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The 3 ingredients for fun: an expert's formula for experiencing genuine delight

People take part in the annual International Pillow Fight Day in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 2018.
Robin Utrecht
AFP via Getty Images
People take part in the annual International Pillow Fight Day in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 2018.

Search "how to have fun" on Google and literally billions of search results come up. People pay hundreds of dollars to hire party coaches and play coaches. There are seminars and workshops on how to have fun in life.

What's so hard about having fun?

Packed schedules and the pressure to succeed discourage people from taking a step back and unwinding. For some of us, the guilt of not being productive makes fun, well, not fun.

"Everyone is so busy but yet unfulfilled," Catherine Price, the author of The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again, told NPR.

With a background as a science journalist, Price sought to parse out the ingredients for "true fun," as she calls it. Her answer is the overlapping states of playfulness, connection and flow.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Andrew Limbong: Can you define some terms here: What is "fun"?

Catherine Price: So what I found is that the dictionary definition doesn't match the lived experience when people have fun. So I decided to try to come up with a better definition of what fun is. And the definition I came up with is that fun — or "true fun," as I call it — is the combination of three states: playfulness, connection and flow. And when those three states are together, like the center of the Venn diagram, that is the feeling of fun.

Playfulness does not mean you have to play games. A lot of adults get very nervous when you use the word "playfulness," so I like to say you don't have to necessarily be silly or childish. It's really just more about having a lighthearted attitude towards life and towards yourself.

Connection refers to this feeling of having a special shared experience with other people. And then flow is active and engaged. And really importantly, flow requires you to be present. So if you're distracted at all, you can't be in flow and you can't have fun.

Limbong: People are hiring a party coach or a fun coach. And on the one hand, I can see people like myself rolling their eyes at this, you know? But on the other hand, I don't know if it's something akin to a physical trainer, someone to just help you along. I want to get your take on why these jobs exist and how have we commodified the business of fun.

Price: I think that the reason that there's a market for such things is that there's a genuine problem, which is that we're not feeling connection or playfulness or flow that often. Things feel very serious. We are very lonely and isolated. And we're very distracted. Everyone is so busy but yet unfulfilled. So I think that the market does speak to this genuine longing that we have for something more.

On the flip side, I don't think it's necessary to do that. I think that there are steps each of us can take and reflections we can engage in that can fill our lives with more everyday moments of fun without having to spend money. I mean, I literally have thousands of stories from people around the world about fun, and it's fascinating to notice how few of those involve people spending money or even going anywhere. I think those are two misperceptions we have about fun: that it costs money and that you have to be outside of your everyday life for it to occur.

Children play in the snow in Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight, off England's southern coast, in 1940.
George W. Hales / Getty Images
Getty Images
Children play in the snow in Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight, off England's southern coast, in 1940.

Limbong: But I wonder, then, how much social media plays into this, right? Because I know when I play with my nieces and nephew, my sister then always gets out her camera. Then we've got to pose in the leaves or whatever, and she has to post on the 'gram. It's like, well, we were just having fun. (Shout-out to my sister: I hope you're listening. I love you!) But what does social media do with our perception and our concept of having fun?

Price: I think it's really messed us up because one of the requirements for fun is that you be completely present and that your inner critic is silent. And if you're performing, then you're not fully present and you probably have your inner critic on in some capacity. That kills fun. Fun is very fragile. It's like a sensitive flower.

Limbong: So I'm going to come to you hat in hand. If I want to start having more fun today, where do I start?

Price: I would suggest that you think back on moments from your own life that stand out to you as having been fun and notice what themes emerge, because these are things that you should prioritize. I'd also say, though, to really play around with the idea of how could you build more playfulness, connection and flow into your everyday life. You know, how could you be more present? How could you reduce distractions? One suggestion I always give for playfulness in particular that I love is to try to be playfully rebellious — do things that kind of break the rules of adult life a little bit — not in the way of getting you arrested, but just something that delights you. Like, do stuff that delights you, and create delight for other people.

The last suggestion is prioritize it. That's the most important thing: Take fun seriously. Play around with it, and just notice the difference in your mood. We should be having more fun. The world would be a better place if we had more fun.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Jeanette Woods