It speaks to the scale of the challenge that, in the month that I set out to have more fun, my Christmas and new year plans are derailed by Covid; I am relieved of half my savings by a phone scammer; and a man I’m meeting for a first date suggests that maybe I am depressed.
I get my money back, and my date is a supply chain consultant, not a doctor – but fun certainly seems like a faraway prospect.
I have been tasked with testing out the advice in The Power of Fun, a new book by the science journalist Catherine Price. Fun, she argues, is not something that’s nice to have, but actually essential to a happy, healthy life – and it’s possible to have more of it, even during a pandemic.
I will admit that when Price and I first speak, the week before Christmas, I am sceptical. Omicron cases are surging, the official advice is to “deprioritise” socialising – and the sun goes down by 4pm. Meanwhile the back cover of Price’s book invites me to reflect: “When did you last feel exhilarated and lighthearted? When is the last time you felt fully alive?”
I cast my mind back, and back, and back, to what feels like a different period in history. Maybe I am depressed – or maybe it’s just the pandemic.
Simply living through the last two years is, for most of us, reason enough for an urgent “funtervention”, suggests Price.
I had been steeling myself for our interview, anticipating the A-grade Pollyanna who would have the gall to exhort “the power of fun” through a deadly pandemic – but she’s delightful company: warm, knowledgable and reassuringly down to earth.
She has been only too conscious of how her pitch might land, Price tells me over Skype. “The idea that ‘you should just have fun!’ – people are going to want to punch me in the face, you know?” She laughs.
“The message I am really trying to get across is that if we think more seriously about what fun is … it can help us through this. This is what we need to focus on, if we want to make it through this next phase of the pandemic with our sanity intact.”
Price points to the “broaden-and-build” theory of positive psychology that suggests positive emotions don’t just reflect resilience, wellbeing and health – they build it, helping us to endure future stress. Other research has suggested that, while some of our happiness is determined by our genes and circumstances – for example, living through a pandemic – as much as 40% may be in our control.
That’s not to say that it is easy to influence: if fun is hard to summon or define at the best of times, it is surely more elusive than ever now. But to Price, that is all the more reason to prioritise it.
There is an assumption that fun is effortless – “that your leisure time will just fill itself,” she says. “But unless you put effort into figuring out how you want to fill it, you risk having the feeling that Viktor Frankl described as ‘Sunday neurosis’ – when the void within yourself becomes manifest.”
Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote in 1946 about the existential despair that descends at the end of the busy week. I am very familiar with that void, I tell Price, though I know it as “the abyss”. Sometimes friends and I describe our state of mind in relation to it, as: “inching closer to” or “on the very edge of”.
I realise I am sounding depressed again but Price is sympathetic. “I’ve felt that through my life, but I’m happy to say that I don’t feel that so much now, and I really do think that’s a result of this project.”
The goal, she says, is not nonstop fun, or even outstanding fun: “We’re just trying to add lightness, to take some steps to feel energised and alive.” Let’s see, she adds, how far away from the abyss she can take me.
Finding your fun
I hit a hurdle more or less immediately. I struggle to articulate what, exactly, “fun” is. It’s not necessarily watching Netflix, as anyone who has been caught out by their slack-jawed reflection in the “Are you still watching?” screen knows. Nor is it board games, if you can’t stand competition; or musical instruments, if you’re contentedly tin-eared.
Everyone’s experience of fun – every experience of fun, even – is different, says Price. Many things that we ostensibly do “for fun” we may not even enjoy. She began her investigation into fun with her own experiences and those of her “Fun Squad”, a self-selecting global group of 1,500 people, recruited from Price’s mailing list.
Between her own “life-affirming” experience of group guitar lessons and her correspondents’ recollections – of pastimes as varied as playing fetch with their dog, squishing through mud and sleepovers in school – Price identified three factors of real, restorative fun: playfulness, connection and flow.
The confluence of the three she termed “true fun”: when we feel lighthearted, engaged with another person and absorbed by the activity. It’s possible to have fun if only one or two of the criteria are met, Price says – but highly unlikely if none are.
By evaluating our time through those filters, we can crystallise our personal definition of fun and make space for more of it in our lives. We might need to lower our expectations, Price suggests. “People tend to think: ‘Go on a vacation! Have a big party!’ – but these things have been out of reach.”
Aiming for the “true fun” trifecta presents “a way to think about the things that nourish us, and to figure out achievable things we can do, to make ourselves feel just a little bit more alive”.
On Price’s advice I start small, noticing how and when I experience playfulness, connection and flow in a day. What doesn’t feel fun that should? And when am I taken by surprise?
As I attune to my internal fun-meter, I find that I enjoy an hour of television, but see steeply reduced returns from there onwards – and the same goes for one to one-and-a-half glasses of wine. First dates can be fun, but wildly unpredictable. Twitter is hardly ever any fun at all.
I score the trifecta by video-calling my sister in New Zealand, a perfect example of what Price calls a “microdose” of fun, which can be easily slotted into busy schedules.
I’m struck by the fun I have making cannelloni: the minor challenge of a new recipe, the meditative act of stuffing the pasta. Eating all six portions by myself, over a week? Not so much.
It quickly becomes clear that my most reliable “fun magnet” is connecting with other people, a challenge when I live alone and my friends have gone to ground over Christmas.
But knowing that battery will be running down, I make more of an effort to be present and engaged as I go about shops and cafes. Those exchanges do make me feel lighter, and the world seem friendlier (apart from the phone scammer).
Inspired by poet Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights – which included pecans and people calling him “sweetie” – Price started exchanging her own daily delights in a group chat with faraway friends. “And it really makes a difference.”
I rope one of my reliable fun-magnet friends into doing the same, and his messages are a treat to receive. Mine describe some perfect cobwebs and a woman waving at me in my flat from the bus stop across the road. They are barely worth mentioning, but I am glad I did.
Creating the conditions
It’s not just the pandemic working against us having more fun – it’s much of modern life.
Playfulness, connection and flow are all notably active states – meaning that passive consumption, though enjoyable or relaxing, is unlikely to ever transport or restore us the way the best kind of fun can.
“true fun” requires us to be present and at ease, not distracted, self-critical, stressed or sleep-deprived. For many of us, that’s a tall order. We may slump in front of screens every evening because we are too exhausted to consider anything else. (Price titles this chapter: “Why you feel dead inside”.)
My first breakthrough in my “funtervention” is that I am simply not rested enough to be open to the idea.
I had not grasped that, by getting less than eight hours’ sleep a night, I was eroding my capacity to enjoy my days. It is the prompt I need to introduce a proper bedtime routine and to charge my phone in another room overnight. By identifying rest as a prerequisite for pleasure, I prioritise it. (And I soon start zipping through novels like I used to do pre-smartphone.)
For caregivers, of course, the challenge is much greater. Resentment is a “universal fun killer”, says Price. She suggests that the first step in creating the conditions for more fun might be ensuring that childcare and household chores are equally divided.
Revisit old interests
I have already failed spectacularly at one of Price’s rules: “Don’t turn fun into work” – but so has she. As freelance writers, we both have form in “turning personal issues into professional projects”, as she puts it, with the end result being that it is hard to separate our lives from our jobs.
I feel this acutely, having ditched all my hobbies – learning French, singing in a choir, playing guitar and darkroom photography (not to mention writing “for fun”) – at 17, when I started pursuing journalism in earnest.
“We are all so out of practice, raised in this cult of productivity,” says Price. She suggests that I revisit some of those interests that I chucked for my career.
As it turns out, I am cat-sitting over new year at a house that has an electric piano, and I spend a happy half-hour haltingly working out a Taylor Swift song. I’m so pleasingly ineffectual, it could only be for my own enjoyment.
Continuing the testing – and the commitment
Even after a few weeks of small-scale experiments with fun, I am struck by how soon it starts to feel more natural and easy, to flow more freely. And I am perturbed to realise how much of the resistance was within me all along.
Without being conscious of it, I had for a long time been orienting my days around what I couldn’t do because of the pandemic, or what I had to do for work. Levity, or even leisure, couldn’t get a look-in.
The epigraph of Price’s book, from author Michael Lewis, proved to be perspicacious: “If you get into the habit of life not being fun, you start to not even notice.”
For me, responsible for keeping only myself afloat, it is a relatively straightforward matter of creating space in my schedule and shifting my mindset so that daily delights can register. If they are thin on the ground, I will try to engineer one myself by calling a friend, going on a walk somewhere new or seeking out a stranger’s dog (fail-safe).
For many other people, the challenge will be much harder to overcome, if not impossible. As Price acknowledges, food, shelter, adequate rest and physical safety are prerequisites for fun: in the case of poverty, job insecurity, sickness and abuse, it may be irrelevant.
But still, I think, she is right to urge us to try, in whatever way we can. Compared with other approaches to self-care and protecting your mental health, seeking to have more fun is accessible and instantly rewarding.
That is what Price appreciates about fun, she says. “It turns this thing you ‘should’ do for some future pay-off into something that you want to do, because it’s enjoyable right then, in the moment.”
And it is true that – after only a few weeks of looking to have more fun, without even trying very hard – I do notice the difference. The abyss is there. But I’m more at ease with it.
• The Power of Fun is published by Bantam Press, price £14.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. In February, Catherine Price will be running a global #Funtervention challenge. See howtohavefun.com to sign up.