In defence of fun

A photograph of a small girl looking joyful

Image credit: BigTallGuy used under 2.0 Generic CC BY 2.0 License

When things around us get serious we can forget one of the amazing things about human beings. Mark Brown asks why don’t we make 2013 the year we have some fun?

(This article appears in the winter 2012/13 edition of One in Four magazine)

If you’ve read the rest of the magazine you hold in your hands you’ll know that things at the moment are a bit, well, heavy. If we’re not careful, a combination of headlines and unfortunate events will manage to ring every last drop of joy from life leaving us as people who are just about surviving but not really living.

Fun can seem a bit of an indulgence in the face of paying the bills or sorting things out. When there’s a million things to do, many of them unpleasant, it’s easy to only concentrate on serious things, because serious things are, well, serious. But it’s at that point where we need fun the most.

The pursuit of pleasure

Why do we find it so easy to forget to have fun and treat it as an optional extra in life? Other animals don’t have a problem seeking pleasure. Take my cat. I look at my cat and think: ‘look at you my furry friend, you don’t have any trouble making time for yourself’. He sleeps, he snuggles, he sits in the warmest place he can find (top of telly, on laptop while I’m typing, so close to fire I can smell his fur singe), he eats, he plays. In lots of ways his life is far harsher than mine; if he can’t find food he’ll die, the world is full of big and frightening things with the potential to kill him. The difference between him and me apart from number of legs and ability to see in the dark is that his little walnut-sized brain only lets him live in the moment. If he finds something pleasurable, say, waiting on the stair to take a swipe at my head as I pass by the banister spindles, he can just do it without worrying about everything else in his life.

It’s not that he’s free of demands or threats, he just doesn’t have a sense of what he should be doing.

We humans, especially we humans brought up in the grumbly UK, have a more complicated relationship with pleasure. We tend to see it as something that’s a bit furtive or indulgent. We might be a bit embarrassed about talking about the things that make us feel good, tend to keep our hobbies and our joys under wraps, worrying that others will judge us.

As we grow up we tend to lose touch with the things we find really enjoyable. We put aside childish things, embarrassed at the toys and games of childhood and then often never really find anything to replace them. This wish to get back to the time of fun is one of the reasons adults enthusiastically re-buy the toys, games and cartoons of their youth, or remake them as multimillion dollar CGI extravaganzas with massive explosions if they’re Hollywood film makers. We replace play with other things, most of which aren’t very much fun at all.

If we’re honest, lots of us never had the chance to replace those strong, consuming pleasures and fun activities that we experienced when we were younger. We lurch into adulthood vaguely hoping that the fun is going to turn up soon, confusing what money we can spend with the amount of fun andpleasure we’re having. Somewhere along the way we seem to get the idea that how we take our pleasures must be somehow respectable or must somehow be grown up.

There has been an unfortunate series of recent public pronouncements questioning whether people currently claiming benefits should be able to ‘waste’ money on pleasurable leisure activities, or even things like internet access and having a mobile phone. This is wrong and betrays how much we draw moral judgments into our thinking about pleasure. We all need to have fun sometimes. Perhaps the Beastie Boys had it right in 1986 when they sang (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)?

So what makes fun?

Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, poets and sales people – all people more clever than I am – have tussled for centuries about just what makes things fun or pleasurable. For our purposes let’s just say you know it when you feel it. That said, it’s useful to look at some of the ways that things might be pleasurable. Something might be physically pleasurable; like a nice sit down, a hug or a hot bath. Something else might be intellectually pleasurable like doing a crossword, listening to a favourite tune or finally working out how to put together a piece of flat-pack furniture. Many things that are fun are a mix between the two.

Two things that we sometimes lose sight of are the related sensations of delight and awe. Delight is that moment of overjoyed satisfaction you feel when something is so great and wonderful that it somehow warms us up inside. It’s that moment when you think ‘that is just so wonderful!’ Seeing a child walk for the first time might give us delight, or witnessing an absolutely perfect pass leading to an unbelievable goal, or watching the pieces click into place in the final twenty pages of a murder mystery. If you see, read, taste or experience something that’s so good you want to tell everyone you’re probably delighted.

Awe, or sense of wonder, is when you come across something that makes you feel ‘that is amazing!’ Incredible feats and incredible places and things fill you with awe; things like the natural world, great achievements or incredible buildings. Awe is the sense of pleasure you feel when you come across something that is just so fantastic that you feel like you’re going to burst, something that just seems so momentous and, well, big.

Repetition and novelty are constantly jostling for position in our experiences of pleasure. A thing might be pleasurable because it’s new and exciting to us. Other times it’s familiarity that makes something a joy – a favourite film or place we’ve visited a lot in the past.

So, like I said, we know fun when we find it, but why does it take us so long to get there sometimes, if we get there at all?

Silliness can save you

Fun and pleasure are what sustains us and gives us the energy and comfort to be able to take on the rest of life’s more unpleasant things.

There’s no reason to feel guilty about taking time out for a laugh or a bit of mucking about: no reason to feel you’re selfish for doing something with no purpose apart from making life a bit more fun. A lot of the time fun doesn’t just happen, it’s something that you need to make an initial investment in before it pays off. So for 2013, why not stick two fingers up at guilt and bad headlines and make a promise to do something that’s just for you?

Fun and cash sometimes seem linked, especially when you watch adverts. Fun might be easier with a fat wad in your pocket, but having no money doesn’t mean you can go without fun, it makes having fun even more important.

Go out with your mates; get in touch with old ones; make new ones by joining a group, a club, a faith group, a sports team. Watch a new film, watch an old film, make a film yourself (easier than you think if you’ve got a smartphone and a laptop). Go to part of the place you live that you’ve never visited or go back to somewhere you really loved. If you can read books (not everyone has the concentration) get to the library, revisit an old favourite or get yourself online and acquaint yourself with the huge number of free classic ebooks available ( If you like drinking, have a drink every once in a while. If you like gaming, have a few guilt-free hours playing games. Maybe try to put some romance into your life or try something available in your community (while it lasts)?

Get out in the place that you live and see what your community has to offer: now’s the time because some of it may not survive without your custom. When you watch the telly, watch stuff you really love not just stuff that fills the time. Do something silly or ridiculous if you fancy it: dress up, dress down, have a sing-a-long, sit around with friends or family and just talk and laugh.

Play is all about exploring, whether it’s exploring yourself, exploring other people and things or just exploring ideas. It seems odd to talk about play as an adult, so we might want to call it ‘mucking about’ or ‘having a laugh’. The principle is the same: doing something simply because it interesting, or fun, or silly, or exciting.

Fun and pleasure are maybe best thought of as being bit like food: porridge might be brilliant but you might not want it for every meal. For life to be fun we need to make sure that we feed ourselves a range of things we really like, not just things that keep us alive.

If things are looking scary or worrying we need to get the most out of life, even if sometimes that’s a struggle. Whatever 2013 holds, let’s make sure that at least some of it is fun.

This article appears in the winter 2012/2013  edition of One in Four magazine

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