what is fun? (baby don’t hurt me)
Yes. I chose that title specifically to get a certain song stuck in your head. If you’re American or GenX* or both, you’ll know which one it is. You’re welcome.
(*I’m planning a near-future post concerning my thoughts on the very American phenomenon of shoving humans of the past 130ish years into boxes labeled with specific generational names. Watch for it.)
Even since before I started my brain reset, I’ve been pondering what “fun” means. Mainly because the time span since March 2020 has not felt very fun, and I wonder how that’s affecting all of us.
But what *is* fun? What is it in abstract? What is it specifically to me? How do we figure out what it is we consider “fun”? My most recent experience of depriving myself of certain “fun” things that, in retrospect, turn out not to be quite so enjoyable has made me want to put my wonderings into some coherent form. And so, here we are. I’ll leave it to you, Gentle Reader(s), to decide whether or not I achieve the coherency part.
I’m not a psychologist. I’ve had some education and a little bit of training, but it’s all juuuust enough for me to get myself in trouble. I’m certainly not a psychoanalyst, sociologist, or anthropologist. So don’t expect much science from me on the subject of “fun”. All I have to go on are my own experiences, things I’ve read, conclusions I’ve come up with, and questions. That’s your caveat emptor.
What I can give, at least for starters, is the result of my very brief etymological research. (Etymology is the study of word origins. That’s a little reductive, but it’s enough for my purposes.)
FUN comes to us via the Middle English word “fonne,” which basically meant “fool.” Further back, its origins are unclear, but it’s related to similar words in Norwegian and Swedish, which means it definitely has a Northern Germanic root somewhere. And that’s all’s I got on the etymology, which I find very disappointing.
What’s fun? Apparently, behaving like a fool. “Fool” itself comes from a Latin word meaning “bellows,” as in the big leather bag smiths used to stoke their fires. So, having fun makes you a foolish windbag, which is also disappointing as well as a little insulting.
Moving right along.
We have fun. We enjoy fun things. We think things are funny. We think we are funny. The word origins and historical usage give me an overall impression of laughter, goofy behavior, and holding forth in a silly manner until other people get annoyed. But there are other ways of having fun that have nothing to do with foolish actions.
I have fun researching word origins. My friend Jenai has fun organizing things. My husband has fun listening to a piece of music and analyzing the chord progressions.
It occurs to me that I surround myself with nerds.
But acting goofy is fun too. My daughter, who is nearly 10, has an inordinate amount of fun reciting lines from Vinny Thomas’s Galactic Federation video over and over and cackling maniacally. Over and over. Did I mention over and over? I adore the video and laugh about it often. But I don’t need to hear lines from it every day, and certainly not ten times a day. To me, that is not fun. That is annoying. But to her, it’s the best thing ever and never stops being funny and fun.
Thanks to Marie Kondo, I know that fun is whatever sparks joy. I know that’s not how she means for people to use her phrase, but it works for me in this context. Sadly, it doesn’t work for me in the context of getting my home in a semblance of order, because that activity, to me, is not fun. It doesn’t spark joy.
Although I will admit to having felt joyful satisfaction as I rearranged the kitchen utensils drawer this morning. Is this adulting?
I can think of so many things that are fun to me. Books are fun — both reading them and organizing them and looking at them. All those beautiful, magical otherworlds just waiting for me to explore them. Exploring! That’s fun. Nineteen years ago in Ireland, my dad and I explored the ruins of a castle while the husband and my mom waited in the car, parked on a beach. My dad and I were having so much fun, we almost didn’t get back to the car before the incoming tide cut our vehicle off from the road. That was fun. The husband and the mother disagreed.
Hiking is fun. Another kind of exploration. Dancing is fun. As of this writing, I haven’t participated in a Zumba class in nearly two weeks, and I am dying for that type of fun. Even weightlifting is fun, although I don’t usually feel that way until I’m finished. One result of my various chronic illnesses is that I don’t get The Endorphin High as quickly or as often as other people. That makes exercise not always attractive. Or fun, as it were.
Maybe that’s one reason I’ve never had fun playing competitive sports. Volleyball in high school was utterly demoralizing. Badminton was meh. Dodgeball in elementary school was torture. I don’t have fun watching competitive sports, either, unless it’s dancing. Or figure skating, which is kind of like dancing but with murderblades strapped to your feet. I have fun watching football with enthusiastic fans, but it’s because of their infectious enjoyment, not the sport itself.
Watching other people do the thing is not really my thing. Friends and cousins used to want me to watch them play video games. What to heck? What am I supposed to get out of this? I’m watching you have fun but not getting to participate in the fun. I enjoy playing video games until I win, and then it stops being fun.
Board games can be fun, if it doesn’t take 12 hours to play and there’s a lot of conversation and joking around. Chess is fun, but it’s hard to find other people offline who agree. Card games are fun in a big group if everyone’s a good sport and keeps it light and chatty. Clearly, I’m more about the social interaction than the competition. The minute someone starts getting frustrated or angry that they’re not winning, I stop having fun. Even if I’m winning.
Social interaction is fun, but not if I have too much. That’s draining.
Time by myself is fun. But not if I have too much. That’s…untethering.
Certain societal demographics tell me that as a middle-aged mother, I’m supposed to wear shirts that say things like “it’s wine o’clock” and “they whine, I wine.” But wine mom culture is insidiously depressing to me. “I have stress, so I’m gonna lean on alcohol for support.” This wine-momming phenomenon is not fun. Embracing that culture would mean giving myself over to the same state of being as I’m in when I’m doomscrolling social media. Just another thing to distract me from facing my actual life.
Good drinks and conversation with friends? YES. That’s fun.
Things that are fun to me and things that aren’t. Those are some specifics. But what is fun? I feel like Lt. Cmdr. Data as he does all he can to define a human emotion without having experienced it himself. Is fun even an emotion? Or is it an activity? Yes? I’ve experienced fun, but it’s still an amorphous concept. What’s fun to one person is deadly dull to another. Can there be an objective quantification?
Fun is what sparks joy. Neurons firing, endorphins flooding brain tissue. Yes? Maybe?
Amanda Doyle says: “Rest is to work as play is to gloom.” After we work, we need rest. After we’ve gloomed, we need play? We can’t have fun if our physical, emotional, and mental needs aren’t being met. If I’m not getting enough sleep and regularly, I’ll have no energy or even desire to engage in fun. Does fun take effort? Yes? Or does the enjoyment make it feel effortless?
There’s a lovely quote about fun and play and their opposite. Online sources can’t seem to agree if it comes from Simon Sutton-Smith, Brian Sutton-Smith, or Stuart Brown. But it goes like so:
“The opposite of play isn’t hard work; the opposite of play is depression.”
As someone who has suffered from depression for more than half her life and is now, at age 45, struggling to define what “fun” is, I can confirm this. Play — or fun, if you prefer — requires a certain lightness of heart, a willingness to let go, even a commitment or determination not to let daily cares or the state of the world drag you down. Depression is anything but light. Depression clings with desperation. And depression, even when it’s not circumstantial, sucks you deeper and deeper into an abyss with every personal or universal difficulty.
Looking back at my life, I can identify the times when I played least, the times when I had the least fun: it was during the times I was most lost in depression. I couldn’t play or have fun; I didn’t want to play or have fun.
Work can be fun. Some of the most fun times of my life have been when I was working, when I was putting great effort and resource and time into making something. Creating is always fun for me, whether it’s alone or with other people. Work, if you’ve picked the kind that suits you best, is fun.
Depression is not fun. Depression is play’s opposite. All work and no play means Courtney’s depressed.
What is fun?
Fun is what sparks joy. Fun is play for the sheer joy of it. Fun is work in creating. Fun is an emotion. Fun is an action, a series of actions. Writing this blog post has been fun.
I asked my daughter. She said:
Fun is enjoying things. Running around and getting really dirty!
Sounds like fun to me.