What is fun, and are we having ‘fun’ anymore?

Sharon Green: What is fun, and are we having fun anymore?

As she adjusts to a ‘new normal’ during a pandemic and enters her mid-thirties, Sharon Green asks: are we having fun anymore?

When organising a lunch outing with some friends recently, one of the women in the group exclaimed, “it’ll be fun”.

I wondered whether it would, in fact, be fun.

And it got me thinking about ‘fun’ as a concept. When did I last have fun? What do I consider to be fun? And why is fun so much harder to come by nowadays?

Perhaps I am being cynical, but as I’ve moved into my mid-thirties, I have found that seeking out and actually having fun is becoming less frequent and harder to rediscover.

Recent COVID-19 lockdowns aside, which certainly made having fun nigh impossible, living through a pandemic has made some social situations seem more anxiety-inducing than fun.

A few weeks ago, I went to an art gallery because I thought hanging out with friends and looking at some art might be fun. We entered the gallery, complete with face masks, and even though some sections restricted the number of people that could enter at any one time, there were moments where I felt overwhelmed by sharing a space with so many other people in close proximity.

Then there have been the catch-ups where I have met a friend for brunch at a cafe. Eating out has been one of the common forms of socialising permitted during the pandemic – just make sure you sanitise your hands and scan the QR code to check in before sitting down and commencing your fun.

I have noticed, too, that while many friends leapt out of lockdown with boundless enthusiasm to book in all the social activities, just as many have quickly reverted to their quieter lifestyles, preferring the slower pace that staying at home orders allowed them to discover.

When attempting to organise outings with friends, to be met with responses like “I’d rather a quiet night in” is somewhat a killjoy. While I respect their decision, I am equally baffled by it. After being cooped up indoors for months on end, why are they not eager to go out and have fun? Is staying home to watch more Netflix their idea of fun? Perhaps it could be.

And so, I have been contemplating this: what is fun? Is baking carrot cake fun? Is watching Bridgerton fun? Is reading a book in a day fun? Is going to the beach fun?

Pre-pandemic, I would’ve said my ultimate version of fun was travelling abroad, meeting foreign people and exploring exotic lands. But with that experience unavailable for the foreseeable future, how do I replicate that fun?

Another aspect to all of this is my age. As I enter my mid-thirties and remain child-free, many of my friends are embracing life at home with their families and, understandably, attending to the demands of newborns and toddlers. Our interpretations of what might be fun, at this stage of our lives, are at odds.

As I become more curious about the notion of fun, I learn that there is surprisingly little research on the subject, despite how much we all seemingly enjoy it. While there is truckloads of literature on happiness, pleasure, success, and even gratitude, there is little that speaks to fun itself.

Organisational psychologist and behavioural scientist Michael Rucker.

Organisational psychologist and behavioural scientist Michael Rucker. Image credit: Michael Rucker.

What is ‘fun’, exactly?

Organisational psychologist and behavioural scientist Michael Rucker is working on a forthcoming book called The Fun Habit, in which he will document the science of fun.

Rucker describes fun as “anything on the positive side of valence” (sometimes referred to as hedonic tone).

“In psychology, valence is the range of affective quality in how we experience something – it is the emotional charge we feel from an event. When we experience something as positively valent, we experience it as fun,” he said.

Rucker also notes that fun is subjective, open to interpretation, and unique to the individual, making it difficult to land on a universal definition.

“It is important to keep in mind that what is fun for you might not be fun for somebody else,” he said.

From a psychological perspective, fun needs to incorporate the experience of valence, as noted above, and the level of arousal or energy a particular experience emits.

“We’re all wired to prefer different levels of arousal,” Rucker said. “I commonly use the example that I tend to prefer high arousal fun – for example, an AC/DC concert – whereas my wife’s idea of fun tends to be lower arousal activities, like reading a great book by the pool.”

Another element that plays a part in our interpretation of fun is that we are motivated by autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

“For something to feel fun, we often need to feel in control when we’re engaged in the activity, but if we felt coerced into doing it, that can ruin the fun. Regarding competence, does your skill level match the environment? For example, if you always win (or conversely always lose) a game, the game eventually ends up not being that fun. When it comes to the factor of relatedness, are you inherently interested in whatever you’re engaged in? If you don’t feel connected to what you’re doing, it is much harder to have fun doing it,” Rucker said.

Dr Travis Oh is a marketing professor at Yeshiva University in New York who has been studying fun for the past five years.

In research he completed for his dissertation at Columbia University, he defines fun in a similar way to Rucker.

“I define fun as a pleasurable experience that is marked by two psychological pillars, which are: hedonic engagement and the sense of liberation,” Dr Oh said.

“When you’re engaged in an activity that is pleasurable to you, but at the same time you experience a lot of liberation or release from some constraining prior states – which could come from work, duties, obligations, and even self-discipline – when you feel a release from those, we tend to interpret our experience as being particularly fun.”

So, how do we know when we’re having fun?

According to Rucker, we tend to have the most fun when we engross ourselves in the activity.

“When fun is at its best, the activity hijacks our sense of self, as well as our sense of time. When we are really having fun, we feel a deep connection to the thing or person (or both) that we’re engaged with. The beauty of fun is this relationship to the thing that fills us up,” Rucker said.

Dr Oh also points out that it can be easier to experience fun when you’re doing something for the first time, or something slightly different from what you used to do, because you tend to be more engaged.

While novel things tend to stimulate our brain and make us feel engaged, we don’t need an experience to be completely novel for it to be perceived as fun.

“When my informants were telling me of their fun experiences, it involved some relative novelty or some novelty of the situation that is not completely novel to them,” Dr Oh said.

For example, if you haven’t been to an amusement park for many years, returning to an amusement park may seem quite novel and provide engagement to the experience. Or if you haven’t seen your friends for a long time, meeting them again can feel relatively novel and engaging, explains Dr Oh.

What is fun, and are we having ‘fun’ anymore?

A formula for fun, based on how fun is defined.

Has the pandemic hindered our ability to have fun?

Undoubtedly, it has been difficult to have fun during the COVID-19 pandemic because our access to fun has been limited thanks to restrictions and lockdowns.

Rucker said a big reason why it has been harder to have fun during the pandemic is due to our loss of autonomy.

“It becomes harder to have fun when we feel like we are being told what to do – even when it’s for our own good – and we’re all being told what to do right now,” he said.

The other factor is relatedness. Rucker said many of us have been haphazardly trying to keep ourselves busy as a form of distraction by immersing ourselves in things that we don’t really find fun.

Dr Oh recently ran a study that asked, ‘how has COVID-19 impacted how much fun you have and how happy you are?’ Predictably, people reported that they were feeling much less happy. But more interesting was that respondents said they felt they were having less fun to a much larger degree than their reduction in happiness.

Dr Oh thinks this is due to having fewer opportunities to have fun during the pandemic, and also because the psychological restriction is so strong that many people feel they are not able to “let loose and feel completely free”.

“And I suspect, because it [fun] is driven psychologically, even after you get vaccinated and even after all this is said and done, that psychological restriction will linger somewhat,” said Dr Oh.

Is it harder to seek out fun in older age?

Is it just me, or is fun harder to come by nowadays? As I get older, I am personally finding it harder to seek out and actually have fun.

According to Rucker, fun is “not as easy as it used to be” due to guilt (because others aren’t having fun), perceived inappropriateness (because others around us cannot have fun), or lack of time (because our commitment to others won’t let us have fun).

But Dr Oh said our relationship with fun, such as how we seek out and achieve fun, changes over time.

“Older populations have a different way of achieving or experiencing fun, not necessarily that they have less fun,” he said.

“The essence of the experience of fun is whether the activity creates a psychological process of hedonic engagement and the combination of liberation.”

While you may have found clubbing and going to music festivals fun in your twenties, for example, this same experience may not seem as fun in your mid-thirties because it doesn’t feel as engaging or liberating when you’re older.

Also, the things we were seeking release from in our twenties are likely far different to the constraints we want freedom from in our thirties.

Dr Travis Oh

Marketing professor and researcher Dr Travis Oh. Image credit: Dr Travis Oh.

Don’t confuse work or leisure with fun

In a world where we’re focused on finding meaning and purpose, often in our work, it is not uncommon to have discussions about ‘finding work you love’ or ‘following a values-based career’. But should work be fun?

According to Dr Oh, we should not confuse work with fun. Work can certainly be meaningful and productive, but he said “work should not be fun” and “we shouldn’t try to make work fun”.

Fun is a release, and work is the thing you are releasing from. Think of fun as a diversion from the usual, day-to-day drudgery.

In fact, the concept of fun is believed to have materialised during the industrial revolution, when the long hours of work and a clear demarcation between work-life and non-work-life emerged, notes Dr Oh.

Workers would go to the pub, drink with their friends, be loud, and dance around – essentially letting loose, and seeking a reprieve from their work obligations and other life constraints.

Equally, leisure is not the same as fun, but it can act as a vessel for it. Part of the delight of taking a holiday is that it is a socially accepted opportunity to briefly abandon your real life, and all the responsibilities that come with it.

Dr Oh said the origins of leisure dates back to what was called the “high-brow leisure class”, during a time when people had servants and slaves completing labour and chores for them. Leisure, therefore, would involve filling their time with activities such as learning a musical instrument, doing a painting, attending an opera, or mastering a skill.

“Leisure [activities] can be fun if they’re engaging and liberating, but often they’re more related to some sort of self-actualisation and fulfilment,” said Dr Oh.

Navigating fun post-pandemic, and as we get older

It’s no surprise to learn that we like having fun and that we’d like to have more fun in our lives.

Plus, having fun is good for us. Rucker is clear about this: it is important to have more fun because it improves relationships, reduces your stress levels, and makes you more energetic and youthful.

So, how do we navigate having fun in a post-pandemic world?

With a vaccine rolling out and as things slowly start to improve across the world, Rucker said there is no better time to make the space to connect to what you authentically find fun and plan the time for it.

Dr Oh echoes this sentiment. Given the backdrop of anxiety and worry about the pandemic, he said it is “vital” to set aside either a space or a time (what he calls spatial and temporal boundedness) to lead to or facilitate your experience of liberation, coupled with doing something you find enjoyable.

As for having fun in older age, Dr Oh said it’s important to get clear on knowing what it is that you find enjoyable.

Ask yourself: what are you pleasurably engaged in? Knowing that, and exploring what really gets you excited and what engages you, and then finding situations where you are completely released from your normal obligations, will allow you to identify what you find fun as you get older.

TELL US: Are you having fun at the moment? If so, what do you find fun? Share your story in the comments section below.

Sharon Green, editor

Sharon Green

Sharon Green is the founding editor of SHE DEFINED.

An experienced journalist and editor, Sharon has worked in mainstream media in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Forever in search of a publication that confronted the real issues faced by modern women, Sharon decided to create her own.