Sunday, November 8, 2009

In Defense of Fun

Before we begin

Before you begin reading this post, grab a pen and paper and quickly jot down twenty things you do for fun. The order isn’t important. I’m not talking about things that are necessarily good for you or make you a better person, or that eventually lead to success or overall life satisfaction; just things you enjoy doing. You know, fun.

Done? Okay, great. Now, look at this photo of my daughter:

You know why Lindsay is so happy in this picture? It’s because she’s just been chasing pigeons, one of her favorite fun things to do.

Of all the people you see, does it ever seem like the children are the only ones having any fun? Whatever your answer, I think we can all agree that kids are instinctively good at this. Adults are much less so, and yet we were all kids once. Perhaps as we grow and mature and take on responsibility we just lose the knack. In this blog I will look at the things we can learn from children about having fun.

So, this will be a kind of didactic blog—but I’ll try not to come off like a motivational speaker. I’ve seen a few of these, and they can actually be a real downer. I think their main problem is they try to inspire you to be successful, as a way to increase your happiness. This has two problems:

  • First, I don’t believe success can be taught—you either have it in you or you don’t. If I knew how to be hugely successful, I’d be off doing it instead of sitting here blogging.
  • Second, I don’t believe happiness, or even satisfaction, comes directly from success. As far as I can tell, the most successful people tend to be the opposite of satisfied. The highest achievement invariably goes to the insatiable types. Look at Lance Armstrong: how many Tours de France does he need to win before he’s satisfied? It’s a rhetorical question, with no answer. Show me a world-beater, and I’ll show you infinite hunger and ambition.

So don’t think of this as the blog equivalent of a Motivational Speech. Think of it as more of a Mollificational Speech: without addressing your success, or lack thereof, I’m going to try to recommend a few tips on how to have more fun, which might just help a bit with the pleasure side of the happiness equation.

What children can teach us

I’ve watched for years, sometimes enviously, as my kids have played, frolicked, goofed off, and otherwise perfected the art of having fun. I’ve also done some very close reading of the available literature on the subject, namely Russell Hoban’s How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen.

In this excellent book, the (inevitably) parentless Tom’s very serious and strict aunt, Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, disapproves of all his goofing off and hires Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen to teach Tom a lesson. The captain and his sportsmen play their hearts out, like children, in various contests against Tom, and though they lose every event, Captain Najork gets the girl (Wonkham-Strong) in the end. I have to think any adult reader would rather be Najork than Wonkham-Strong; he’s clearly having more fun, whereas she’s a humorless scold. And yet, most grown-ups I know (or at least more parents) remind me more of her.

In case you don’t have time to read Hoban’s book, and don’t have kids of your own to watch, here are the main ways I’ve noticed that kids manage to have fun so much of the time:

  • They eschew dignity almost entirely;
  • They find the fun in almost any circumstance by living in the moment, managing to almost never be preoccupied by anything;
  • They continually cultivate new ways to have fun;
  • They routinely, automatically defend their right to do fun things like playing and goofing off.

Eschewing dignity

Kids do all kinds of fun stuff we wouldn’t be caught dead doing, and they don’t think twice about it. On a recent trip to the beach, my wife and I hadn’t brought bathing suits because we didn’t think it’d be warm enough. Within thirty seconds Lindsay had stripped down to her underwear and was running in the waves. (A typical adult, meanwhile, can’t even buy a bathing suit without fretting over which one is the least unflattering.) Obviously we adults can’t run around in our underwear, but there are plenty of other things many of us could do but don’t, like dancing around to music (or to no music), singing, popping bubble-wrap, stomping in puddles, balancing on one foot on an accelerating train, and chasing pigeons. Why don’t we do it?

Well, some of us do, at least some of the time. Myself, I use my kids themselves as an excuse to do such things. For example, if Alexa or Lindsay asks where I’m going as I head off to work, I immediately launch into rap (Kool Moe Dee’s “I Go to Work”). My kids either roll their eyes, tell me to stop, or join in. Or, when letting our home phone go to voice-mail, I lead my kids in a happy dance to the musical ringtone. At playgrounds, I’ve been known to accompany one of my daughters on the slide. Of course, I recognize all this as abnormal grown-up behavior.

You could say I’m a goofball; I prefer to think of myself as just highly evolved. After all, my own dad is too dignified to sing or dance or even to wear casual clothing like t-shirts or jeans. Myself, I think dignity is overrated, and I’m sure most children would agree. I ask you again: who’s having more fun, them or us?

Living in the Moment

I’ve been amazed to watch Lindsay playing with toys in a hospital waiting room before a surgery, while her mom and I are sweating bullets. The first time, Lindsay’s waiting room play could be chalked up to lack of awareness of what lay ahead, but thereafter it was pure compartmentalization, an ability to enjoy the toys while she could. Of course no parent could ever relax at a time like that, but Lindsay’s example is still worth noting.

In short, kids are practically impervious to preoccupation; any and every moment is an opportunity to explore, play, and have fun. Their immediate environment, whatever and wherever it may be, is like a playground. Reality is routinely thrown off in favor of fantasy. In stark contrast, adults can be so preoccupied by the MegaCorp proposal, guilt over climate change, or awareness of the property tax being due that we fail to enjoy a hike, a restaurant meal, or a train trip.

Cultivating Fun

Kids are always figuring out ways to cultivate new fun. When I asked Alexa to write down twenty fun things, number one on her list was “go to Noary meatings.” She looked up slyly, a twinkle in her eye, and said, “Of course you don’t know what those are.” She’s right, I have no idea. Probably some totally new fantasy game she just pioneered with Lindsay. Such things are of course routine. A couple years back, she came across some post-it pads and set about creating “Lost pig” signs, which she posted all over the neighborhood.

A novel object placed in my kids’ midst is put almost immediately into service and runs the risk of becoming their toy, regardless of its original purpose. When I was doing physical therapy last year, the first step was always finding my elastic bands, which the kids used in a hundred different ways, combined with stuffed animals or toys in increasingly odd ways. And earlier today I was puzzling over these paper cutouts of—what? Keyholes? Fish?—that are numbered and taped up around the house. 1st and 3rd are on the fireplace; 2nd is on the piano. I’m sure there’s a whole story behind these, and I look forward to hearing it.

Adults, on the other hand, when they’re not working, are either busy with official business, enriching themselves somehow, reading, staring at a PC, or just being bored. Or, they’re taking routine steps to forestall boredom, like having the TV on, or playing Brickbreaker on their smartphones. Are these activities really that fun? (Did they make your list?) With so little creativity involved in our daily activities, it’s no wonder we can tend to get jaded.

Defending fun

Any parent must deal, on a daily basis, with the trial of trying to get a kid out the door who is too busy playing to pay any attention to the matter at hand. You’re trying to get them ready for bed and they’re running all over the house, tearing off their pajamas, etc. To kids, fun is not something you get to once you’ve carried out all your responsibilities; it’s the number one priority. When this right is questioned, the parent is either ignored or directly challenged.

When my kids are (finally) ready for bed, I usually give them five final minutes of play time. They invariably try to negotiate for more. Recently, Lindsay begged for five extra minutes. “I didn’t get to play!” she cried. “But Lindsay, you’ve been playing with that doll this whole time,” I reasoned. “That wasn’t play!” she retorted. “I was trying to put her pants on!”

Certainly I’m not arguing that adults should behave like children. But to see kids defending their right to have fun is kind of inspirational to me. Without their constant exploration and experimentation, I’m sure they wouldn’t learn so quickly. Are we right to bury our fun under other priorities?

Of course this isn’t an exhaustive analysis—there are surely other ways we adults spoil the fun we could be having. (Being overly competitive and/or too goal-oriented are two examples that come to mind.) But the biggest problem, I think, is that we just aren’t having enough fun. And that’s where the list comes in.

How the list can help

Okay, now it’s time to dig out your list. Right off the bat, let’s make sure you managed to come up with twenty items. If not, why not? Perhaps it was a failure of imagination, in which case, no worries—it happens. But if you really racked your brain and just couldn’t think of twenty things you do that are fun, maybe it’s time to reevaluate the balance of activities in your life.

Did “work” make your list? It didn’t make mine, primarily because although my work is often fun, I wouldn’t say it’s always or even usually fun. To be completely frank, I don’t do it for fun. I do it for a living, like most people. (I know exactly one person who seems to enjoy every minute of his work.)

(I feel the need to point out here that some people work huge amounts, at the expense of their life balance, pleasure, and possibly happiness, because they’re doing very important work, like seeking vaccines for terrible diseases, growing the state of the art in some critical technology, furthering the great body of human knowledge, writing great works, or saving lives. I am glad these people exist, and if you’re one of them, please stop reading this and get back to work! But for the rest of us, let’s put work in its place.)

At a minimum, your list can be a wake-up call if you’re not getting enough fun in your life. Beyond that, perhaps you’ll make more of an effort to make time for these activities, now that you’ve officially identified them as things you enjoy.

My list

I wrote up this list about two years ago, at the suggestion of my very wise wife, Erin. She didn’t have any particular strategy in mind regarding our lists; I think the idea was to keep it as a reminder to have fun. I haven’t actually consulted my list all that often, but occasionally I do, and I’ll admit to moments of great distress when I feared I’d lost it. I present it here as an aid to the rest of my discussion. (Click picture to enlarge.)

Happily, this isn’t a list of pipe dreams; I actually do most of these fun things on a regular basis. Two items do pop out as things I don’t do so often: #15, camping, and #20, sitting in backyard. Since I made this list, I’ve managed to spend a bit more time in the backyard, lounging in the sun with a magazine and a beer and the cat on my lap.

Analyzing the list

Beyond simple awareness of the fun you could be having, your list provides an opportunity to see how well your fun can be aligned with the rest of your life. I suggest categorizing your activities as follows:

  • Incidental – this activity can be sneaked in among other humdrum activities
  • Solitude – logistically uncomplicated, but takes you away from your family and friends
  • Other people – this activity requires the participation of others, presenting a specific logistical challenge to its frequency
  • Buy-in challenge – the activity is so frivolous and/or time-intensive you and/or your spouse has trouble buying into it
  • Expensive – the frequency of this activity may be limited due to its cost
  • Logistical challenge – this category comprises all other logistical challenges

Here is a breakdown of my fun list based on these categories. (You may want to open my fun list in another browser window for reference.)

I’ve arranged the columns in order from least to most feasible. Looking at this chart, I’m pleased to see that there’s a greater concentration of activities on the right side of the chart (feasible) than the left (less feasible).

I think in general it’s good if your activities are well represented throughout the chart. With some activities (e.g., camping), the logistical challenge is what makes it fun. Meanwhile, if an activity requires the buy-in of your spouse/other, it may feel more special (e.g., Erin’s pedicures or ladies’ nights). Expensive activities have their place—sometimes there’s no substitute for spending some money. And depending on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you ought to have more or less balance in other people vs. solitude. On the far right of the chart, incidental fun is pretty easy to get, though this fun comes in micro-doses.

What if your list looks nothing like this? What if your activities are over-represented in some categories, while other columns are totally blank? Well, if you’re satisfied with the amount of fun in your life anyway, great! In fact, I’d like to see what your list looks like. I’m a student of all this myself, with only two lists to look at (mine and Alexa’s), so I welcome any input.

Not enough fun?

But what if your list is too short, or comprises only your good intentions, or is otherwise completely whacked? What if you crave more fun in your life? Maybe analyzing your list can help. Let’s go through the categories of fun and examine how they might fit in the overall puzzle.

Logistical challenge:

If you have a lot of items in this category, but have a complicated life with lots of moving parts and/or don’t enjoy planning and organizing, maybe you should devote more energy to enjoying, or cultivating, simpler pleasures. Or if you enjoy complex activities but seldom manage to do them, maybe you could figure out simpler versions. For example, if you love backpacking, but have young children and/or a bad back, maybe car camping is a good compromise.

Buy-in challenge:

If something is fun, why wouldn’t we automatically buy into it? In my case, it’s generally because the activity either seems to take a lot longer than it should (e.g., working on my bike, or blogging—which in my list above is represented by #6, “personal e-mail,” which it has morphed into), or just seems pointless (e.g. #11, by definition). In some cases the buy-in needs to come from your spouse/other; if he or she is feeling overworked, your doing routine eight-hour bike rides probably wouldn’t strike the right balance between your right to have fun and your responsibility to your family.

So what is to be done? Here’s where multi-tasking comes in. Now, before you get on your high-horse about the evils of multi-tasking, let me be the first to acknowledge that if you try to do two difficult things at once—say, drive and talk on the phone—you’ll probably do neither well. But if at least one of the things is brainless—say, washing dishes—it’s perfect for multi-tasking. So when I have a BS pointless phone conversation with a friend, I often do dishes while I talk. Then I don’t even have to wonder if I’m consuming Erin’s goodwill. Or, when I want to work on my bike, I enlist support from a daughter or two, and suddenly my selfish activity becomes Child Care and Quality Time. VoilĂ !

Another way to use multi-tasking to maximum advantage is to layer fun activities on top of one another. For example, item #2 on my list, cycling (which isn’t actually much of a logistical or buy-in challenge because I do it so early in the morning), can be combined with item #11, BS pointless conversations, if I do a group ride. Or if I ride by myself, my ride can be combined with #6, blogging, because I can work out my ideas as I pedal up hills. (This blog post took about three rides.)

Meanwhile, as our children so effectively demonstrate, sometimes buy-in is simply a matter of defending our right to have fun. If an item is on your fun list, and really adds a lot to your general happiness, it’s worth building a case for with yourself and with your spouse/other. Referring once again to my cycling example, I’ve focused a lot of energy justifying the time and energy this takes. I’ve explained to Erin—and often remind myself—that cycling is my stress release, my shrink, my spa, and my social club all in one.

Of course there are other possible buy-in challenges. For example, if “looking at unclean imagines on the web” is on your list, or “chatting with strangers online while ignoring my family,” you probably don’t deserve buy-in.

Expense

I think this would only be a problem if a) the majority of activities on your list fall into this category, or b) you don’t have much money. Perhaps it’s worth pointing out here that spending money on fun could be considered an investment in your mental health. (For example, my fun-related cost centers—dining and camping—are a lot cheaper than counseling.)

Other people vs. Solitude

Activities that require other people can be difficult logistically, but are crucial to our well being. Solitude, meanwhile, can be tough for working stiffs and parents; we spend so much time working or chasing after our kids, we don’t have much time for ourselves. A balance between these two categories is, I think, really important.

Incidental

Perhaps here is where the children have the most to teach us, because the vast majority of their fun is incidental. In other words, as much fun stuff as we try to arrange for them, it’s eclipsed by the sheer amount of screwing off they manage to fit in the rest of the time.

Obviously, we adults will have a harder time finding the fun in random situations. For kids, everything is new and exciting. As I sit writing this, there is a giant tub of holiday ornaments sitting in the middle of the floor behind me as Erin prepares for a birthday party. I see a mess, but Lindsay is enchanted. She’s pretending a bouquet of fake flowers is a tornado. And this tornado talks, in a little high-pitched voice, I have just observed. I can’t compete with that. But I do okay.

Consider item #3 on my list: crushing leaves. Make fun of me if you want—I just love this activity. This is the perfect time of year for it: the sidewalk and street are littered with leaves and on a warm afternoon they’re perfectly crisp and ready for crunching. The sound is almost identical to a cat eating a potato chip, which I’ve been privileged enough to witness. The wind blows the leaves into big piles I can ride through on my bike. I can even feel the crunching, as light as it is. My kids and I dance all over the sidewalk, vying for the perfect leaf. The kids fight occasionally, like two surfers claiming the same wave. Then there is a kind of larger leaf that isn’t crunchable, but rattles along the sidewalk when kicked, like a big weird crustacean.

If you can’t enjoy random, incidental acts like crushing leaves, perhaps it’s because you’re just too preoccupied. If you’re out and about in autumn, turn off the NPR or Fox News in your head, stop thinking about work, quit checking your watch every minute, and do as the kids do: enjoy your surroundings.

It also helps to be realistic about what activities you can and can’t mix. I had an epiphany about this a couple years ago while watching one of my kids. I was trying to read, and my daughter kept interrupting me. This became more and more frustrating, until I was on the verge of yelling at her to go away. Then I took a step back and looked at my situation: I wasn’t getting any reading done, I was angry, she was frustrated—in short, neither of us was having any fun.

Once I gave up on the idea of reading and focused on the world I was in, instead of the (albeit legitimate) world in my book, everything was great. My daughter’s spirits improved, and mine followed; really, I’d just exchanged a temporarily unattainable pleasure for a simple one. Since then, I’ve become more realistic about which activities are compatible with child-watching (2-5, 7-10, 12-21) and which are not (1, 6, and 11). Multi-tasking is fine; you just have to combine your activities wisely. (By riding my kids to school on my bike and running over leaves in the process, I can hit the trifecta—#2, #3, and #4!)

Cultivating incidental fun can help you replace drudgery with modest pleasures. For example, as an adult I’m not exactly wild about kid-oriented amusement parks like Gilroy Gardens. If I didn’t have kids, I certainly wouldn’t go. But we went as a family in August and I had found ways to enjoy myself. We went to a great taqueria for brunch beforehand (#12); I resisted the urge to be preoccupied by work worries and instead focused on my kids’ delight (#4); I took loads of photos (#7); and I did some people-watching (#21). Maybe it wasn’t as fun as a kid-free night out, walking (#17) to Lalime’s with Erin to meet friends, crushing leaves along the way (#3), having a great meal (#12) and some Belgian beer (#10) , and enjoying conversation that varied from pointless (#11) to deep (#19), but I did come away from Gilroy Gardens with the satisfaction of showing my kids a good time (“swing on Mushroom ride at gilroy gardens” being item #4 on Alexa’s list).

So, next time you’re running late in rush hour traffic, stuck at a long red light: instead of just fuming and willing the light to change, try to relax and enjoy some people-watching. The traffic crossing in front of you is like a great random menagerie. That driver looks like Mr. Potato Head. That one seems really stressed. That on is picking her nose. And look at that one, singing along with her car stereo and swaying to the beat—she looks like she might actually be having some fun.

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