Need to know
Do you ever wonder if life could (or should) be more fun? In today’s fast-paced world – especially in Western nations – many of us find ourselves struggling to experience a consistent level of joy. The stress and demands of modern daily life can feel overwhelming, leaving little time or energy for enjoyable experiences. If you’re in the ‘sandwich’ generation – those caught between raising children and caring for ageing parents – you face compounding challenges to having fun. The seismic shifts in the way we work aren’t helping either, including the transition to so-called knowledge work, where you never really know when your work is finished. There’s also the rise of communication tools that make you accessible at any hour, every day.
This is concerning, especially given that mounting research demonstrates having fun is a vital component of wellbeing. Just as wearing a lack of sleep as a badge of honour needed radical reframing in the 1990s (because of its harmful effects), I believe that people’s attitudes to leisure and fun now need the same attention.
Fun has many benefits
In the simplest of terms, fun is any activity you find pleasurable and are drawn to. A more psychological definition invokes the concept of valence: the pleasantness or unpleasantness of an emotional stimulus. Fun is any activity on the positive side of valence (sometimes referred to in scientific literature as ‘hedonic tone’). The type of activity you’re engaged in? It doesn’t really matter. Of course, there are some activities that aren’t really pleasurable, yet trick you into thinking you are having fun, because they numb discomfort and relieve your negative valent state. This can range from something as simple as mindlessly scrolling social media, to detrimental forms of escapism such as alcohol and drug abuse. To reap fun’s benefits, you want your fun to be enriching and sustainable, whether it is found at your work, engaging with loved ones and friends, connecting with an interest or hobby, or simply participating in something that flexes your curiosity.
The list of psychological and physical benefits we derive from living a joyful life includes reduced stress, improved immune function and increased longevity. From Kathleen Dillon’s seminal research looking at how positive emotions enhance the immune system, to the respected work of Ed Diener, whose research built a case that joyful people live longer, fun’s positive benefits are well established.
If you need more persuading about the importance of fun, consider the hedonic flexibility principle. Thoroughly investigated in 2016 by a team of scientists at MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and elsewhere, this principle suggests that people who do not incorporate fun into their lives have a significant likelihood of experiencing burnout, leading to a negative cycle that often results in them seeking unhealthy forms of escapism to alleviate their discomfort. In contrast, those who intentionally make time for fun tend to begin their days with more energy and enthusiasm. They are actually more productive, innovative and willing to take on challenges than those who work long hours without allowing themselves any time for leisure. In short, if you can find a way to integrate more fun into your life, you will unlock your full potential, become more resilient, and you’ll be better equipped to tackle the challenges that life throws your way.
Take Finley, a dedicated and hardworking professional, and a father of two tenacious kids. Initially, Finley spent countless hours at the office, neglecting his personal life and never making time for things he enjoys. Time spent with his kids came from a sense of duty: from the frame ‘I have to do’ versus ‘I get to do’. Consequently, he became burnt out and found himself caught in a downward spiral where each day he had less energy than the previous one. At this point, he was just trying to get through his day, let alone have fun. In an attempt to cope, Finley tried to drown out his discomfort through unhealthy escapism, including tuning out life in the evenings by binge-watching Netflix and indulging in bourbon as a way to ‘unwind’.
Realising that his approach was unsustainable, Finley began to make small changes. He started prioritising fun by scheduling regular breaks for leisure activities such as hiking, connecting with old friends, and spending time with family in ways that felt enjoyable rather than obligatory. As a result, Finley noticed a gradual increase in his energy levels and enthusiasm. Not only did his productivity at work improve, but he also found himself seeking more challenging projects, he noticed he was able to come up with more innovative solutions to roadblocks, and he sensed he was becoming more emotionally flexible in the face of adversity.
By embracing the power of habitual fun, you’ll not only improve your own life, like Finley, but also contribute to a happier, healthier and more productive society. The good news is that flipping the script in your favour isn’t that difficult. In the next section, I’m going to share five practical steps to help you bring more fun into your life.
What to do
Examine your beliefs about fun
The first step to having more fun is to identify and challenge the limiting beliefs that might be holding you back from experiencing more fun – such as the idea that fun is frivolous or an unproductive use of time. You might have formed these beliefs through years of societal conditioning, family expectations or your work culture. Reflect on the messages you’ve internalised: are they truly serving you? For instance, if you’re engaged in an activity you enjoy and you catch yourself feeling uncomfortable about not checking your email, try unpacking that reaction – why should work be more of a priority than fun in that moment? Similarly, if you feel a sense of guilt while engaging in a pleasurable form of self-care, you might want to examine why unease is being allowed to creep in while engaging in a healthy behaviour.
It might help to reframe fun as an opportunity for growth, a way to encourage a more positive outlook, and a way to find enjoyment in things you are already engaged in. Consider how fun experiences can help you develop new skills, learn more about yourself, and expand your horizons. Recognise that fun is not only about immediate pleasure, but also about creating lasting memories, building connections with others, and enhancing your overall quality of life.
At first, this may seem uncomfortable because you’re not being ‘productive’. If so, recognise this trap and lean into the initial discomfort. It’s normal to feel uneasy about changes in your behaviour, especially if you’ve been conditioned to prioritise work and responsibilities above all else. However, it’s important to remember that fun is generally not an indulgence; it’s a necessary component of a balanced and fulfilling life. If needed, reframe the time you dedicate for fun as an investment in your health and productivity, with the ensuing enjoyment simply being an amazing by-product. Remember, recharging isn’t just for our smart devices and laptops – we need breaks too!
To help you shift your mindset, try journaling about your experiences with fun and productivity. After an enjoyable activity, find a moment to write down any thoughts and feelings that arose while you were engaged in it. Note any moments of guilt or unease. This is an opportunity to challenge your negative beliefs and reframe your understanding of fun as something valuable and worthwhile.
Gradually, as you work on reshaping your beliefs around fun, you’ll begin to see the value of incorporating more enjoyable experiences into your life. You’ll start to recognise the positive impact that fun can have on your mental, physical, and emotional health, as well as your relationships and personal growth. By embracing the importance of fun, you’ll be better equipped to live a richer, more fulfilling life.
Practise activity bundling
Do you find yourself in the ‘time poor’ category (ie, you have limited available free time)? If this is you, discover ways to combine activities to make them more enjoyable – taking full advantage of the time you do have under your control. By pairing routine tasks with things that make them more fun, you can transform mundane chores into engaging experiences.
For example, you might listen to your favourite podcast while doing household chores, turning an otherwise tedious task into an opportunity to learn something new, be entertained, or both. If you prefer music, create a playlist of your favourite upbeat tunes to boost your mood as you clean or cook. Alternatively, consider engaging in friendly competition with a family member to see who can complete a task faster, making the experience more enjoyable for both of you through gamification.
Exercise is another area where activity bundling can work wonders. Instead of working out alone, invite a friend to join you for a walk, hike, or fitness class. This not only makes your workout more social and entertaining, but also provides motivation and accountability, helping you stick to your fitness goals.
Invite family and friends along to things you already want to do, such as going to a museum, attending a concert, or exploring a new locale. Sharing these experiences with loved ones allows you to create lasting memories and strengthen your relationships. Plus, having others involved can often lead to more laughter and spontaneity, making the activity even more enjoyable.
Temptation bundling is a form of activity bundling that uses fun to get the hard stuff done. The idea is to pair a challenging but ultimately rewarding behaviour (over the long term) with an immediately pleasurable indulgence. This is a great way to encourage healthy habits and make the most of your limited time. To practise temptation bundling, identify a task or habit you want to improve and pair it with something you genuinely enjoy. For example, research conducted by Erika Kirgios and her colleagues showed that providing people with ‘tempting’ content (eg, free enjoyable audiobooks) increased their gym visits compared with a control group who didn’t receive the incentive.
As you become more adept at combining activities, you’ll find it easier to maintain a healthy balance between work, leisure and self-care.
Spice things up with variety
Deliberately integrating new and novel experiences into your routine can keep life fresh and exciting. It stimulates your brain by providing a sense of novelty – naturally sparking curiosity and encouraging non-linear thinking. Engaging in novel activities is usually experienced as fun, and it helps you to break the monotony of everyday life.
Embracing novelty and adventure is also a healthy way to combat boredom. To fill free time, many of us turn to ‘passive’ leisure, such as mindlessly watching television or browsing social media. While these things might provide temporary relief, they often have little to no benefit for mental health or, worse, a potential negative impact. Instead, try incorporating new ‘active’ leisure experiences that actively engage your mind and body, such as learning a new instrument, taking up a new sport, or exploring a new city.
One of the benefits of more active leisure is that you will tend to remember the experience in richer detail. Relatedly, encoding new experiences and participating in mastering new skills has been shown to not only increase life satisfaction, but also help prevent cognitive decline by increasing your brain’s cognitive reserve.
To integrate more variety into your life, start by setting aside time each week to try something new. This could be as simple as visiting a new park or cooking a new recipe. Alternatively, you could take on more ambitious challenges, such as learning a new language or signing up for a dance class.
Another way to embrace novelty is by seeking out unfamiliar social experiences. For instance, attend local events, join clubs or organisations, and find ways to meet new people. These encounters can lead to new friendships, a deeper sense of community, and a richer understanding of the world around you.
When planning your weekends or vacations, consider adding a mix of familiar and novel activities. This balance ensures that you enjoy the comfort of your favourite pastimes, while also creating opportunities for new experiences that enhance your perspective.
Explore your options and commit to them
When you proactively think about and create options for fun, you set yourself up for success. You enhance your sense of autonomy and increase your choices, which increases the probability that you’ll actually engage in enjoyable experiences.
Begin by getting curious about the world around you, and exploring the multitude of options you have available for fun. The more you explore, the more likely you are to find activities and experiences that truly resonate with you. If you get stuck coming up with your own ideas, think back to when you’ve felt FOMO (fear of missing out) in the past and consider if the activity that triggered the FOMO is something you would really like to try.
Once you’ve identified some enticing options, it’s time to commit to them by scheduling them. Using the behavioural strategy of precommitment, you increase the odds that these fun options will actually happen. This strategy is as easy as it sounds: start by making plans and setting specific dates for each activity. Put these plans on your calendar, ensuring that you allocate enough time for both preparation, as well as thoroughly enjoying the event or activity when its time comes. Inviting others to join you in the fun can further strengthen your commitment to these plans. When you involve friends and family, it creates a sense of accountability that becomes hard to undo.
To keep your options fresh and exciting once you have come up with them, consider creating a ‘fun jar’ or a ‘fun file’. Write each option on a slip of paper and place them in the jar or on your list. When you’re looking for something new to do, simply draw a slip from the jar or pick an item from your list. This adds an element of premeditation to your leisure time, ensuring that you always have something fun to look forward to.
In addition to precommitting to specific activities, it’s also important to maintain a healthy balance between work and leisure. Establish boundaries that protect your personal time so you can take advantage of your new options. This can range from something as simple as turning off work-related notifications during evenings and weekends, to scheduling regular ‘fun breaks’ throughout your day.
Practise grateful reminiscing
Another evidence-based strategy for increasing joy in your life is practising gratitude. Gratefully reminiscing about fond memories is like gratitude on steroids, and a great way to extend the value of the fun you’ve already had. By taking the time to reflect on your positive experiences, as well as the people in your life who made them possible, you can cultivate a deeper appreciation for the good things in your life, strengthen your connections to others, and boost your overall sense of contentment.
To practise grateful reminiscing, routinely set aside a few minutes to think about past experiences that brought you joy. Consider the people, places, activities and events that contributed to these moments and try to relive the emotions you felt at the time. You might find it helpful to keep a gratitude journal, where you can record these memories and express your appreciation for them. There’s no set prescription for this practice; do it at a cadence that feels right for you.
As you develop your habit of grateful reminiscing, you’ll likely notice an increase in positive emotions, such as happiness, contentment and appreciation. Studies have shown that the benefits of this type of dispositional gratitude include improved mental and emotional health, stronger relationships and increased life satisfaction.
In addition to reflecting as a solitary exercise, consider reminiscing with others, too. Reach out to friends and family members and exchange memories about the good times you’ve shared. This can help to strengthen your bonds, promote feelings of closeness, and create a shared sense of appreciation for the happy moments in your lives. At its best, this strategy can be a welcome nudge to get another get-together on the books to make new memories.
Fun is far from a frivolous pursuit; it is a vital component of a life well lived. As you work through these five steps, you’ll discover the transformative power of fun for yourself. With some practice, the journey towards your fun habit will not only bring you more happiness and satisfaction, but also improve your relationships, enhance your productivity, and support good health both psychologically and physiologically.
Key points – How to start having more fun
- Know the benefits of fun. If you can find a way to integrate more fun into your life, you’ll not only boost your immune function and longevity, but you’ll also unlock your full potential, become more emotionally resilient and be better prepared to take on life’s challenges.
- Examine your beliefs about fun. The first step to having more fun is to identify and challenge the limiting beliefs that might be holding you back from experiencing more fun – such as the idea that fun is frivolous or an unproductive use of time.
- Practise activity bundling. If you feel ‘time poor’, an effective way to introduce more fun into your life is to pair routine tasks with things that would make them more enjoyable.
- Spice things up with variety. Deliberately integrating new and novel experiences into your routine can keep life fresh and exciting.
- Explore your options and commit to them. The more you explore and get curious about your preferences, the more likely you are to find activities and experiences that truly resonate with you – then use ‘precommitments’ and a ‘fun jar’ to keep your options fresh and make sure that they actually occur.
- Practise grateful reminiscing. Gratefully reminiscing about fond memories is like gratitude on steroids, and a great way to extend the value of the fun you’ve already had.
What about the happiness ‘set point’ and the ‘hedonic treadmill’?
The idea of a happiness ‘set point’ comes from psychological studies suggesting that you are somewhat predisposed to a personal baseline happiness level, despite temporary elevated emotional states from life events, whether those events are good or bad. Your baseline is thought to be influenced by a combination of genetic factors and your early life experiences. The concept of the happiness set point might lead you to think that any effort to increase your happiness through fun will ultimately prove futile. The good news is that your genes and life circumstances are only part of the story. Your happiness is also heavily influenced by the degree to which you’re able to wield your agency and autonomy effectively, and the steps in this Guide will help you to do that.
Meanwhile, the ‘hedonic treadmill’ is a term used to describe the human tendency to adapt to changes in your life, returning to your baseline level of happiness after an impactful life event has affected your emotional state. This phenomenon is related to the concept of the happiness set point, as it implies that your pursuit of happiness may be a never-ending cycle of striving for more, without ever feeling truly satisfied. It also highlights the tendency to overestimate the impact that life changes and events will have on your happiness. For example, you finally get that promotion, but your elation wears off as you adapt into your new role. Worse, perhaps you find the new role is not what you expected.
Fortunately, a growing body of research suggests that you can circumvent the hedonic treadmill and experience lasting happiness by focusing on the present moment – finding joy in your everyday experiences. When you can lean into enjoying the moment – while you’re in it – it relieves you from some of the pressure of deriving satisfaction from an outcome. Contentment becomes a long-term sustainable by-product of having fun. In this way, fun gives you the opportunity to jump off the proverbial hedonic treadmill.
You might already recognise the above-mentioned skill as mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of deliberately directing your attention to the present moment, free from judgment, enabling you to immerse yourself in your experiences in the here and now.
To develop the skill of mindfulness, practise engaging in your activities with deep focus. By doing so, you experience and encode your memories with much richer detail, such as the love felt from time spent with those you care about, the awe-inspiring beauty of nature, or the gratification of immersing yourself in a beloved hobby. This emphasis on the present moment helps you shift your attention away from the pursuit of fleeting, material sources of happiness (eg, accumulating wealth or possessions), which often result in diminishing returns. Instead, you can nurture a sense of contentment by tapping into intrinsic, more sustainable sources of joy.
Plan with your end in mind
Another strategy for circumventing the hedonic treadmill is to accept the reality that the time you have to enjoy life is finite. When you face the reality of your mortality, also known as ‘death acceptance’, this can be a powerful trigger that fundamentally changes what motivates you. By envisioning the legacy you want to leave behind, you’re likely to make more intentional choices about how to spend your time. Your decisions become less about how you rank against others – misguided by the pressures of meritocracy – and more about what truly lights you up. You tend to invest more of your energy in experiences and relationships that provide deeper and more enduring satisfaction. The writer Alan Watts summed it up nicely when he said:
We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end … But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.
So take heart, while the concept of a happiness set point and the hedonic treadmill might suggest that any attempts to increase happiness are futile, there are helpful strategies such as mindfulness and death acceptance that you can use to experience sustainable joy and contentment. By practising mindfulness and enjoying the present moment, planning how you want to spend your time with a recognition of your mortality, you will be better equipped to deliberately fill your life with delightful and meaningful experiences.
Links & books
The ideas from this guide are explored in further detail in my book The Fun Habit: How the Pursuit of Joy and Wonder Can Change Your Life (2023). If any concept has piqued your interest and you would like to do a deeper dive, my book is a great place to start.
If you would like to really go down the rabbit hole of editing your story, I recommend the book Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By (2011) by the psychologist Timothy Wilson. His work in this area has had a huge impact on countless lives. You can watch Wilson discuss his work briefly in this video on the genConnect U YouTube channel.
Ideas from Cassie Holmes, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, have also been heavily influential in my work. Holmes came out with a wonderful book, Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most (2022), which goes in-depth about changing your relationship with time. She also presented ideas from her book in a video for Talks at Google, which is available on YouTube.
If you would like to see further discussion regarding the theory that those who make time for fun are not only some of the most productive people, but also those who seek out more opportunities for growth than their fun-starved counterparts, I invite you to read my interview with Maxime Taquet, who is one of the lead researchers involved with the hedonic flexibility principle study I mention above.
Lastly, for those of you who really want to dig into the science and don’t mind a more academic text, Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience (2007) by Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff is one of the best books I have come across for anyone who would like to develop a comprehensive research-based understanding about the merits of enjoying the moment, as well as reminiscing and relishing your moments after the fact. I also highly recommend the book Adaptation-Level Theory (1964) by Harry Helson. This foundational text lays the groundwork for understanding the traps of happiness, and will provide you with a rich understanding of the hedonic treadmill.