Catherine Price is a health and science journalist, the founder of a platform called ScreenLifeBalance.com, and the author of books including Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food and How to Break Up with Your Phone. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Best American Science Writing, and Mother Jones, to name a few.
Below, Catherine shares 5 key insights from her new book, The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again. Listen to the audio version—read by Catherine herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Feeling dead inside? Fun can bring you back to life.
When’s the last time you felt exhilarated, lighthearted, and free? Or the last time you were fully present? When’s the last time you felt alive? As we approach our second anniversary of pandemic living, those might seem like mean questions. Many of us are languishing, which is a nice way of saying that we feel dead inside. There’s no need to rub it in, but I’m not asking these questions to be cruel; I’m asking them because I have a solution. If you want to come back to life—if you want to flourish—you need to have more fun.
Yes, fun. It might sound ridiculous, or frivolous, or even irresponsible, but hear me out. I’m not talking about “fun” in the cheapened sense of the word. I’m not suggesting that the solution to existential angst is to treat yourself to a pedicure or drink wine while scrolling through memes. I’m talking about fun in its purest, most transcendent form—the type of fun that leaves you feeling joyfully alive. I refer to this as True Fun, and it occurs when we experience the confluence of three psychological states: playfulness, connection, and flow.
By “playfulness,” I mean a spirit of lightheartedness and freedom—of doing something just for the pleasure of it, and not caring too much about the outcome. By “connection,” I’m referring to the feeling of having a special, shared experience with someone (or something) else. And “flow” is a term used in psychology to describe the state of being fully engaged and focused, often to the point that you lose track of time—not to be confused with “junk” flow: the hypnotized state we fall into when we binge-watch Netflix and look up to find that five hours have passed.
Playfulness, connection, and flow are all energizing, happiness-boosting states when they occur on their own. But when we experience these three states at once—in other words, when we experience True Fun—the effects can feel magical. Chances are that your memories of True Fun are some of the peak memories of your life.
I have collected thousands of anecdotes of True Fun from people around the world, and while the details of their stories are different, the energy running through them is the same. When we have True Fun, we are not lonely. We are not stressed. We are not consumed by self-doubt or malaise. Instead, we are focused and present, free from anxiety and self-criticism. We laugh and feel connected, both to other people and to our authentic selves. When people talk about past experiences in which they truly had fun, their faces light up because True Fun makes us feel alive. Prioritize fun, and you will feel yourself coming back to life.
“When we have True Fun, we are not lonely. We are not stressed. We are not consumed by self-doubt or malaise. Instead, we are focused and present, free from anxiety and self-criticism.”
2. Recognize—and avoid—Fake Fun.
“Fake Fun” is my term for activities and products that are marketed as fun but don’t produce feelings of playfulness, connection, or flow—such as social media, or binge-watching TV. Much like junk food, Fake Fun gives us a quick fix of pleasure but ultimately doesn’t make us feel good. Instead, we’re often left feeling vacant, lonely, anxious, unfulfilled, or numb. The more we allow ourselves to be hijacked by Fake Fun, the more dead inside we feel.
Fake fun is often deliberately engineered to trick us into believing that it’s the real thing—it tries to camouflage itself—but once you understand what it is and what it feels like, it’s very easy to identify. All you need to do is pay attention to how the things you do “for fun” actually make you feel. Do they leave you energized and alive? If so, they’re sources of True Fun, and a good use of your time. If they leave you feeling empty and numb, then they’re Fake Fun, and not worthwhile.
Once you internalize how wonderful it feels to have True Fun, you’re not going to want to waste your limited free time on activities that don’t produce it. Understanding the difference between True Fun and Fake Fun can be a surprisingly powerful tool for habit change. For example, many people report that when they start prioritizing True Fun, their screen time goes down dramatically without them even trying. As anyone who’s studied habit change knows, relying on willpower is a horrible way to change a habit. It’s much better if you can provide yourself with an alternative that you’d rather do instead. The better you understand what brings you True Fun, the more alternatives you’ll have.
I encourage you to take a few minutes today to scan your life for sources of fake fun, and notice how you feel when you engage in them. Next, contrast that with how you feel when you are in a state of playful, connected flow. How much energy do you have? How satisfied do you feel? Then ask yourself: how could you spend less time on fun that’s fake, so that you have more time available for fun that’s real? Keep this practice up, and before long you’ll find yourself making much wiser decisions about how to spend your limited free time.
3. Having fun is good for our health.
There is nearly no scientific research about the potential health benefits of fun. This is likely because we think of fun as frivolous and there hasn’t been a good definition of what fun actually is. But if you accept my thesis that fun should be defined as the confluence of playfulness, connection, and flow, then things get interesting because there is plenty of research about the benefits of playfulness, connection, and flow. All three have been found to be good for mental and physical health.
A lot of these benefits have to do with stress. When we’re faced with a perceived threat—whether physical or emotional—our bodies produce stress hormones in response, including one called cortisol. If you’re being attacked by something—or, say, being chased by a predator—then cortisol is your friend. Cortisol does things, such as increasing our heart rate, blood sugar, and blood pressure, that help us run away and escape the threat.
The problem with cortisol is that when its levels remain elevated over time, as they do when we’re facing constant emotional stress, these same effects are harmful. Chronically elevated cortisol levels have been associated with increased risks for all sorts of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, heart disease, depression, fertility issues, and dementia.
“The negative health effects of loneliness and isolation are comparable to those of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
So what does this have to do with fun? Well, when we’re having fun, we’re not stressed—fun is a relaxed and open state. Anything that reduces our stress is likely to reduce our cortisol levels, which in turn can lower our risk for all the associated health problems. Since playfulness, connection, and flow have each been shown to reduce stress levels—and since we’re defining fun as the confluence of playfulness, connection, and flow—it stands to reason that fun itself is extremely good for our physical health.
What’s more, fun involves a sense of connection, which is particularly important to health. Loneliness and isolation are astonishingly bad for us. One oft-cited study concluded that the negative health effects of loneliness and isolation were comparable to those of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The effects are so dramatic that one researcher describes loneliness as “a fertilizer” for diseases.
Connection, by contrast, is very good for us. There’s been a lot of research on blue zones (areas in which there are a lot of very old people) to try figuring out what factors contribute to their longevity. Is it their diet, is it exercise—what are they doing? It turns out that one of the most powerful factors is the strength of their relationships—human connection.
This type of connection is not the same as the “connection” we chase while seeking likes and comments on social media, or frantically writing emails or responding to endless texts. Those so-called “connections” leave us exhausted, rather than refreshed. Social media use has been associated with feelings of loneliness and isolation, and if an activity stresses you out, then it doesn’t matter what you call it—it’s not very good for your health.
4. Want more fun? Break up with your phone.
If you’re not in flow, then you can’t have fun. Flow is a state of being completely engaged and present. It requires us to be entirely focused, so if you are at all distracted, you cannot be in a state of flow. Anything that distracts us is going to prevent fun, and if you scan your life for the biggest source of distractions, it’s likely to be your phone.
Your phone is also, probably, one of your biggest time sucks. Before the pandemic, the average person was spending upwards of four hours a day on their phone—not their tablet or computer, just their phone. That adds up to 60 full days a year, or the equivalent of nine months’ worth of 40-hour workweeks.
You might think that you don’t have time for fun, but you do. You’re just currently wasting that time on your phone. That’s why you need to break up with it.
To be clear, “breaking up” with your phone doesn’t mean never using it again. It simply means giving yourself space to evaluate what’s working and what’s not so that you can create a new, healthier relationship that keeps what you love and minimizes (or eliminates) what you don’t.
“We are not problems that need to be fixed. We are lives that want to be lived.”
The first step is figuring out what you want to be doing with your time. Begin paying attention to the activities, people, and settings that generate the most fun for you, and prioritize them. Chances are, it’s going to feel better than anything you might do on your phone. Keep this up and, eventually, your phone will have been transformed from a temptation to an obstacle that’s in the way of how you want to live. Your screen time will drop, and you’ll have more time for fun.
5. Your life is what you pay attention to.
If our goal is a meaningful and joyful existence, both in the long term and in the day-to-day, understanding the importance of our attention is only the first step. Next we must decide, what do we want to pay attention to?
It’s a simple question, but its implications could not be more profound. In any given moment, there are countless things competing for our attention—not just external distractions, but all the thoughts and emotions in our own brains: our anxieties, obsessions, cravings, self-criticisms, hopes, dreams, and fears.
Our natural tendency is always going to be to pay attention to the negative, to scan the horizon for potential attacks. It’s a survival strategy that serves us well when our dangers are physical and real. But now that many of the perceived threats we encounter are emotional and abstract, this bias often hurts us, raising our risks for stress-related disease and possibly shortening the very lives that it evolved to prolong.
It also affects our experience of life—we pay far more attention to correcting what’s wrong than enjoying and nurturing what is going right. Ask yourself which you gravitate toward: ruminating or savoring? How does the energy you put into fulfilling your obligations or engaging in conflicts compare to the energy you put into creating opportunities that might lead to fun?
We all want lives that are filled with meaning, happiness, satisfaction, and joy—but we don’t know how to get there. These are nebulous destinations with no clear path, so instead, we spend our time chasing, striving, and competing, dwelling on the past as we sprint toward future goals, like drivers who are so focused on the road ahead that the scenery rushes by in a blur. We listen to podcasts about success, read books about productivity, and install time-tracking apps. We pursue control and agency through endless attempts at self-improvement, hacking away at our supposed problems so that some distant day, we might be happy.
But we are not problems that need to be fixed. We are lives that want to be lived. Living does not suddenly start when we achieve inbox zero, or win an argument on social media, or earn a promotion. It happens in every moment—it is happening right now.
Bonus Material from Author Catherine Price:
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