Why You Should Be Seeking Fun, Not "Happiness"
As Mike Rucker, author of The Fun Habit, explains, building more fun into your life has serious benefits — and is a better thing to chase than “happiness.”
Positive psychology holds a certain appeal. It’s about well-being and happiness, not thinking negatively. What’s not to like? The suggestions of what to do have been said so often that they’re easy to rattle off. Show gratitude. Find your passion. Create social networks. They might sound simple, but the stuff can work.
Until it can’t.
That’s what Mike Rucker, PhD, found out. He’s a behavioral scientist and charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association. His work was all about happiness, but in 2006, his younger brother died and he found out he was going to need a hip replacement. At 44 years old, he was no longer a sibling or endurance athlete, and the happiness tools weren’t helping him deal with the negative emotions.
“I wanted to find out what could be done differently,” he says.
The answer, he found out, lay in the pursuit of fun, not happiness. Seeking fun is far more actionable. It’s also introspective and ruminating. Fun doesn’t require people to feel anything or see three daily examples of gratitude if they don’t want to. With fun, people have autonomy. If they don’t like a situation or a group of people? They can change it.
As good as it sounds, not everyone makes time for fun because they don’t think they have that control. Or they’re shackled by the idea that adulthood most be all seriousness all the time. Rucker’s work led him to write The Fun Habit: How The Pursuit of Joy and Wonder Can Change Your Life, an actionable guide that examines fun, explores why it’s worth seeking out, and lays out why it’s a better goal than the often nebulous concept of “happiness”. Going without enough fun, Rucker notes, can be like going without enough sleep. Pretty soon the people around you will notice a difference.
Fatherly spoke to Rucker about fun versus happiness, the key to carving out more fun, and what still trips people up about actively incorporating it into their lives.
So. Why fun?
We know that we’re the best versions of ourselves if we’re at least taking a little bit of time, even if that’s just two or three hours a week. Folks that are able to reconnect with something that isn’t necessarily in the service of others, it allows them to show up the other 95 percent of time so they’re better fathers, better partners.
Why is it so hard for some people to take time for fun?
Social norms place a high value on success, which has many people prioritize work and productivity over fun. Another reason is cultural conditioning, especially in males, who are often taught from a young age that they need to be strong, competitive, and driven, which can reinforce the belief that productivity is the key to success and self-worth.
How does that change?
A good start is to acquire an understanding that fun is a key component of our well-being. In the 1990s, this same desperate corrective was needed regarding sleep. Back then, we wore sleep deprivation as a badge of honor. Now, through self-education, we know how asinine celebrating a lack of sleep was.
How does someone get to that point?
A lot of people have initial resistance. ‘Well, you know, my week is always going to be different.’ Generally, at least 60 to 80 percent of it is the same. So where are the opportunities to take things away? Because the last thing you want is to make ‘having fun’ another thing on your to-do list.
If you look at a week being 168 hours, even if you’re working 65 hours a week, you still have 103. Even when you tack on 60 plus-or-minus hours for sleep, that still means you have a lot of time left.
As a parent, you might have had fun at one time, but you forget what it is. How do you figure out exactly what to do?
Take time to write down what used to light you up. For some people, it’s going to be hobbies. A lot of it is, ‘Hey, I haven’t seen these friends.’ You can ask people for recommendations. You want to think about your personality. If you’re outgoing, you want more social stuff. If you’re introverted, more solitary activities. But you’ll also see that some things aren’t going to be realistic anymore.
How do you deal with that aspect of it, that you might not be able to be good at something you loved?
I think that’s why pickleball is taking off. Because it’s not so outcome-focused and folks are just enjoying the time they have with other people. With competitive athletes, sometimes you need to grieve that what you liked is not going to be enjoyable going forward, and you need to try something else. Or you figure out if there’s any way to reengineer this activity so that you actually enjoy doing it.
Taking time for fun can make people feel really guilty.
Guilt is a big one for both men and women, but remember we’re talking about two to three hours out of 168. And the benefit is being a better person. When you’re so burnt out, those emotions get passed down to the people around you. And what you see in the family unit is everyone is just kind of pissed, right? If you’re having fun, slowly but surely, you’re creating this upward spiral rather than the downside.
If you’re skeptical, just try it for two to three weeks. A sleep deficit will kind of sink you over time where you’re like, ‘I can go a couple of weeks.’ Then the third or fourth week, you’re like, ‘What the fuck is happening to me?’ The same thing is true with joy. You’re not just doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for everyone around you, too.
Is there something else that fun encourages?
It’s clear from the science that it makes us seek out harder challenges and makes us more creative. When we engage in life in a playful way, we don’t think so linearly, because when we are burnt out, everything about life sucks. Let me just figure out how quickly can I get through this day.
When we’re engaging in prosocial behavior, that release of oxytocin makes us more empathetic. We’re kinder and think about how we can contribute as a group rather than really just worrying about our own survival.
What else is good to keep in mind?
It’s a long game to see the benefits. It’s over time that not having fun has an impact. Likewise, it’s over time that integrating fun back in has an impact.
This interview has been edited and condensed