Are fun and happiness the same?

Carter Uslabar, Editor in Chief

A side effect of writing is that it makes you question all sorts of things — even things widely accepted as good. One runs the risk of mistakenly portraying themselves as a killjoy, which I’ll invariably do here.

You see, this article’s ticklish subject of inquiry is literally capital-f Fun and happiness, and the relationship between the two. So let’s get to it.

I’ll begin with a bit of hedging: I certainly don’t mean to intimate that Fun is bad. Fun is objectively good, although even this has its limits; unbridled hedonism is no way to live, either.

But, I will say that Fun is a lousy goal. This may sound like a made-up problem, but it’s so often the case that we want a Fun job, to study something Fun, or some other variety of drawn-out Fun. Why is this pursuit of Fun such a bad thing? It’s bad due to its ephemerality; it’s short-lived, and its extension is often costly to mental, financial, and temporal resources. Plus we’ll grow sick of it. Sadly, we can’t drown ourselves in endless Fun because the buoyancy of hedonic adaptation invariably pulls us to the surface, just as an addict’s tolerance for their vice constantly increases. We’ll always be left wanting.

Next, Fun is a bad goal because it’s usually not what we actually want. Fun might occupy a mental state interchangeable with happiness, but the two are quite different indeed. As you would say all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares, you could just as well say all Fun is happiness, but not all happiness is Fun. That might sound like drivel, but I’m convinced it’s an important distinction to make.

One way to illustrate this is through a mental model of measure or magnitude. Happiness is low in magnitude and high in measure, meaning it doesn’t bring much overwhelming joy in any particular moment, but it’s fairly constant over a long period of time. On the other hand, Fun is low measure and high magnitude, so it might not add a lot of value to our life in total, but in its moment it’s dense with pleasure and excitement.

The problem with this is that the high-measure happiness is relatively static, and thus goes unnoticed. Conversely, the high-magnitude Fun we experience here and there is inherently conspicuous.

Therefore, when the end toward which we work is Fun, we inadvertently invoke a sort of McNamara fallacy, wherein because day-to-day happiness takes time and effort to pay attention to, we ignore it altogether in favor of the easily observable Fun. It’s like there’s a certain threshold of magnitude that must be crossed before we’re able to observe it in the moment. Because we only notice Fun crossing that threshold, it becomes the object of our pursuit despite truly seeking the underlying happiness.

The problem that results is two-fold:

First, we spurn opportunities that might not be spectacularly Fun, yet might bring us some level of the contentment that is happiness, and instead hold out for more Fun. By averting our eyes from anything that’s not shiny, new, and Fun, we lose out on life’s simple, high-measure pleasures.

Second, and more importantly, the quest for endless Fun is a fast track to disappointment. How many people have grown despondent in work, school, relationships, or innumerable other domains when they found it doesn’t provide ample enough Fun? When we misconstrue happiness to be equivalent to Fun, we invariably see our lives, which aren’t perpetually Fun, as failures in some way and lose faith in the paths we’re taking. Even if they do make us happy.

To be certain, concepts of Fun and happiness, which bend and blend into one amorphous emotion or experience, lack the crucial specificity of proper goals. Part of the trouble has to do with societally prescribed notions of happiness and Fun which so often lead nowhere. You already know that. But when happiness is gently distinguished from Fun — when it no longer seems like a foreign condition of overflowing joy lying just beyond our reach — we can start to see what it really is. We can start to see it as your lover refilling your cup of coffee on a quiet Saturday morning, a dog’s tail wagging as you come out of the cold and into the kitchen after a long day, or successfully getting your children out of the house and to school on time.

Of course, getting your kids out of the house in time for school isn’t Fun, but it’s an element of happiness nonetheless. Happiness, I believe, is a sum or collection of feelings and moments, as opposed to Fun’s focused, discrete moments. Meaning, should a person reflect on their life, I think they’d be less inclined to talk about their wedding (Fun) than they are to talk about their marriage as a whole (the source of happiness).

Therefore, a good way to think of happiness is by thinking of it almost in terms of nostalgia, or a side effect of reflection and gratitude.

This is perhaps the most important reason why happiness and Fun are such elusive goals: we can’t connect the dots looking forward. Many of the things that make us truly happy, fulfilled, or whatever word or feeling you want to think of this as aren’t things we’re thrilled about in the moment and would hesitate to deliberately choose. Writing tedious bits of code is not Fun. Teaching unruly seven-year-olds is not Fun. But they’re the necessary means to the end that is happiness.

If we can keep that in mind by practicing gratitude, or writing it on the mirror, or any other “Memento”-like hack to keep it at the front of our mind, we might find we don’t need Fun the way we so desperately think we do now.

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