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What was fun?

As we adjust to the “new normal,” something’s missing.

It is Saturday night in mid-October, and I am at an outdoor comedy show in a public park hoping to rediscover the sensation I’d once understood as “fun.” What was fun? I can no longer remember. A comedian makes a bad joke about ketamine, and a different comedian makes a better joke about puppy mills, and in the distance, I can hear the strains of several competing dance-pop DJs. There seem to be a lot of people, or maybe it just looks that way, when everyone is sitting at least 6 feet apart. Am I having fun? I wonder. Is this what fun is?

I am no longer sure. It’s like being the hatchling in Are You My Mother?, except I am confused not about the nature of maternity, but about the concept of fun. “Are you fun?” I wonder, staring at focaccia recipes on the internet. Is Emily in Paris fun? Is a Zoom birthday party fun, is ordering a pizza fun, are jokes fun, is wine fun? Have I ever experienced fun?

Seven months into the Covid-19 pandemic, I have lost track. In the first weeks of the pandemic, if you weren’t sick, if your family wasn’t sick, if you were marginally but not essentially employed, if you were lucky, you could get through the day hopped up on the adrenaline of panic from the relative safety of your home. All routines had been disrupted — schools were closed, offices were done, grocery stores were minefields, toilet paper was out — and everything was terrible, but at least fear was a novelty. Now nothing is new — even the news is not new, so much as it is escalating variations on the same ghoulish set of themes. To be lucky, now, is to have all the days feel like all the other days.

“At this point,” Jennifer Senior wrote in the New York Times in early August, “weren’t we expecting some form of relief, a resumption of something like life?” It is now the end of October. Something like life has resumed and suspended panic has mellowed into sustained malaise. The streets are lined with outdoor restaurants; there is entertainment in the parks. Online, there are lectures and performances and readings and concerts; on television, there are live sports. In real life, several different people I know have gotten haircuts. Is a haircut fun?

There is surprisingly little research about the precise nature of fun, given how much we all apparently enjoy it. There is robust and growing literature on overlapping topics — happiness, pleasure, leisure, flow — but fun itself is rarely discussed as such, except in books for children. There is Little Miss Fun and Fractions Fun and Squirrel’s Fun Day, about a squirrel trying to get his fellow forest creatures to break out of their ruts, and Is Everyone Ready for Fun?, which I have ascertained is about a small herd of enthusiastic cows. I am ready for fun, I think, if only I could remember what it is.

“Fun is all about our brains feeling good — the release of endorphins into our system,” writes game designer Raph Koster in A Theory of Fun for Game Design, one of the few texts to seriously address the question of what qualifies as fun (for game design). “Fun is the act of mastering a problem mentally,” he explains, suggesting that the fact we enjoy this process is an “evolutionary advantage right next to opposable thumbs in terms of importance.”

The world is not a game, and a global pandemic is not fun, but in the beginning, there was a perverse thrill in learning to adapt: Here is where you can still get dried beans; this bodega still has hand sanitizer; do you want to Zoom? But now we know all that, and nothing has changed, there is no new information, and no I don’t “want to Zoom.” Mastery right now is out of reach, because the problem — a contagious new virus and the corresponding cascade of nightmares it has wrought — can’t be mastered, only weathered, and weathering an onslaught is the opposite of fun.

A happy, furry monster.

This, Michael Rucker tells me, is a problem. Rucker is an organizational psychologist and author of the forthcoming book The Fun Habit, about the science of fun. “It’s clear that we thrive when we believe we have autonomy,” he says, “and that autonomy has been ripped out from underneath us, right? And if we don’t feel like we have a certain amount of control over any given situation, it causes us stress.” Stress is very unfun.

His definition of fun is, in his own estimation, “very loose”: Fun is “any activity on the positive side of valence,” he says, laying out what he calls the old-school theory of charting emotion. The x-axis is “valence,” or “hedonic tone” — the tenor of how you’re feeling, negative to positive. The y-axis is arousal, or the intensity of that feeling, from very low to very high.

For Rucker, fun is the entire right half of the matrix. He loves heavy metal rock concerts, and his wife loves reading in solitude, and both of them are experiencing what Rucker would classify as fun. “What’s so awesome about fun,” he explains, quite seriously, “is that it’s unique to the individual,” which may explain the dearth of literature about it. “Happiness has been boiled down to these survey instruments, where we can fill out bubbles on a Scantron, and then the positive psych gurus of the world can tell us whether or not we’re happy. But fun is meant to be owned by you.”

In theory, my pandemic experience has been full of pleasant low-arousal activities that I would have once considered fun. I baked cakes and read books and streamed a lot of British murder content, and eventually, it all felt the same. And at the same time, it began to dawn on me that the “pause” that had begun in March was in fact my life.

“Isn’t that … what you did before?” my boyfriend asked, which is insulting but also not untrue. But the difference is that it all used to be fun. It is possible this is a symptom of low-grade depression, but on the other hand, it is also possible that I am right. “Everything you used to turn to that was fun for you is either not available, or it’s in such a different form that you’re still getting used to it,” says Marybeth Stalp, a sociologist at the University of Northern Iowa. “And if you are having fun, how long is it before guilt sets in?”

By April, those of us not in acute distress seemed desperate to find scraps of joy, judging by the number of SEO-optimized articles promising ideas about what to do for fun while in a prolonged state of isolation. The problem with these articles is that nobody seems to have any ideas at all. “Restock your bar,” suggested Thrillist (“50 Fun Things You Can Do at Home Right Now in Quarantine”), explaining that a fun activity might be ordering bottles of liquor to your home. “Get more sleep,” offered CNN (“50 fun things to do this fall”), while Real Simple proposed it would be fun to “trade in your sandals for a cute pair of boots” (“33 Fun Things You Can Still Do This Fall (Even During a Pandemic)”). Travel + Leisure wanted you to adopt a rigorous schedule of virtual tours of European castles. Have you considered watching Netflix? What about a bubble bath?

It was a valiant effort. We were trying. There was Zoom. There was streaming — anything you used to do, there is a streamed equivalent — and when you ran out of things to stream, you could take basic acts of life maintenance and declare they were fun. Acquiring seasonally appropriate footwear: fun!

“Consumption,” Kathleen Casey, a social historian at Virginia Wesleyan University, reminds me, “is also a form of fun.” That morning, I had ordered several canvas pouches for no reason. Was it fun?

Travis Tae Oh is a marketing professor at Yeshiva University who for the last five years has been studying fun, because nobody else seemed to have any satisfactory answers. “A lot of marketers want to position their brands as ‘fun,’” he found, but there was very little psychological research into what that meant.

“It’s different from other emotional or affective terms,” he points out. “You never say you ‘have sadness.’” But we frame fun as coming from somewhere else, which gives it unique commercial potential. It is packaged as an external product but is also an internal state. You can, as everybody knows, go to an amusement park, which is designed explicitly for fun, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have any.

Oh’s theory rests on a simple-sounding premise: “When people actually experience fun, it’s coming from some sort of hedonically engaging experience that is also, in some sense, liberating.” Fun, he points out, is a spectrum. For the maximum 10/10 experience, though, you need to be both totally absorbed in the pleasure of the thing you’re doing, and “released from some sort of prior psychological restriction” — usually social obligation or your own self-discipline. (This is the reason a forced office karaoke, while potentially amusing, will never truly qualify as fun.)

It is hard, though, to be 10/10 absorbed in anything, even when there is not a pandemic, and you are not perpetually interrupted by a steady stream of apocalyptic news alerts, and you don’t have to brace yourself every time the phone rings. But it can be easier to lose yourself if you’re doing something new.

“When you do something for the first time, or something slightly different from what you used to do, you tend to be more engaged,” Oh says. A sense that you’re connected to other people has a similar effect; other people jolt you from the prison that is yourself. It is the difference between watching a movie alone and watching a movie with rapt friends. It almost justifies a Netflix watch party (“12 fun ideas to keep you busy at home this summer”).

The current situation checks approximately none of his fun boxes. Unless you really put some muscle in (take a bubble bath?), nothing is conveniently novel, nothing is effortlessly social, and very little is spontaneous, which is another factor in Oh’s theory of fun. All the usual hotbeds of happenstance — parties, coffee shops, public transportation — are limited, if they exist at all.

There is a reason that, in New York City, people have taken refuge in the antics of raccoons: Say what you want about raccoon behavior, there is, at least, an element of chance. The final prong of his fun framework is a sense of boundaries, and we don’t have many of those lately either. Fun requires you to “set aside a space or a time to let loose,” he explains. “Most people are not just going to start dancing in the streets, but you have clubs. There’s a bounded play area, where you can go in and you’re allowed to liberate from your normal behaviors.”

I don’t know what my normal behaviors are at this point, but I am pretty sure I am not liberated from them. In the last several months, whatever boundaries I’d had have collapsed. My office is my sofa and weekends are weekdays and I am not efficient at work but I am never not slowly working. I tell Oh I am worried I am supposed to find work fun, but Oh is extremely clear that I am not. “The term ‘fun’ has become so common that I think it’s overused,” he says. Work, he tells me, could be meaningful, and it could be enjoyable, but “work should not be fun.” Fun is a release; work, at least in the contemporary United States, is the thing you are releasing from.

The obvious solution to this is to impose some kind of spatial and temporal structure on my life. “You could set aside a space at home, if your home is large enough,” Oh suggests, half-heartedly. “I guess that’s why people have those man caves or women’s …” he trails off. The word he is looking for is “she-sheds.”

A smiley face flower surrounded by hearts, butterflies, and a rainbow.

Space, having it or not having it, is one of the many ways the pandemic has exacerbated existing class divisions. “Families who have multiple homes, or larger homes, have room to have a playroom, to have a movie room, to have different bedrooms for each child and places for them to do their schoolwork,” Casey says. People who don’t have that space are living on top of each other, because one effect of social distancing is that, while we are largely separated from anyone we don’t live with, we rarely get a break from the people we do. “There’s sort of a fun gap there.”

But having space and time is not enough. Now even creating the conditions for potential fun demands internal discipline. You are responsible for maintaining the sanctity of your dance corner. You are supposed to separate your workspace from your life space, if not actually then emotionally. You are supposed to single-handedly decide it’s time to close your email and take a virtual tour of the Amalfi Coast.

I had imposed boundaries on my life before mostly by changing company and shifting locations and making plans for pre-set times: now I am out to dinner, now I’m at a friend’s house, now I’m at a wedding, I’m on a trip, I’m eating dim sum. Now, you are supposed to set an alarm for 8 pm so you remember to tune into a Zoom book launch. “I’m at a reading,” I told my boyfriend, who wanted to know, urgently, if the diced tomatoes in the refrigerator had gone bad. But I wasn’t. I was on the couch.

Though it previously existed, as a concept and a word, fun “really became embedded in our lives in the 20th century, as it became commercialized and increasingly took place outside the home,” says Casey, and now, in 2020, against our will, we have come back. But what once was labor is now supposed to be leisure.

The reason there is a national shortage of canning jars is not that stores have abandoned jam, but rather that canning — like pickling or gardening or sourdough or sewing — is “a safe and somewhat solitary activity that can preoccupy us,” she suggests. “Which is partly what fun is about, right? A sort of diversion from our usual drudgery?” The problem I am having in my own kitchen is that cottagecore diversions start feeling remarkably like labor very fast. I liked domestic hobbies better when they were my personal quirk, and not the only option.

Until mid-March, I hadn’t realized how much of what I did was possible because I had the freedom and resources to get out of the house. I would have said I didn’t do much, but in fact, I did things all the time. I went to the gym and sat in coffee shops and browsed in bookstores and in drugstores and in stores selling “home goods,” and so much of what read to me as fun was in fact commercial leisure, which I’d depended on for formal permission not to work.

Leisure is not the same as fun, but it can be a kind of vessel for it. Part of the joy of being on vacation is that it is a socially sanctioned opportunity to temporarily abandon your real life. This is also the joy of going to a restaurant (on a much smaller scale); I cannot attest to it personally, but this may also be the joy of golf. If the pandemic has been hard on fun, it has eviscerated leisure. The leisure industry, with its airlines and cruises and museums, its hotels and restaurants, its sports clubs and gyms, may not fully recover for years.

“Leisure and work are usually paired together in a kind of binary couple,” says Stalp. Leisure is not always fun, but it is by definition unpaid, and also elective. It is, as Casey puts it, “what people choose to do when they don’t have to do anything else.”

There is no perfect analogue to this moment — there are no perfect analogues to any moments — but the question of what to do with ourselves amid a global pandemic is one we’ve faced before.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, people talked so much on the telephone that newspapers ran ads begging them to stop clogging the lines with “idle and useless telephone conversations.” In November 1918, during the pandemic’s second wave, an article in the Los Angeles Times titled “Watchu’ Doin’ With Yourself?” surveyed what Angelinos were doing with “every place of public amusement, churches, schools and resorts tight shut by ’flu orders.”

The answers are strikingly familiar: children were playing outside, mostly war (“naturally, nobody wants to be the Germans”) but sometimes tennis; teens were having picnics with too many people at them and “holding hands” in parks. “Books are popular,” the paper observed, especially romances and histories, and music stores reported a “great run on phonographs and player pianos,” and some people had gotten into fortune telling, and others were having the “time of their lives” complaining about nonexistent symptoms, and when all of that failed, “there is always golf.”

None of this feels terribly illuminating. I, too, am reading books and complaining, and while those are among my favorite things even in the best of circumstances, I cannot lose myself in either.

The problem with my fun-free life is not a lack of fun-seeming activities. The ability to “have fun” is not contingent on access to fun-adjacent institutions, which have and do exclude all kinds of people who nonetheless, for centuries, have managed to have fun. The leisure industry as we know it could collapse forever; fun would continue to exist.

It is fun to go for walks, to see friends on outdoor benches, to stream movies, to make doughnuts; what is not fun is me. What was once “novel” and “spontaneous” is now an exercise in planning — what is an equidistant park, is there a bathroom, will it rain? — and the effort of Zoom game night is more than I can give. Instead of a release, fun is yet another obligation: You are so lucky, I keep thinking. Why don’t you want to go apple picking?

“We’re getting a moment to pause,” Stalp tells me. “We’re getting a moment to reconceptualize what fun can be.” Maybe we will emerge from this slower and less task-oriented; certainly, I have spent no other period of my life so attuned to the minutiae of the weather. Alternatively, we will pick up as we were. It’s hard to imagine what the world will look like when this is over, and harder to predict how we are going to feel: The acute awareness that a moment is historic is not the same as knowing how it ends.

If there is anything to take from history, it is reassurance: There will be fun again because there has always been fun before. “I think it’s part of being human,” Casey tells me. It is comforting to hear this. I have felt less like myself, indeed less human, without the fun. This is appropriate: The conditions are terrible. We’re being set up to fail. But fun finds a way, it always has. Its return will come.


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