Carolyn Klein Lagattuta
When was the last time you flew too high on a swing and lost your stomach, or busted out laughing so hard that you started crying?
If it’s been awhile since you’ve had this kind of fun, you’re not alone.
A lot of us are still recovering from antisocial habits formed in the pandemic. And these days, events outside of our control are taking a serious toll on our health. Last fall, 76% of adults surveyed by the American Psychological Association said stress from politics, race relations, violence and inflation has affected their health. They report experiencing headaches, fatigue, depression, nervousness and exhaustion.
But the antidote may be hiding in plain sight. Two recent books argue that making room for more fun in your life could counteract both the stress and the tendency to escape it by zoning out online.
In The Fun Habit: How The Disciplined Pursuit of Joy And Wonder Can Change Your Life, published in January, psychologist Mike Rucker makes the case that pursuit of fun experiences may be even more valuable than seeking the sometimes abstract goal of happiness.
“Happiness is a state of mind,” Rucker writes. “But fun is something you can do. It doesn’t require education, money or power. All it requires is intentionality. If happiness is a mirage, fun is your backyard oasis.”
And science journalist Catherine Price, author of The Power of Fun, published in 2021, has a similar view. (She took a break from her latest interest, online blues piano lessons, to take my call.)
“We really trivialize fun and we are so casual and sloppy about how we use the word,” Price says, but it is “essential for our happiness and health.”
And fun can be so many things. Last year, when NPR asked readers to share what they’re really into, more than 1,500 of you responded with a deliciously wide range of pursuits, from hula hooping to home brewing beer to raising reptiles. And more than 800 said you do these activities just because they’re fun.
Here’s advice from Price and Rucker — and inspiration from NPR readers — for ways to build more fun into your life.
1. Stop worrying about how happy you are
As a founding member of the International Positive Psychology Association, Rucker has put many teachings of happiness science into his life, like keeping a gratitude journal. But after his brother died unexpectedly in 2016, Rucker felt burned out and lonely. He began to feel that the more he pursued happiness, the more elusive it became.
“Happiness is really an evaluation,” he says. You are constantly asking yourself what is going right and what is going wrong. It can become a trap, he warns.
People who highly value happiness may end up feeling “disappointed about how they feel, paradoxically decreasing their happiness the more they want it,” wrote the authors of a 2011 study in the journal Emotion.
In contrast, fun is relatively easy to achieve yet many adults are conditioned to believe that it isn’t important, and experience very little of it. For Rucker, seeking lighter moments helped him through his loss.
“Even if you’re not happy, you can have fun, even if that’s just having coffee with a friend,” he says. “For me, it was certainly going to comedy clubs [after my brother died]. I wasn’t happy, but I was really enjoying the jokes.”
Science has just begun to study the importance of fun and play, so there’s not a strict definition. But Rucker writes that fun generally involves doing something active and intentional (as opposed to mindlessly watching TV), often includes other people, is something you choose for yourself, and can give a thrill that transcends the ordinary.
NPR audience member Lynn Braz found that when she started taking flying trapeze classes at age 42: “Now, at age 61, I am flying every weekend throughout the warmer months. Flying trapeze is the hardest, scariest, most exciting and most fun thing I’ve ever done.”
Price, who also is the founder of ScreenLifeBalance.com, defines fun as a state in which we experience playfulness, connection to others, and flow – that feeling where you lose track of time because you’re “in the zone” and not worried about how you look or how well you perform.
2. Find your ‘fun magnets’
If you’re not sure where to start, Price recommends you ask yourself: What are my “fun magnets?”
“Put your phone away for a while and come up with three to four memories when you had real fun,” she advises.
Look for common threads, like which people are involved, what kinds of activities you enjoy, where do they take place. Are there activities that would be fun that you’d like to try? Are there activities you can get rid of that are not fun?
Fun can be many different things, Rucker says. It’s really whatever tickles your sense of delight.
NPR’s audience shared hundreds of ideas about what turns them on.
Tara Fisher described her love of building and fighting with robots. “It’s a great way to learn lots of STEM skills and meet fun, intelligent people,” she wrote. “Plus, it’s fun to smash each other’s ‘toys.'”
Nicole Diekow told NPR, that for her, it’s thrift shopping. She’s been doing it since the 1980s when she and her mom were on a tight budget. “This sparked a fascination that has stuck around my whole life … You never know what treasures you might find or what friends you may meet.”
3. Put fun on the calendar
Once you identify what fun is to you, you can start to schedule more of it. “It’s like going on a diet by figuring out what kinds of foods you love, and then eating more,” says Price.
I know – groan. Scheduling fun? Isn’t it supposed to be spontaneous? And aren’t we overscheduled already?
But fun comes more easily when you’re young, says Price. When you’re older, you don’t find yourself in the kind of unstructured environments conducive to fun, like a playground full of kids you don’t know.
Sometimes people you could have fun with are waiting for an invitation. “It’s like romance,” she says of scheduling fun. “You need to light some candles, set the scene.”
But it’s well worth it. People who take a vacation return to their work less stressed and possibly more creative, and the benefits could extend to smaller adventures.
When you put something fun like a hike on the calendar, you open up to moments of “awe and wonder,” like the surprise appearance of a deer on the path, for example, Rucker says. These moments can improve mood and lower stress levels, which can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Scheduling fun doesn’t have to be arduous or expensive. When Price was working on her book during the height of the pandemic, she recruited a virtual group of people — a Fun Squad — to bounce ideas around with.
One Fun Squad friend said that a Taco Tuesday night she held with her friends was the highlight of her week, Price says. For herself, she regularly jams with a group of musicians.
NPR reader Nancy Lomini-Perretta decided to try a beginning mahjongg class for seniors at her local college in 2019. Now she plays every Monday with a group of women she met in that class. They call themselves “The Fabulous Five” or “The Mahvelous Mahjongg Madams.”
“Taking this class … brought five women together who happen to have the same sense of humor and just plain enjoy each other’s company,” she says.
4. Unplug (no, but seriously!)
Pay attention to how much of your leisure time is spent scrolling on a phone or passively watching TV, Rucker advises. That’s “yielding to the nothing,” he says, and is a deceptively easy escape from feelings of boredom or discomfort.
Most of us have control over at least two hours of our day for leisure activities, and some of us have up to five hours. But the average American uses up more than two hours on social media per day. Consider using your time instead to do “just one thing that used to bring you joy,” suggests Rucker.
Technology can be the enemy of fun. If you’re always connected to your phone, checking that one last email or text, you’re not present. Rucker says. “We need to “stop being ‘on’ all the time.”
When Rucker realized he was checking his phone often while watching his daughter take gymnastics class, he decided instead that they should take a dance class together. “Now we have amazing memories,” he says.
Real fun usually involves sensory experiences and, often, interactions with other people.
NPR listener Rachel Maryam Smith fell in love with making giant soap bubbles when she was in college. She soon started making them in public, eventually hosting events with up to 300 people. She loves that bubbles put a smile on everyone’s face.
“Big bubble making [is] more than the jaw-dropping aesthetics, but a reminder that life is brief and beautiful,” she wrote.
Action seeker and NPR fan says Mike Ferris practicing handstands “feels like flight at 33 years old.” He encourages others to try it too: “Who hasn’t tried a handstand once in their life, at least as children? It’s simply fun to do a move that our bodies aren’t designed to do to survive.”
5. Share the fun and amplify it
Another tip Price swears by for more fun is sharing what brings you delight with someone else. Price now has running text chains with several friends who send her photos of upbeat moments throughout their day. Just for fun, she recently sent some friends $10 disco balls she discovered on Amazon so they could delight in their own dance parties.
She borrowed the idea from poet Ross Gay, who wrote an entire book of essays on delights, including odes to handmade infinity scarves, loitering and weeds.
NPR listener Kami Koontz shares her source of fun whenever she can. She bought a ukulele in early 2014 on a whim and taught herself to play it.
“I have since started a local uke group, a local uke band, and have raised money to donate Ukes to schools and libraries,” she writes. “Doing all of these things has brought a variety of charming people into my life, a little music family of sorts.”
Like any new habit, fun takes practice, as well as trial and error. Experts say start small and build.
“It’s harder to get to spontaneity if you have to schedule it on your calendar, but once you do, you’re creating more opportunity for spontaneity to happen,” Rucker says.
Carmel Wroth contributed to this report.