Fun or not fun? That is the question

What is ‘fun’?

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, ‘fun’ is what provides amusement or enjoyment. Synonyms include delight, entertainment, pleasure and recreation. Self-explanatory, right?

Well … I’m not so sure. What does fun look like? What does it feel like? How do we know when we’re having fun? Do you and I experience fun in the same way or not? Does it matter?

I used to think of ‘fun’ as a vibrant, active word. In my mind’s eye, it looked like people playing, singing, dancing, laughing and joking, with no purpose or thought of being taken seriously. Spontaneous. Light. Carefree.

Making time for fun

I couldn’t relate. That’s why the word disappeared from my vocabulary for a time – too many family/work commitments and responsibilities, too much routine and mundanity in my life. Not enough spontaneity, surrender and abandon. Not enough fun.

I flew through each day on autopilot, crossing tasks off a ‘To Do’ list in the mistaken belief that each thing completed today freed up more time and space for me tomorrow. But like a mouse on a wheel, I ran myself ragged. Time and space rarely opened up. I failed to prioritise my kind of fun as an important part of my self-care and leisure. I lost touch with the light-hearted, playful side of myself and what delighted me. Social activities only featured on my ‘To Do’ list when organised by someone else in accord with their idea of fun.

The changing face of fun

I’ve been reflecting on this recently in the context of the Melbourne Cup Carnival. For nigh on 20 years, Victoria Derby Day and Oaks Day were key fixtures on my social calendar. I’d devote weeks to planning my outfit, compulsively monitoring the long-range weather forecast. My husband Ty* would spend weeks analysing the lead-up form of the horses, trying to pick winners. He might even splurge on a new suit, shirt or tie.

On race day, we’d meet friends at the track mid-morning and spend the Day people-watching, chatting, drinking, betting … and queueing. Lots of queueing. For food, for drinks, for bets, for the bathroom. Come sundown, we’d head to a fancy restaurant for a traditional post-races dinner, where winners were grinners but hard luck stories usually the order of the day.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I realised this wasn’t fun for me. Perhaps there wasn’t one single moment, rather a dawning awareness that it had been fun for me once, but things had changed. I had changed, and I didn’t want to keep pretending. A quiet day at home, a good book, a movie and/or an afternoon nap – all were preferable to drunken crowds, manic punters, sore feet and a hangover, so I stopped going to the spring races.

Recognising fun

There’s a lot to be said for passing time in a way that best reflects your own values, interests and goals – to live authentically. Because that’s the place where fun exists for you. But to do so, you need a strong, clear sense of who you are.

It’s been my quest over the last few years to get to know my middle-aged self, step outside my comfort zone, try new things, figure out what’s fun for me and equally, what’s not fun for me now.

Accommodating fun

As part of that, I’ve tried to broaden my notion of ‘fun’ and appreciate that fun can be had by proxy.

For example, watching loved ones having fun doing stuff which I wouldn’t like to do or couldn’t do myself. Sitting through hours of cringeworthy [insert activity] concert performances to bask in the fleeting glory of my loved one’s moment in the spotlight. Braving the elements to watch a [insert sport] match in which I have no interest apart from my loved one’s triumphant shot/catch/goal. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles – you know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout! It’s a special kind of fun that we’re all familiar with.

Other examples include family celebrations, work or social engagements that are low on my fun hierarchy but important to someone I love. Using my own fun-ometer as a guide, I might prefer to avoid dinner with the relative who drinks too much and takes nasty pot shots at anyone who disagrees with him/her.  Or decline to attend a work function as a ‘plus one’, where I’m expected to make small talk with strangers while my partner ‘talks shop’ with colleagues.

But when faced with situations like these, I try to remember this little gem:

If you can’t get out of it, get into it. ~ Patricia Ryan Madson

Reframing the experience and approaching it with a positive attitude can deliver unexpected benefits, a slice of fun, a memory to share and laugh about later. And if all else fails, at least I know I’m supporting my loved one and enabling their fun. (Which is why I do accompany Ty to the races every now and then.)

Challenging fun

Learning something new, achieving a goal and challenging myself (à la launching this blog) is also fun. Did you know: scientists have identified that the perception of novelty causes the brain to release dopamine, a chemical which stimulates the amygdala, the site of emotion. It creates a pleasurable feeling which is then associated with the new information/activity.[1] So, while new and challenging activities require effort and perseverance, we enjoy the experience or view it as fun and perceive time passing quickly.[2][3] Hence the adage, “Time flies when you’re having fun”

Relaxing fun

But I’ve realised fun doesn’t always have to involve action, effort and energy. Some of my favourite things to do are what you might call relaxing pursuits or food for the soul. Walking the dog, sitting in the sun and letting my mind wander, reading a book, listening to music or a podcast, watching a movie or play, enjoying a coffee or glass of wine with a friend, stimulating conversation, an afternoon nap. They are tranquil and effortless, yet rejuvenating and uplifting. And I’m now comfortable describing them as fun … for me. Yes! The word is definitely back in my vocabulary.

Living authentically

What it all boils down to is this:

Fun moves in mysterious ways. Our experience of it is unique. Identifying and embracing our own idea of fun is a step away from conformity and people-pleasing towards our true self and an authentic life. Yes – it involves some experimentation, some sacrifice, some compromise, but our thoughts, feelings and body sensations are the litmus tests. If we notice these and honour them, they’ll guide us down the yellow brick road to our own Land of Fun. And if all else fails, wikiHow might help.

For me, fun is simply relishing a moment in time, being happy with where I’m at and what I’m doing, with no thought of somewhere or something else. It feels empowering, fulfilling and right.

What’s fun for you?

* not his real name

References:

[1] Sprenger, Marilee B. (2009). The Leadership Brain For Dummies. John Wiley & Sons. p. 50.

[2] Sackett, A.; Meyvis, T.; Nelson, L.; Converse, B.; Sackett, A. (2010). “You’re having fun when time flies: the hedonic consequences of subjective time progression”. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 21(1): 111–117. 

[3] Glynn, Sarah (August 2012). “Why Time Flies When You’re Having Fun”. Medical News Today. Retrieved 2013-02-06. Just being content or satisfied may not make time fly, but being excited or actively pursuing a desired object can.

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