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Are We Having Fun Yet?

Society encourages us to be be pleasure seekers. Should we resist that call?

Because of my identity as a scholar of play and human experience, people sometimes ask me to discuss the meaning of fun. Typically, these requests come not in formal academic settings, but on more practical occasions, as when the interrogator is writing down an eight on his scorecard in golf or contemplating a series of double faults in tennis. Surely, or so that person protests, isn’t what we are doing supposed to be fun? How do today’s experiences have anything to do with that?

Of course, the question is pertinent enough. What is fun? And why do we pursue it as we do?

In my view of it, fun at its most fully realized has an effervescent, burbling quality. Typically, that experience comes from confronting a challenge, or series of challenges, often self-imposed. There are moments of tension and struggle, leading to moments of resolution and re-commitment. Reenergized, the participants begin the sequence again.

Although the pattern of behavior may be carefully defined (perhaps initiated as “moves” or “turns”), the more specific course of occurrences (what will the next set of circumstances be, and how will I respond to it?) is ever problematic.

At the event’s end, there are feelings of completion and, commonly, appreciation. Fun-seekers recognize that they entered a special life-world, marked by its own spatial dimensions and meanings of time. Frequently, they used exotic equipment, wore strange clothing, and accepted rules that would have been silly in other settings.

They willingly established goals for the activity; chief among these was their own sense of accomplishment and well-being. Other, more enduring concerns (perhaps difficulties at a job or a faltering personal relationship) were, at least for these moments, set aside.

Although fun may occur in solitude, it usually involves companions, who resist, reprimand, cajole, applaud, and, more generally, affirm the reality of the occasion. Ultimately, those fun-seekers proclaim that together they manufactured a special moment and reaped the rewards of that endeavor.

Once again, the principal reward was their own sense of a “good time.” Indeed, the first question asked afterward by a non-participant is telling: “Did you have fun?”

So it is that we play sports and games, dance, gad about, eat and drink merrily, and express ourselves in art, music, literature, and cuisine. We go to parties. We joke, tease, and flirt. We have hobbies. Let others be the experts. Our ambition, at least primarily, is to enjoy ourselves.

In my own, rather formalized, version of these matters, fun is a key element of “play” as a fundamental pathway of behavior and experience. That sequence begins with feelings of anticipation about what will occur (“curiosity”). Its present-time behaviors alternate between periods of tension-creation and excitement (“fun”) followed by moments of pleasurable release (“exhilaration”). At the event’s end, there is time for reflection and self-congratulation (“gratification”).

Ideally, play events proceed in the above-described way, with positive appraisals outweighing dissatisfaction. That is why we seek these activities out and maintain levels of challenge that approximate our levels of skill.

But let us be honest. Sometimes—and despite our best efforts—the game, dance, party, and so forth does not go well. It is not fun.

Readers familiar with my writing on play will know that I see play—and fun—as only one of life’s four great behavioral pathways. Another pathway is “ritual.” All of us engage in rituals of various sorts—from weddings, funerals, and worship services to the more mundane patterns of social greeting to private acts of preparation for the different portions of the day.

These are very important occasions. They consolidate and restore us. They make us trust, even revere, higher and more enduring forms of order. But they are not about having fun.

Similarly, we follow the pathway of “work.” As in play, workers commonly push themselves through a course of activity. They explore their “interest” in situations; their successes produce “satisfaction.” Looking backward at what they’ve done may give them “pride.”

Typically, workers focus on goals that have consequences beyond the event itself. Because the task is often difficult and even unpleasant, workers may need external rewards to motivate themselves. At times, the intricate challenges of the activity may cause them to have fun, but fun is never the work’s primary goal.

Consider a final pathway: “communion.” Much of life focuses on experiences of bonding—with other people and with transcendent sources of being, like nature, the sacred, or even the frameworks of our bodies and minds. To commune is to appreciate these powers, to learn how much we rely on otherness to make our lives steady and worthwhile.

For such reasons, we sit and watch sunsets, ponder music and art, meditate, and embrace those we love. Such commitments produce “delight” and even “joy.” Retrospectively, they induce comprehensions of good fortune or “blessedness.” But all this is different from the perky, inquisitive, self-directed project of fun-seeking.

Why say these basic things about the project of being human? Because different societies, and different historical periods within those societies, emphasize certain pathways and de-value others.

For example, the European Middle Ages made much of ritual, with its idealization of contemplation, sacred and secular hierarchies, and vows of loyalty and duty. By contrast, the modern period (expressed in Puritanism and later, industrialism) celebrated the virtues of individual work. People expected themselves to manage their own life-course; that career was typically strenuous and focused on distant goals.

In part as a reaction to that, many Utopian societies focused on communion, both with other people and with nature. Groups like the romantics and transcendentalists proclaimed that existence was not about making and doing. It was about experiencing the mysteries of the world and pondering one’s place within them.

What do contemporary people, in what many commentators term the late or post-modern period, celebrate? Societies with individualist mythologies continue to stress work as a form of creative expression and as an avenue to the resources needed to enhance life-opportunities. But more than that, they idealize play and its emotional rewards.

In playful self-expression, or so we are told, people learn who they are and what they can do. They take on challenges, form and sever relationships, explore varieties of experience, and ponder the shifting vicissitudes of status, usually in settings that protect them from any real dangers and afford a continued sense of self-control. Play emboldens. It restores optimism. It makes us believe we can manage our own lives and find gratifications along the way. More simply, it tells us that we can have fun.

Nearly 70 years ago, sociologist Martha Wolfenstein made similar claims. In her view, the 20th century was developing what she called “fun morality.” This was the new public credo that people are not only entitled to have fun but also obligated to do so.

After World War II, the occupational sphere expanded and diversified, particularly in what were termed white-collar jobs. A rising standard of living, a shorter workweek, and class-based suburban communities meant that people had more opportunities for leisure pursuits. As a result, people judged themselves less on the substance of their office-jobs than on their identities as appealing, socially accomplished individuals who had varieties of interests and experiences.

The ideal person could mix well with others of their class; hold their own when the conversation turned to travel, liquor, dining, and sports; and function competently as both guest and host. They did not drone about politics and religion or exhibit philosophical extremism. They did not bore others with talk of work. Quite the opposite, they presented themselves as someone who went places and did things. They told engaging stories and made wry jokes. In short, they were “fun people.”

Have we become a leisure society, where the focus has shifted from work to play? At one level, this is a laughable proposition, as a significant portion of the population lives in poverty, and many people work two or even three jobs to make ends meet.

Problems of food, housing, education, and safety remain fundamental. But millions in the middle-classes and above have found themselves affected by the above-described changes. More than that, the culture, and particularly the culture of advertising, idealizes a life free of labor, where people have large amounts of discretionary time and money.

How should people spend this free time? Many answers come to mind: additional education, support of family members, charity work, public service, and the like. Valorized instead, or so it seems to me, is a life committed to self-pleasuring.

Since the years granted to us are limited (and unknown), we should spend them traveling, dining, playing sports and games, making art, and attending pleasing spectacles. We should have “bucket lists” and endeavor to complete these before we leave this world.

Ideally, friends or family will accompany us in these endeavors, but if not, we should be prepared to do them on our own. Who knows? We may meet new friends or even a potential family member along the way.

As a student of play, I emphasize the importance of that activity for self-realization. I support the active, challenge-setting, fun-seeking life. But I also believe that the quest for leisure and excitement needs to be bounded. Play is only one part of life; it offers certain lessons and certain experiences. It disregards others.

Let us be committed, then, to the fully realized life. We need work, not simply as a money source but as a practice in steadfastness, sober instrumentalism, and public contribution. We need ritual to give us the stable frameworks of meaning that orient us as a society and permit our moments of creative inspiration. And we need communion, the appreciation of other people, places, and things and the acknowledgment of their centrality to who we are. The lessons of these pathways are also fundamental.

Play and fun, however glamorous they seem, are merely one chapter in a book that has many pages.

References

Henricks, T. (2015). Play and the Human Condition. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Wolfenstein, M. (1951). "The Emergence of Fun Morality." Journal of Social Issues 7(4): 15-25.

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