Want to learn how to be happier? Science says fun is the key

Turns out, play and joy are seriously important for health, happiness and longevity.
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If you’re wondering how to be happy (and who isn’t?) the answer could be as simple as finding time for fun.

One of the first pieces of advice Dr Mike Rucker gives in his book about fun is to throw away your iron. Ironing, he says, is “agonising”. It’s a needless, thankless task that monopolises time that could be better spent enjoying exuberant, uplifting fun. Play is good for your body, mind and soul. Ironing offers none of that. “Unless you’re in a handful of fields that demand starch, you could probably throw out your iron and nobody would notice,” the organisational psychologist writes in The Fun Habit.

As far as self-help messages go, it’s an easy one to obey. But that makes it no less important. For Dr Rucker, fun is serious business. Basically, we’ve forgotten how to be happy.

He believes we are in an epidemic of drudgery that is not only sapping our vitality but destroying our mental and physical health. “We live in a world which is critically fun starved,” he tells me over the phone from his Californian home. “We’re conditioned, as we age, to believe that trying to have fun is childish, even inappropriate. We undervalue the mental and physical benefits of fun. There’s emerging research that’s making the case that leisure and fun are as vital as sleep,” he continues. “There’s the need for rest and then there’s the need for restoration.” We know, intuitively, that enjoying ourselves reduces stress but it goes far deeper than that. When we do something spontaneous, surprising or unexpected, we create special moments. “When we’re indexing those memories, it creates neuro-plasticity,” Dr Rucker says. Fun is good for our brains.

“We live in a world which is critically fun starved.

Dr Mike Rucker

For some time now, headlines have been heralding cultural shifts like the great resignation and quiet quitting. Million-dollar industries have sprung up to teach us how to rest, how to feel pleasure, pamper ourselves, connect and sleep. Dr Rucker says the antidote to this malaise (or part of it) is remembering to embrace and value play. Ironically, joy and silliness have become things we have to build into our routines.

A happy couple dancing together

Have we forgotten how to be happy?

Dr Rucker and I laugh as we discuss the fact that the preparation for this story on fun required me to complete a quiz, read a scatter graph, perform an audit of my calendar and become acquainted with his “PLAY quadrant”. I tell him none of these words thrill me or are close to what I consider fun. Dr Mike chuckles and explains he felt it was important to show that everything he is saying about fun is evidence based. He understood that, in order to convince modern, Western workaholics they needed more whimsy in their lives, he’d need to back up his argument with hard data.

“Anyone who was brought up in a meritocracy, where upward mobility is seen as the number one way of achieving success and improving one’s status in life, believes if we’re somehow not moving towards that goalpost, then we’re not going to be rewarded for our effort and talent,” Dr Rucker explains. His research has shown that’s simply not true.
After our interview, he and his young daughter are going to cook together, which is an activity they both enjoy. It really can be as simple as that. We just have to get into the habit of having fun.

The myth of work/life balance

Elise Loehnen was at the top of her field in a glamorous, high-powered job. She was healthy, stylish and well-read. With two beautiful sons and a wonderful husband, she appeared to have it all. Amidst all this, however, she thought she was going to die. In late 2019, Elise hyperventilated for a full month. “The first time it happened, I went to the emergency room thinking I had hours to live,” she writes. She told her therapist she felt like she was suffocating. “Like I’ve been buried alive.”
Elise stepped down from her job and took a sabbatical to write a book. In the resulting manifesto, On Our Best Behaviour, she unpicks how women, in particular, have become enslaved by a culture that expects us to be all things to all people. Where achieving is prioritised over pleasure and leisure, feeling good comes coupled with guilt, and living her life in pursuit of perfection left Elise literally gasping for breath.

She has observed that women seem “compelled to demonstrate [our] value compulsively … My mum did not know how to play.” To unwind, she “escaped into dishes and public radio,” Elise writes. Ironically, the job that was sucking the life out of Elise, was at pleasure hub, Goop. Inside Goop’s lofty Santa Monica workspace, with its heated terrace furniture, the wellness megabrand was no different to any other company whose workers’ smart phones trill with emails on Sundays. Elise never mentions her employer. She knows this is not a Goop problem, it’s a cultural problem. “To the [16th century] Puritans, success defined not just our self-worth but our spiritual worthiness,” Dr Rucker writes. Modern Western society is also hard-wired to see hard work as a virtue. We deify busyness, the hustler and the multi-tasker at the expense of our health.

A content older couple enjoying a walk on the beach

The three things killing your happiness

The first is that families have changed. The rise of the “sandwich generation” is a well-documented phenomenon. “You have young kids and then also aging parents that you have to take care of, so we’re more time poor than we’ve ever been,” Dr Rucker says.
Second, work has changed. “As late as the ‘50s and ‘60s, we knew when the workday was done. If we worked harder, it generally meant that we could leave a little earlier,” Mike says. The rise of creative, non-linear knowledge work has blurred the workday finish line. “Anxious to earn our keep, we find ourselves always ‘on’,” Dr Rucker says. This is particularly acute for women who feel more obliged to “prove” themselves, Elise writes.

Thirdly, the devices we use to do our jobs are eating away our leisure time. “Things like Gmail and Slack were developed by the same engineers that made Facebook and Twitter interesting, engaging apps,” Dr Ruckers says. They were built to keep our attention.
These shifts have been hardest on women. As women have added more professional obligations to their domestic obligations, men have not added domestic obligations to their professional obligations at the same pace.
“While dads are arguably more involved at home than they were a generation or two ago, their new (extra-credit) contributions do not match the level of output in both spheres required of women,” Elise writes.
Mike adds that women feel “mission driven” when it comes to taking care of others. “There is this sense of guilt … that somehow if I’m taking time for self-care, I’m circumventing this desire to take care of the folks that I love.” He emphasises: “It’s important that you can take some time for self-care so that you can show up.”
Mike acknowledges this is easier said than done, but says this is why we must start looking for fun in the everyday.

How can fun help you find happiness?

Having fun does not have to be paragliding in the Bahamas. Fun can be gardening. Fun can be painting your cat’s portrait. It can be as simple as reading a book or baking some jam-filled biscuits with your child or grandchild.
“All fun is, is finding pleasure in the things that you’re doing,” Dr Rucker says. “[It’s] universal. What’s not universal is the type of arousal we like. My wife finds as much fun reading a book poolside as I would at a Rage Against the Machine concert.”
He adds that marketers have made fun feel out of reach.

“So many people who like low-arousal activity will think ‘I guess I’m just not that fun’ because what’s been sold to them is that ‘fun’ means you’re on the beach with a bunch of people drinking. That’s unfortunate because that can bleed into your identity and then you stop looking for things. Guilt can be such a terrible anchor.”
He has created a helpful tool to assess how we’re spending our time, and where we can find room to increase the fun. Every task and activity we perform can be categorised as: Pleasing (P), Living (L), Agonising (A) or Yielding (Y). This is what he calls the PLAY quadrant.
Pleasing tasks are low-effort, high-pleasure. This could be knitting while listening to music, getting a manicure with a girlfriend or flipping through a magazine with a hot chocolate (or mimosa – fun is a matter of personal preference). Living tasks are high-effort, high-pleasure, like surfing, swing-dancing, ice-skating or whatever it is you do in your life that you find challenging and rewarding. Agonizing tasks are hard tasks that are low-reward and are generally obligatory, work-related or administrative, like paying bills. Yielding tasks are low effort, low reward, like scrolling Facebook while slumped on the couch. Pleasing and living tasks refill your “fun cup”, agonizing tasks empty it. Yielding tasks offer nothing.
“For some people, most or all of their leisure time is spent yielding,” Dr Rucker says. Yielding is something we tend to do when we have no energy.

“All fun is, is finding pleasure in the things that you’re doing.”

Dr Mike Rucker

“But when we’re feeling good about our lives, we have this open playground to explore … and we are a lot more apt to take on things that are more interesting because we’re not so depleted.”

Cut-out the fun-killers

It is easier to eliminate than to add, so Dr Rucker suggests we start by examining our “agonizing” tasks and culling them. Remember when he told us to get rid of our irons? What else can we cut out of our lives? The goal is to maximise time spent in the living and pleasing quadrants, while minimizing time spent yielding and agonizing. Within reason. Fixing our fun deficit requires us to unwind centuries of deeply ingrained values. Some countries in Europe have created laws that force people to unplug and protect their leisure time. In 2015, France enacted Right to Disconnect legislation “with a view to ensuring respect for rest periods and leave, as well as personal and family life.” Other counties have followed suit. But change is slow.
“Entrenched social norms are hard to uproot, so it’s going to take time,” Dr Rucker says.
There is, however, one sure-fire way to get a better pleasure balance, and that is other people.

Friends laughing and enjoying coffee

Fun keeps us together

In 1938, a group of Harvard researchers set out to measure what makes for a happy and fulfilled life, so they began tracking the experiences of two groups of men. The first were Harvard sophomores, the second were boys from the poorest neighbourhood of Boston. The 85-year study’s current director (its fourth), Robert Waldinger, became an internet superstar after he gave a Ted talk detailing the findings in 2015.
“Some climbed the social ladder from the bottom all the way to the very top and some made the journey in the other direction,” he said of the study’s 724 men. One participant, named John Fitzgerald Kennedy, became a US President. From the lives of the participants, tracked over nearly eight decades, the Harvard researchers reached one simple conclusion. Companionship is crucial.

“The people who turn out to be the happiest and the healthiest are those who have good, warm connections with others,” Dr Waldinger said in 2022.
Fun, Dr Rucker says, is the glue that holds friendships and relationships together, which is why it is essential to make it a priority.
“When we feel connected to others, not only do we feel good, we feel more secure. We often feel that our problems are small because we know that we’re part of a bigger system.”
Fun with friends (and family) also releases oxytocin, builds empathy and helps us feel more content. Building community provides us with solace, support, security, someone to share our joy with.
“Happiness is a state of mind, but fun is something you do,” Dr Rucker says. “Peak moments of fun are fleeting.” But reminiscing and sharing those memories with others allows them to last longer.

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