer and I schlepped to one of their spots, a skate park under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Kosciuszko Bridge. As I watched, Jerome, Mel and Nino taught me about the bunny hop (a jump, basically), the Superman (laying your body across the bike as if you were flying) and the 12 o’clock, which is a wheelie, until you smash your front wheel. (Oops.)

“To me, being on a bike is a crazy feeling of complete fun,” said Jerome Peel, 32, as he adjusted his bike seat, preparing to scale a ramp and soar over Nino’s head. I asked if he could describe why it was so fun, and he gave me a funny look. Don’t you just know fun when you feel it?

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