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The Power of Fun- How to feel alive again

The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again

Catherine Price 2021

“If you're not having fun, you're doing something wrong.”

Groucho Marx

“Everything in life that’s any fun, as somebody wisely observed, is either immoral, illegal or fattening.”

P.G. Wodehouse

“People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing.”

Dale Carnegie

“Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.”

Dr. Seuss

Having fun yet? In our stressed and distracted age, many people have seemingly forgotten how to have fun. Is scrolling on your phone for hours fun? Is binging your latest television show really that much fun? Is playing video games more fun than playing actual games with live participants? We spend a lot of our free time on these three activities, but get very little memorable or rewarding results from them. What was the most fun you had in your life? Why don't you do more of that?

Catherine Price is a science writer and author of the best selling How to Break Up With Your Phone. She references that book repeatedly in her new book, The Power of Fun, and points a finger at cell phones as one of the biggest culprits keeping us from connecting, thinking clearly, and having fun.

Price defines fun as the confluence of three essential ingredients- playfulness, flow, and connection. To have real fun you have to enter into it with a lighthearted and playful spirit, expecting little, but open to anything. You also need to share the experience with other people to get maximum enjoyment, though it is possible to have fun by yourself on occasion. And you have to find that elusive of all mental states- flow- about much has been written and little is understood. Flow occurs when you become totally absorbed in an experience and lose track of time and place. Distractions can pull us out of flow all of the time, which is one reason why email and cell phone notifications, plus our naïve belief that we can multitask effortlessly keep us away from flow for much of our waking lives.

The book refers to something called Fake Fun, which is what a lot of us associate with the word "fun". Fake Fun is rarely satisfying, and it eats up a lot of our spare time with activities that feel like they should be enjoyable but aren't at all memorable or meaningful. Fake fun without connection leads to loneliness. Fake Fun without flow leads to constant distraction and little feeling of accomplishment. And Fake Fun without playfulness makes us feel dead inside, exhausted, and prisoners of the powerful algorithms that control much of our attention. It is to fun like junk food is to nutrition- full of stuff but none of it good for you.

Our brains are wired to seek out novelty, reward and unpredictability, and social media and apps provide those items in spades. FOMO means we are always afraid that we are missing out on the newest, coolest developments, influencers, and products, and it causes us to frantically scan our environment for the next best thing. Rewards are a big reason why we keep on the social media treadmill of likes, followers, and retweets. People now go on vacation not to have fun, but to take hundreds of selfies that they can post and wait for validation from their "friends". And unpredictability is a feature of the firehose of information that spews out of the internet these days. We love to be surprised, even when it's bad news, and we allow ourselves to be immersed in the pool of continuous distraction, even if it makes us angry, stressed, or sick.

Children are great at having fun- it's a shame that phones are robbing them of that ability too. Think about what a child could do with a paint set or box of Play Doh. They are able to enter a playful world of their own creation- painting or sculpting something from their own imagination that is innately enjoyable. Almost any activity, if approached in a playful manner, can bring about True Fun, which is the goal of this book. Playing a game of cards is fun between two people where the rules are loosely enforced and connection is the goal, but playing solitaire against a computer is Fake Fun that gobbles up time while the computer never gives you a high five when you win. Going on a vacation with no deadlines and an openness to new experiences can produce great memories and true fun, while going on a vacation with a strict itinerary and high expectations can feel like more of a chore.

While some activities like art, music and reading can be fun alone, they are more enjoyable when there's some connection there. Our constantly distracted and overwhelmed state has led to a loneliness epidemic, which is odd because most of us are surrounded by people in person and online. The loneliness comes from the constant stream of stuff being dumped on us all day, leaving us little time to open up, ask questions, and truly connect with others around us. When people get together to dance, sing, and connect with each other, a collective effervescence can be created that lifts spirits and produces flow.

The second half of this book is loaded with ideas on how to have more True Fun in your life, and it's all great advice, a lot of which I've heard before in other contexts. Want more real fun and less busywork? Try these:

1- Make space for fun by clearing out mental and physical clutter.

Distraction is not only the enemy of productivity, it's the enemy of fun too. This is Marie Kondo type stuff- clear out the crap in your house that doesn't spark joy. Protect your time as well as your space by setting aside dedicated, uninterrupted time and places to focus on fun activities with other people. It's easy to let life and being busy take over the calendar, but unless you have control over your physical space and screen time, you could remain addicted to Fake Fun and miss out on many opportunities.

2- Pursue your passions. Find hobbies and interests that truly intrigue you. Ideally your job has elements of fun in it, but your leisure time should include plenty of time to do things just for the fun of it. This can be tricky. Exercising can be a habit, or it can be fun. Try playing with how, where, and with whom you do things to find the hidden passions that are buried beneath the activity. And if something bores or drains you, just say no and find something else. Don't be afraid to try something completely new and screw up a few times as a beginner. And it's perfectly okay to try something out alone at first, and then join with others as you gain confidence. Connection supercharges fun.

3- Adopt a fun mindset. This is the toughest part if it's not currently in your nature. Find times and environments where it's okay to be more playful and silly. Seek out humor, absurdity and beauty by paying more attention to them. Focus on your inner child- a neglected part of you that hasn't gotten out to play in decades. Build playgrounds that you can share with others- art studios, playrooms, social activities, or games and be that person people come to for fun. Part of adopting a fun mindset is protecting it from spoilsports. There are people who aren't happy that will try to drag you down- don't let them.

4- Don't be afraid to rebel once in a while. The key to creativity and playfulness is the willingness to turn the world upside down and see what happens. The book has lots of creative if scary options such as:

- Rebel against conventions by dressing differently in public. Show off your most creative side with what you wear and how you look. Change your hair color or style. Get a tattoo or find an outfit that you would have never dared wearing in public before.

- Rebel against traditions by celebrating Thanksgiving on Friday, having a female best man at the wedding, or singing a rock song at church.

- Fight against perfectionism by being okay with admitting your own mistakes in public.

- Battle expectations by doing something totally out of character and blowing your family's mind. Run a marathon. Bake a cake. Stretch our of your comfort zones bit by bit.

- Torpedo adulthood by letting yourself play like a kid- get out the Play Doh, finger paints, or try kickball, hide and seek, or frisbee.

- Screw with people by changing your opinion about something and don't be afraid to rebel against conformity. Star Wars is overrated. Weird Al Yankovic is a genius. Fried chicken is good for you. Discuss.

I read this book and Johann Hari's new book Stolen Focus in the same month, and they both sing the same song- cell phones and social media are sucking our souls dry and we need to fight back and have more fun and more focus. It's hard to argue with the premise, that gets louder and louder as big tech becomes more and more powerful. Price cautions her readers to invest in fun seriously and have a screen/life balance. It need not require a major intervention- small victories can build into bigger ones. We need to find other fun-minded people with whom to share our playfulness, and to try to be open to more opportunities for True Fun. More importantly, we need to be able to distinguish True Fun from Fake Fun, so that we can ask the right questions and make better decisions.

With all the serious stuff piling up in the news- Covid, Crime, Inflation, Climate Change, and much more, it's hard to make fun a priority. But without fun we become lifeless zombies, relying on diversions and drugs to survive another day. We need fun to make life worth living.

I just got back from a trip to the Ozarks where I sat in a creek, went on a float trip, and read more books like this, all without any particular agenda except relaxing and regenerating. At one time in my life I would have preferred going to Disney World and having a full schedule of shows and rides to conquer. But that doesn't seem like so much fun anymore to me. Life is too short to not have True Fun, and if this book helps a few people think about it more, then it's a worthwhile read.

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