Dr. Mike Rucker is an organizational psychologist, behavioral scientist, and charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association.
Below, Mike shares 5 key insights from his new book, The Fun Habit: How the Pursuit of Joy and Wonder Can Change Your Life. Listen to the audio version—read by Mike himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Fun requires an urgent corrective.
The world is seeing dramatic increases in burnout and loneliness. Here in the United States, we are in a crisis. According to a recent General Social Survey, the percentage of Americans saying they are “very happy” has fallen from 34 percent all the way down to 19 percent. The American Psychological Association has indicated that one in four of us are so stressed that we cannot function. We are second-to-last when it comes to getting days off from work—a measly ten days off per year after completing one year’s worth of work. The only country worse off than us is Micronesia, coming in at nine days off.
Far too many of us are moving farther and farther away from truly enjoying life. We desperately need a realignment, a way to begin experiencing life with more joy and delight. Call it a Fun Habit.
Fun has been proven to be a direct neurological route to improving well-being—and yet, it’s also a skill that requires some training, at least for any of us deeply engaged in the serious business of adulting. Kids embrace fun naturally, but as adults, we face three obstacles:
- We’re conditioned as we age to believe that trying to have fun is childish, or even inappropriate.
- We undervalue the mental and physical benefits of fun.
- We’re put off by the counterintuitive fact that fun for busy adults requires discipline, which sounds, well, not fun.
Our current scientific understanding of fun suggests that these outdated internal scripts can be quite powerful in shaping our subjective reality in harmful ways. Luckily, there is an effective tool for correcting these toxic beliefs called story editing (the first tool in the SAVOR system toolkit found in The Fun Habit). This concept was popularized by psychologist Dr. Timothy Wilson, who found we can edit our personal stories fairly easily in ways that lead to positive, sustained changes in our behavior and well-being.
“Far too many of us are moving farther and farther away from truly enjoying life.”
With practice, story editing can also turn mundane circumstance into opportunity for joy, simply by giving ourselves the mandate to enjoy fun as an act of radical self-care. Start by examining any lingering prejudice you may have about fun. Remind yourself that having fun and being a high-functioning adult are not mutually exclusive. Fun isn’t extra; it’s a vital component of personal well-being. Fun desperately needs to be woven back into our identities.
2. A new take on affluence.
Many of us spend a lot of time thinking about affluence in the financial sense. We fixate on the perceived scarcity of money in our lives. Some of us even fixate on generating more than we need. Meanwhile, we do little to build time affluence. Ultimately, what they say about money—here today, gone tomorrow—is even more true about time, so it’s vital to get intentional about how we spend our time.
Time is a finite resource so building time affluence means increasing the amount of time you have control over. Research suggests that when we merely shift our thinking toward time rather than money, this technique can help usher more fun into life. Further research suggests that people who prioritize time over money are generally happier. Building your Fun Habit starts with taking things off your plate, not adding more items to your to-do list.
Although we want to make an earnest effort to create space, activity bundling is a very accessible tool that can begin the process of taking control of a busy schedule—it’s also the second letter in the acronym SAVOR.
Activity bundling adds more hours of fun to your week without requiring extra hours. It’s a technique of examining how you spend your time and incorporating positive elements into moments that would otherwise not be fun. Of course, there are foundational activities—sleep, meditation, time dedicated to unstructured thought—that could be harmed by this practice, so be careful with it. But, done carefully, activity bundling can transform mundane moments into pleasant experiences.
For instance, you can double your fun by combining two already fun activities (say, enjoying a comedy show and connecting with a friend) or combine a mundane activity (like cleaning your house) with a more enjoyable one (like catching up on your favorite podcast).
Some people improve their habits by bundling a fun activity after a harder one—a reward for an activity you want to get done but don’t find pleasurable. Behavioral scientists have long understood that enjoyable activities are a strong motivator to perform unpleasant ones—this is now sometimes referred to as temptation bundling. Temptation bundling is a great way to use having fun as a way to get the hard stuff done.
3. Variety is the spice of life.
“Variety’s the very spice of life,” as the famous line goes from William Cowper’s poem, “The Task.” Yes, the saying makes a great meme, but having fun through a variety of life experiences has also been thoroughly validated by research. Science suggests when our lives become too routine, we perceive the passage of time as happening more quickly. A potent antidote for the feeling that life is passing you by is integrating different experiences into the rhythms of life, something I have termed variable hedonics—the third letter in the acronym SAVOR.
“Ask yourself if what you are doing with your time is an investment or a cost.”
For those concerned that variety will eat into productivity, I’m here to assure you that a “productive life” and a “fun life” are not in opposition. Shifting time away from work need not dampen professional performance. In fact, taking time to engage in active leisure (in turn restoring our batteries) makes us more productive, with better results.
The reason for this is the hedonic flexibility principle. When we’re not having fun, we seek poor forms of escapism to feel better. In a landmark study of how people spend their time, a team of scientists from Harvard, Stanford, and MIT looked at how (and why) people choose their everyday activities. The study included a large sample of more than twenty-eight thousand people. The conclusion of the study found that, unlike people who don’t enjoy life, people who felt good about how they were spending leisure time were more likely to choose useful activities later that weren’t necessarily mood-enhancing.
When our “fun cup” is full, we can resist the allure of short-term gains (because these types of “rewards” are already bountiful through deliberate design) and invest in long-term enrichment goals.
As you consider how to rearchitect your activities, ask yourself if what you are doing with your time is an investment or a cost. Fun is enrichment, not an expense. For example: habitually looking at other people’s vacation photos in your social feed? Cost, you are never getting back that time. Thirty minutes spent working on the details of your next vacation? Investment! Time spent not just satisfying you in the moment but enriching you in the future as well—during the actual future experience, and when you reminisce about the trip afterward.
4. Life is a matter of choices.
There are plenty of opportunities for serious fun available to anyone willing to put in just a bit of work. We need good options for fun, and that’s why it is the fourth letter in SAVOR.
A great way to brainstorm fun options is by using a coaching practice called the five options technique. Come up with five new options for fun—activities you’re not currently engaged in—that are realistically doable in the coming weeks and months. These ideas might include going to a movie with an old friend, taking a course on something you’ve been interested in learning, picking up a neglected hobby, reconnecting with the outdoors, and so on.
Once you have come up with some options, identify one you can immediately put into play. If you have difficulty choosing just one, visualize how each option would make you feel once completed. Gauge which option makes sense to pursue first. Once you have chosen, work backward to identify and execute the steps needed to turn this opportunity into a reality.
“Come up with five new options for fun—activities you’re not currently engaged in—that are realistically doable in the coming weeks and months.”
Feeling stuck? Look for existing groups and events that have been organized around things that interest you. This can be something like a reading club, exercise class, or any other gathering that is centered around a shared interest. Opting into fun in this way can give you a ready-made social life, one where even introverts thrive because the fun occurs in an activity-focused environment, surrounded by people you know are open to making new friends. Meetup.com is a great resource for this, and, if you don’t find your interest represented there, you can always easily start your own group on the platform.
When coming up with options, don’t forget to add some fun ones to make a positive impact. Here are some ideas:
- Sign up for a cause-based fun run or cycling event.
- Buy tickets to a gala or other such event supporting a cause that interests you.
- Participate in a community cleanup or planting event (or organize one on your block).
- March for a cause—and have fun making signs with family or friends beforehand.
- Make your next vacation a service trip.
Some will argue that being methodical about fun creates a contradiction, making thinking about fun more of a burden than a reward. I don’t see it this way because developing an organized list of options both gives freedom of choice, as well as a mechanism to guide our choice. Science suggests that we increase the likelihood of a fun outcome happening when we are able to reduce the mental workload of generating new options on the fly. In the world of human desire, the need for autonomy and the need for structure are a complementary dynamic duo. Fun thrives when we have both.
5. A better method to stop your endless pursuit.
Our pursuit of happiness is often driven by the allure of a potential reward or positive outcome and the accompanying good feelings when we have predicted correctly. There are three reasons for this:
- We are good at anticipating. Dopamine gets its common nickname, the “happy” hormone, because it was originally understood to be the neurotransmitter that helps us experience pleasure. Scientists now believe dopamine’s evolutionary purpose was to ready us for something unexpected by heightening arousal. The quality of that “something” itself? Dopamine doesn’t care. Dopamine is now also believed to be connected to goal pursuit, providing a jolt of motivation to get us to the finish line. Urged on by dopamine, we haphazardly pursue happiness instead of genuinely savoring the moment.
- We are good at adapting. Any outcome in life—whether good or bad—generally has a limited, temporary impact on our subjective happiness. Happiness begins to slip away as soon as we grab it. When we are not deliberate in our approach to our changing circumstances, we risk being less happy. Recent research suggests we can “outsmart” adaptation when we’re given the right tools.
- We are good at comparing. Feeling happy can have less to do with our actual experience and more to do with how we think it compares to someone else’s. Much of how we perceive happiness is predicated on shared experience. In this way, our happiness is almost like a mass hallucination. We compare ourselves against others in whatever consensus reality we are living in at that moment.
There is a better way. Nico Frijda says it well, “Adaptation to satisfaction can be counteracted by constantly being aware of how fortunate one’s condition is.” The positive benefits of gratitude are well-established. Gratefully reminiscing about fond memories is like gratitude on steroids, and a great way to extend the value of the fun we’ve already had. Reminiscing is the last step in SAVOR. One of the acts of reminiscing I recommend is dispositional gratitude. Dispositional gratitude is characterized by (1) an appreciation for others, (2) an appreciation for simple pleasures, and (3) a sense of abundance.
When you establish a reminiscing routine by acknowledging gratitude for past experiences, it keeps you mindful that fun is abundant and amplifies fun’s positive effects. Reminiscing in this manner mitigates feelings of regret and deprivation by giving you a concrete prompt to appreciate life’s pleasurable experiences fully.
To listen to the audio version read by author Mike Rucker, download the Next Big Idea App today: