We all want to be happy, and the idea of happiness as a learned skill has never been more popular. Searching for happiness offers us all a glimmer of hope—from Baby Boomers pining for the joys of the past, to young adults experiencing record levels of loneliness, anxiety, and burnout. Who doesn’t want a reprieve from our collective malaise as we slowly emerge from the pandemic?
In part, these desires to live happier are being fueled by a constant stream of well-intended messages trying to inspire positivity in a time of crisis.
If only reacquainting ourselves with happiness were that simple. In the words of fellow author Rupi Kaur, “Happiness grew old waiting for me, and I grew old searching for happiness in places it did not live.” Many of us fall into the trap of thinking we’d be better off if we could just activate our “happiness switch,” but research by Dr. Iris Mauss and her colleagues highlights that being overly concerned with happiness is generally counterproductive—often leading us to be less happy. So, if we cannot simply will ourselves into being happy, what can be done?
As an alternative, try tabling your concerns regarding happiness and instead apply that energy into taking an action-oriented approach based on creating a fun habit. Direct your actions toward increasing joy in your life—developing an approach that is on your terms, and at a speed that suits your preferences. This is not a preconceived happiness prescription, but a plan you create by exploring your interests and reacquainting yourself with the personal agency taken from you during the pandemic.
This novel approach, one of creating a fun habit, is about incorporating less ‘think’ and more ‘do.’ This method reframes your pursuit and helps you prioritize time in your calendar for pleasurable experiences.
A New Perspective on Fun
It will take a bit of practice for you to rediscover the value of fun, but there are some tangible ways to approach this revival. A first step is to create a personal time audit to become more self-aware of how you are spending the 168 hours in your week. Using this information, reflect on how you are spending your time using the “PLAY Model.”
The PLAY model provides you a framework to sort the activities in your week based on the level of enjoyment you will likely garner from engaging in them. Utilizing the PLAY model helps by bringing awareness to agonizing activities you might be able to alter, as well as discovering opportunities where you can implement more pleasing activities.
To use the PLAY model, start by organizing the hours recorded from your time log into four categories:
- Pleasing activities: These are everyday opportunities that invite more fun into your life that easily fit into your routine. Only you will know what these are (from your own experience) but could include: time spent catching up with a friend or other forms of prosocial behavior, unstructured play with your kids or pets, or personal hobbies you really enjoy.
- Living activities: These are fun yet challenging activities such as traveling somewhere exotic, learning a new skill, or stepping out of your comfort zone in some way, shape, or form. These types of activities feed our curiosity and often lead to moments of awe and wonder.
- Agonizing activities: Agonizing activities are challenging to execute in some significant way and bring us little or no joy. It’s fair to say life is not meant to be all fun. In other words, all of us will need to perform agonizing activities from time to time. These activities include things like housework, commuting, doing your taxes, or unrewarding work tasks.
- Yielding activities: These activities are easy for us to execute, so we do them mindlessly. However, when examined critically, these activities don’t do much for us except move time along. A common culprit is media consumption—examples could be mindlessly watching the news, playing a downloaded game on your phone to pass the time, or “doom scrolling” on social media.
To have more fun, evaluate your activities using the framework above and see where they fall within each category. As you go through the exercise, ideas will inevitably emerge about which of your activities maximize your opportunities for fun and which activities are most likely squandering your time and can be eliminated or improved upon.
For instance, you might always turn on the news in the evening because that’s part of your habitual routine. But after evaluation, you realize you don’t really enjoy that block of time, and the news has little impact on your life. To improve, you swap your time watching the news for dedicated time to check in with friends. In contrast to being fed a continued course of negative information, you instead feast on the latest updates from people you really care about.
This new prosocial activity (catching up with friends) in the “Pleasing” category replaces the “Yielding” activity (of news consumption) and over time increases the number of opportunities you have to experience and broaden your positive emotions.
If you find yourself stuck after your initial audit and in need of a nudge to get you started, a simple reframing trick can go a long way.
Go into your next weekend with a vacation mindset where the only thing needed is to make an honest attempt to live up to the prompt “treat the weekend like a vacation.” Using this approach, I wager that you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results. Research from Dr. Cassie Holmes and her colleagues showed that people that engage in treating their weekend as a vacation tend to have more fun, live more in the present moment, and start their next week significantly happier when compared to a control group.
Fun for fun’s sake is important, but prosocial activities that you are comfortable with—such as having a meal with family members you haven’t seen in a while or meeting a friend for a hike—are especially vital right now considering the huge deficit of human interaction we have all faced the past year. While you begin the process of reorganizing your week for more fun, if you can find fun opportunities to share with others who consider making these activities a priority.
Moving Forward With Fun
Applying time and effort towards having fun comes in many shapes and sizes, so take time to experiment and find what works for you. Remember to enjoy the process along the way. Being more fun doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of obligations, but instead finding those things you can do more habitually that unlock passages to joyful opportunities. This practice helps broaden the spectrum of your positive emotions, and may even lead to more happiness by proxy. Make it less about a goal-oriented endeavor and instead reconnect with what has been waiting for you all along—the things unique to you that you find fun, and the activities and people in your life that bring you authentic joy. In this way, we can find that we never needed to ‘arrive’ at happiness; it was actually within us all along.
Dr. Mike Rucker is the author of “The Fun Habit,” a book offering a practical reframing of positive psychology, making the case we should cultivate the habit of fun to bring a greater sense of happiness and joy to our lives. “The Fun Habit” is set to release in late 2021.