Why We All Need to Have More Fun

Why We All Need to Have More Fun 1

Prioritizing fun may feel impossible right now. But this four-step plan will help you rediscover how to feel more alive.

As we enter yet another phase of Covid cancellations and uncertainty, here’s a simple prescription for your pandemic blues: Have more fun.

Yes, fun.

I know that might sound impossible or even irresponsible right now, but hear me out. For my new book, “The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again,” I’ve spent nearly five years researching the question of what, precisely, makes us feel the most engaged and alive. Many people radically underestimate how important fun is to their resilience, happiness, and mental and physical health.

People often use the word “fun” to describe anything they do with leisure time, even when those things, upon reflection, aren’t actually enjoyable. My research has shown me that true fun, as I call it, materializes when we experience the confluence of three psychological states: playfulness, connection and flow.

Playfulness isn’t about playing games. It’s a quality of lightheartedness that allows you to do things in everyday life just for the pleasure of it. Studies show that playfulness can be stimulated by simply looking for ways to be more playful, and that playful people are better at managing stress.

Connection refers to the feeling of having a special, shared experience with another person. When we develop stronger social ties, we’re more resilient during stressful times.

And “flow” describes the state of being fully engaged and focused, often to the point that you lose track of time. It’s important to note that flow is an active state. The hypnotized daze we fall into when we binge-watch Netflix doesn’t count. (In fact, researchers call mindless absorbing activities “junk” flow.) Think of an athlete in the midst of a game, or a moment in which you were absorbed in a craft or a conversation. A study of people in Wuhan, China, during periods of lockdown found that those who participated in flow-inducing activities had better overall well-being. (The report, unfortunately, didn’t name the specific activities that helped people cope with quarantine.)

Playfulness, connection and flow each have been shown to improve people’s moods and mental health when experienced on their own. But when people experience these three states at once — in other words, when they have true fun — the effects that they report are almost magical. When people are having actual fun, they report feeling focused and present, free from anxiety and self-criticism. They laugh and feel connected, both to other people and to their authentic selves.

Fun feels good, and it’s good for us. So how can we have more of it, especially when the pandemic has made it feel impossible? Here are four simple steps to guide you.

“Fake” fun is my term for activities that take up our leisure time, but they don’t inspire playfulness or connection, or result in the total engagement that happens with flow. Time scrolling on social media or binge-watching television are two examples of fake fun that can make pandemic anxiety and hopelessness even worse. Even before the pandemic, Americans were spending, on average, more than three hours a day on their phones and nearly three hours watching TV. If you identify the sources of fake fun in your life and reduce the amount of time you spend on them, you’re likely to find extra hours each week that you can devote to the pursuit of true fun.

Although the feeling of fun is universal, each of us finds it in different contexts. Try to identify three experiences from your life in which you remember really having fun. Think of times when you laughed with other people and felt completely engrossed in the experience. What were you doing? Who were you with? What made the experience feel so good? Keep in mind that small moments count. Some examples that people have shared with me include running barefoot into the ocean with their child, or playing catch with an exuberant dog.

Your goal should be to identify the activities, settings and people that often generate fun for you. Something that’s fun for one person, whether it’s rock climbing, joining a book club or playing music, might sound wholly unpleasant to someone else. Once you’ve identified your personal fun “magnets,” you’ll be able to make wiser decisions about how to allocate your time.

It’s impossible to plan for fun, because fun is an emotional experience that can’t be forced. It is possible, however, to make fun more likely to occur, simply by prioritizing the people and activities that are the most likely to create it for you. Once you’ve identified what they are, carve out time for them. For instance, I know that I have a great time when I play music with a particular group of friends, so I make time for it.

It’s important to note that prioritizing fun during the pandemic can take extra work. To play music together safely last winter, my friends and I brought our instruments outside, along with hot drinks, hand warmers, heavy coats and blankets. We were cold, but the joy of having fun together lingered for days.

The pandemic can make it tough to engage in some of your favorite fun-generating activities, particularly those that require travel or being with large groups of people. Now you know to prioritize them when it is safely possible.

In the meantime, find ways to “microdose” on fun. If you’re home alone and feeling stumped, ask yourself whether there’s anything you’ve always said you wanted to do or learn but didn’t have time for. (That’s how I started playing guitar.) Try to create as much connection, playfulness and flow in your everyday life as possible, whether it’s by sharing a smile with a stranger, calling a colleague instead of emailing or doing something nice for a friend. Every time you do so, take note of how it affects your mood.

Prioritizing fun may feel difficult, but it’s worth it. Our lives, after all, are defined by what we choose to pay attention to. The more you pay attention to fun and the energy it produces, the better you’ll feel.

Someone recently told me about how much fun he had just sitting on a park bench with his nephew, laughing as they tried to catch falling leaves. It felt like the perfect metaphor for getting through the pandemic. Despite all of the challenges that we currently face, there are still opportunities for fun floating around us. We just need to remind ourselves to reach out and grab them.

Catherine Price is the founder of ScreenLifeBalance.com and the author of “The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again.”