“What do you do for fun?”
Simple question, right? Not too difficult to answer. Or so I thought.
When a friend asked me that the other day, my mind went into overdrive. Spending time with family and friends is fun - but sometimes it isn’t. Same with exercise. Same with—dare I say it—work. In the end I gave a noncommittal answer and apologised for my boring life.
The problem, I’ve realised, is that fun isn’t an activity. It’s a feeling. This explains why sometimes family gatherings, pilates, and work projects feel like pulling teeth. Which is not fun.
My dad is recovering from surgery and the other day I was putting drops in his left eye. He’s had a patch over it, and when I removed the patch his eye ball was moving around in crazy directions. I started laughing and he started laughing…and we both laughed so hard we were crying. I guess you had to be there.
The dictionary defines fun as “enjoyment, amusement, or light-hearted pleasure”. Catherine Price, in a TED talk called Why having fun is the secret to a healthier life suggests this is where we get it wrong. Fun isn’t just light-hearted pleasure. It’s what makes us feel alive.
I think Price is right. Something happened in that moment with my dad that is difficult to put into words. There was connection…energy…sheer happiness. I wouldn’t trade that moment with my dad for the world.
From Price’s research (collecting people’s fun stories) she concluded that there are three factors that are consistently present when we are having fun:
Playfulness - having a lighthearted attitude of doing things for the sake of doing them and not caring too much about the outcome. It’s about not taking ourselves so seriously.
Connection - the feeling of having a special, shared experience. Price says it is possible to have fun alone but most fun stories (including those from introverts) involved another person.
Flow - the state where we are so engaged and focused on whatever we're doing that we can even lose track of time. It’s where we are in the zone. It's possible to be in flow and not have fun (in an argument for example) but we cannot have fun if we're not in flow.
So to have more fun, Price suggests we do what we can to have more moments of playfulness, connection and flow. Ultimately though, we need to prioritise fun:
"That might sound totally obvious, but one of the main reasons we're not having enough fun is that we're not making it a priority. Our fun is always at the bottom of the list, and it can't speak up for itself. So I'm not suggesting that you take out your calendar and make an entry that says: “From 4 to 6pm on Saturday, I shall have fun.” That is a guaranteed way to not have fun. But if you know you consistently have fun when you spend time with a particular person, make a point to spend time with that person. If you know there's an activity that really does often generate playful connected flow for you, carve out time for it in your schedule. Treat fun as if it is important. Because it is."
Price believes that having fun is so important because it makes us feel alive. The secret she says to long-term happiness is just to have more everyday moments of fun. Prioritising fun in her own life has made Price more creative, productive, resilient and a better partner, parent and friend.
While I can see the benefits of getting serious about having fun - are we missing something that is even better?
New York Times columnist David Brooks writes in his book The Second Mountain:
"My core point is that happiness is good, but joy is better. …joy is a fuller and richer state beyond happiness. Moreover, while happiness tends to be fickle and fleeting, joy can be fundamental and enduring. The more you are living a committed life well, the more joy will be your steady state, the frame of mind you carry around with you and shine on others. You will become a joyful person." (p. xxii)
Or later on, he describes this invigorated outlook as 'to live with joy is to live with wonder, gratitude and hope' (p xxxi).
Joy IS something better. It doesn’t depend on the alignment of playfulness, connection and flow. It can be a steady state. As Brooks points out, we only get one life, so we may as well use it hunting for the big game: to enjoy happiness, but to surpass happiness with joy.
I live a committed life as a follower of Jesus Christ. You might think my life is boring but I promise you, it’s not! I can be serious about fun because it’s a gift which comes with living in the world God has made. I have someone to thank for that gift. And I also know that in the less-than-fun moments of pain, despair, boredom and frustration that all will be well in the end. Hope gives me a baseline of joy even in the toughest of times.
Why? Because my committed life is underpinned by the God who is committed to me. As Jesus says to his followers:
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." [Matthew 11: 29-31]
Whatever happens to me, I am known and valued by the One who is in control of all things. He is my source of joy.
So where do we land? For me: getting serious about having fun, and being serious about living a committed life. Moments of happiness and enduring joy will give me the gift of feeling truly and deeply alive.