Author Talks: Don’t spoil the fun

Even in difficult times, says Catherine Price, fun should be a priority, not an afterthought.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Catherine Price about her new book, The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again (The Dial Press, December 2021). Binge-watching a favorite show may feel good in the moment, but like junk food, passive consumption—or “junk flow”—fails to truly nourish. To boost happiness, productivity, resilience, and more, Price shares tips on how to incorporate more playfulness—with family and coworkers—into daily life. An edited version of the conversation follows. 

Why is this pandemic moment a good time for a how-to book on fun?

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At first glance, it might seem like the absolute worst time for a book on fun, since we are in year three of a global pandemic, and many people are feeling like fun is the last thing they possibly could devote attention to. But what I’ve come to conclude from researching and writing this book, which I did through the whole pandemic—I signed the book contract in April 2020, so it’s very much a pandemic project—is that we’re really thinking about this wrong.

We typically think of fun as something that we can only have or experience when things are already going well, but what I’ve come to realize is that the opposite is true. Actually, fun can boost our resilience and our spirits in a way that makes it easier for us to cope with whatever life may throw our way, whether it’s a global pandemic or anything else. We really need to rethink how we think about fun—less as a treat that we have only if everything’s already going great and more as a tool that we can tap into to help ourselves weather the challenges that life may present us with.

We typically think of fun as something that we can only have or experience when things are already going well, but what I’ve come to realize is that the opposite is true. Actually, fun can boost our resilience and our spirits in a way that makes it easier for us to cope with whatever life may throw our way, whether it’s a global pandemic or anything else.

What is ‘true fun’?

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One of the more interesting things that I stumbled upon when I was trying to write a book about fun is that there’s actually not a very good definition of what fun truly is. To back up for a second, my last book was called How to Break Up with Your Phone, which was about creating better boundaries with our devices. The ultimate message of that book was that our lives are what we pay attention to; every time we make a decision in the moment about how we spend our attention, we’re making a much broader decision about our lives. No pressure, right?

I felt pretty good about that conclusion, but what I hadn’t realized at that point is that the next step is to choose what you actually want to spend your attention on. I concluded that I’ve gotten so used to just filling my own time with mindless distractions on my devices that I no longer knew what I wanted to do with my time. I had a little bit of an existential crisis as a result of that realization, but I ended up asking myself a question that I asked people when I was researching How to Break Up with Your Phone. That question was “What’s something you always say you want to do, but you supposedly don’t have time for?”

My answer to that question was “I want to learn how to play guitar.” I have a guitar. It’s sitting right over there as I speak to you. I never learned how to play it. I signed up for this guitar class, adult guitar class, on Wednesday nights—BYOB, 1 very laid back—and when I went to the class, I started feeling this feeling of buoyancy and energy that really kept my spirits raised for the rest of the week. I thought “This is really interesting. What is this feeling that I’m experiencing?” And I realized that the best word to describe it was fun.

I also realized that if you look up the definition of fun in the dictionary, it’s pleasure, but there was something much deeper going on. I felt this real sense of connection with the people I was with. I was very much in flow, and we weren’t doing it for any purpose. It was just for play, and it really was moving me deeply. All that is to say that I realized I had to come up with my own definition of fun. Based on my own experiences and based on the feedback and the anecdotes shared with me by thousands of people around the world, I came up with the idea that fun—or, as I call it, “true fun”—is the confluence of three psychological states: playfulness, connection, and flow.

It is playfulness in the sense that you’re doing things just for the sake of doing them, and you’re not caring too much about the outcome—we were playing guitar not for performance, believe me, but just for the fun of it. The connection, I think, is a fundamental element of fun because in the vast majority of situations or anecdotes people have shared with me, another person or another creature was involved. There are also cases in which you can be truly connected to an activity or to your authentic self or to your body, but often there’s a person, even for introverts.

Flow is the psychological state in which you get so absorbed in your present experience that you lose track of time, like an athlete in the midst of a game or a musician playing a piece of music or even when you’re in the middle of a really engaging conversation. The important point here is that flow is very different from what’s known as “junk flow,” which is the passive state we get into when we’re just consuming content. All of those states are great on their own, but I’ve come to conclude that when we are having what people describe as fun—true fun—those three elements are present. It’s playful, connected, flow, and that’s what was happening in my guitar class.

I asked people to share anecdotes with me about their own experiences of fun and then subsequently asked, “Would the words ‘playful, connected, flow’ apply to what you just told me?” The vast majority of people in my sample said yes. That is what I define as true fun.

So that means there is also ‘fake fun’?

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One of the things I noticed when I was figuring out a definition of what I refer to now as true fun is that the fact that we have not had a very good definition of fun means that we have been using it very carelessly, almost sloppily, in our everyday speech. We talk about all sorts of things as fun—from a dinner party that really wasn’t that much fun at all to doing something for fun that, if you reflect upon it, actually wasn’t, like wasting time on social media.

In other words, we’re very vulnerable to any company or marketer who wants to tell us that their product or activity is fun. We will just go along with that, without really thinking about it, even though the experience and the feelings that result from some of these activities are very different from this feeling—playful, connected, flow—that I got when I asked people to share experiences from their own lives that they described as having been so much fun.

We’re very vulnerable to any company or marketer who wants to tell us that their product or activity is fun. We will just go along with that, without really thinking about it, even though the experience and the feelings that result from some of these activities are very different from this feeling—playful, connected, flow—that I got when I asked people to share experiences from their own lives that they described as having been so much fun.

I came up with a term for the activities and products that are marketed to us as fun but that aren’t actually playful, connected, flow. That term is “fake fun.” The reason I think it’s important to distinguish between true fun and fake fun is that once you are able to give something a label, it becomes a lot easier to make better decisions about how you allocate your time. One thing I really want to highlight, though, is that when I say fake fun, I’m really referring to passive consumption that goes on for too long and that makes you feel gross afterward or any activity that essentially leaves you feeling as if you’ve binged on junk food—stuff that you find yourself consuming in excess, but then you feel disgusting afterward.

There’s true fun and there’s fake fun. The important thing to keep in mind, before people start pushing back on the idea that watching their favorite TV show isn’t fun, is that there’s also a middle category of things that we really do enjoy that are relaxing or nourishing or that we look forward to. We should keep doing those things too. It’s just that we don’t want to allow those things to cross the line over into fake-fun territory, because that’s how they’re designed. In other words, if you’re watching your favorite show, you might really love watching it for two or three episodes. The fact that it keeps playing on autoplay, without even giving you a chance to reach for the remote, means that you’re much more likely to tip over into fake-fun territory.

Do we have to read 300 pages to get the power of fun?

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I don’t know if reading 300 pages about the power of fun is really fun. I hope it is, but I think my bigger hope is that it will actually be thought provoking. I think I pose some challenging questions in there, and I should warn people straight up, there’s a whole chapter that’s titled “Why you feel dead inside,” with a reminder of your mortality.

It’s not like it’s all fun, but I like having fun when I write, so I tried to make the book as personal and as lively as possible. My ultimate hope is that it will help people think about their own lives differently and give them suggestions that they can take or leave or play with and enable them to understand why fun is so important and why it shouldn’t be at the bottom of our priority list; it should be at the top. People can then start to make concrete changes to their own lives to build in more opportunities for playful, connected, flow or—and this is very true right now in the pandemic, when we are quite restricted—to appreciate the playful, connected, flow around us all the time, every day.

You value things and are able to think more intelligently about them if you have names for them. I think that making a point of noticing moments of playfulness, noticing moments of connection, and noticing moments of flow really can go a long way in helping us to benefit psychologically from the moments of fun that we are already experiencing. For example, right now I’m getting a chance to connect with you and the audience about my book. That’s amazing; that’s actually quite fun. I’m definitely in playful, connected, flow. But without giving it a name or labeling it, I don’t think I necessarily would appreciate it as much. Instead, my brain would do the natural brain thing of focusing on the negative because that is evolutionarily a benefit, to be able to always scan the environment for threats. We are constantly on high alert, but that’s very stressful and anxiety producing.

One of my hopes for the book, in addition to its being a fun read, is a benefit I’ve also seen for myself: it helps us shift away from our natural tendency to focus on the negative and actually begin to appreciate some of the other stuff that’s much more positive that happens all the time, even in difficult times. I should also say I’m not a Pollyanna at all. I’m very cynical and prone to existentialism, but for me the book’s been enormously helpful. I would think if it’s helpful for someone like me, it would be even more helpful if your natural inclination is to be a positive, sunny person.

One of my hopes for the book, in addition to its being a fun read, is a benefit I’ve also seen for myself: it helps us shift away from our natural tendency to focus on the negative and actually begin to appreciate some of the other stuff that’s much more positive that happens all the time, even in difficult times.

What is the structure to finding true fun?

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The structure of the book is that it starts with an investigation and an exploration into what fun actually is because, as I mentioned, there’s really no good definition of it. Then it moves on to look into why it’s good for us, which I think is fascinating. I’m a science journalist by background, and I never would have thought fun was good for us. But, in fact, by lowering our stress levels and making us feel more connected to the people and creatures in our lives—and a number of other things—it actually is enormously good, not just for our emotional and mental health, but also our physical health.

I lay out the case to try to elevate fun from something that we consider an afterthought to something that we truly internalize as worth our attention and time. I lay out this definition of playful, connected, flow. In the second half of the book, I wanted to help put these ideas into practice. Great, I believe fun is playful, connected, flow. How the heck are you supposed to create more of that for yourself? The whole second half of the book is a step-by-step plan to help people identify what brings them into a state of playful, connected, flow—because what does it for me may be different from what does it for you—and then to actually build more opportunities for those moments into their lives.

I created this framework I called SPARK, which is short for “making space, pursuing passions, attracting fun, rebelling”—which is very fun—and keeping at it. I give suggestions for each of these elements, so that people can put that into practice and try to generate more opportunities for fun in their everyday lives. If you’re doing something exotic and traditionally fun, like going on vacation, that’s great, but I want you to be able to have more fun when you’re stuck at home as well.

My six-year-old daughter is already on my case about my book. During one of the more stressful moments of writing the book, she said to me, “Mama, you’re writing a book about fun, but you don’t seem to be having fun.” Fair enough, in that particular moment I was not. It was a really good reminder because I think that I was focusing on the challenge and the struggle of writing a book instead of taking my own message to heart in that moment and trying to find those moments of playful, connected, flow.

It was very helpful to have my daughter say that. She’s a master at fun. She’s also very good at telling adults to put down their phones. She’s been known to just hand out copies of How to Break Up with Your Phone to people, including my husband, which is pretty funny. She’s a good advocate.

Less phone-time, more true fun. What’s next?

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It’s been interesting to me to see that my books have been leading into each other. Before these two books, I wrote a book called Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food, which was an exploration into something we take for granted. In that way, it was connected. It’s been interesting to me that How to Break Up with Your Phone did lead directly to The Power of Fun because once I started to create better boundaries with my devices, I ended up with all this free time. That led to The Power of Fun.

Now people are asking me about the next book in this series, to which I say, “Give an author a break here, guys. This just came out.” I’m tired. I’m trying to have more fun myself. I’m totally serious about that because it is really exhausting. It is so exhausting to write and launch a book, but one thing that I’ve been enjoying is that since I have really thought about fun in a very analytical way, and tried to make this as practical as possible, I want to give myself the space and time to have more of it myself.

I already am having a fair amount of fun, considering the restrictions of the pandemic. I grew up in New York in this building that had a lot of old artists, and I remember I had this neighbor who was really interesting. His sister was married to one of the Gershwins and actually inspired the song “You say tomato, I say tomato.” 2 It was a crazy interesting building, and there was this very old neighbor who had been a Ziegfeld Follies girl. I remember that she said to me one day in the lobby, “Darling, you need to lay fallow once in a while.” That always stood out for me.

It’s not my strong suit at all, but right now I would really like to lay fallow and see what comes next. I will say that my favorite writing, which I did work into this book but would like to do more of, is first-hand personal essays that make people laugh and make them think a little bit differently about their own lives by laughing at my experiences and ridiculous adventures. I would love to be in a position where the world is open enough that I can go and do more stuff and then write more of this type of essay to share with people. I hope that by helping people to see the world differently and laugh, I can inspire them to live their own lives more fully. I would say that’s the goal, but fallow—I need to practice that.

When is the last time you had true fun?

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I’m happy to say that I have fun very regularly—I should also say we’re speaking during the Omicron wave, and I am very COVID-19 cautious, so I’m really very restricted right now. But I would say I had fun going ice skating with my daughter just a week ago. I also had a lot of fun with a friend of mine from my guitar class, who’s already had Omicron, so I feel like he’s safe. We tested, and then he gave me a blues guitar lesson the other day, and I had a ton of fun doing that. I also just adopted a dog—not a pandemic puppy, she’s older. My husband and I have been having a lot of true fun connecting with this little creature. Just in the past week, I’m happy to say that I’ve had a number of different moments of playful, connected, flow.

All that is to say, I think it’s possible. I will also say, though, that one thing I did take away from my book that might be useful to anyone listening is that when you’re a kid, fun does happen more spontaneously. There are more opportunities for fun that just come to you when you’re a kid, probably because you’re more playful by nature. You’re not yet a perfectionist, you’re not yet self-critical, you haven’t yet been trained to consider nothing worth doing unless it’s in exchange for money, and you don’t really have that many responsibilities, because someone’s taking care of you.

When you’re a kid, fun does happen more spontaneously. There are more opportunities for fun that just come to you when you’re a kid, probably because you’re more playful by nature. You’re not yet a perfectionist, you’re not yet self-critical, you haven’t yet been trained to consider nothing worth doing unless it’s in exchange for money, and you don’t really have that many responsibilities, because someone’s taking care of you.

As adults, it does take effort to prioritize fun. It does take effort and conversations with your spouse to create time for each of you to have it. It does take some effort to think back on your own life to reflect on what activities and people and settings typically generate fun for you, and then actually to make space for those things in your calendar. I am here to say that it is so worth it. You will be happier, you’ll be healthier, you’ll be more productive and creative and more resilient. Perhaps most important of all, you’ll have more fun. That’s what I hope people will take away from this book.

Any pro tips on bringing more fun into a (virtual) workplace?

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It can be a real challenge to try to fabricate fun, especially in a group workplace setting. I’m not going to claim to have the perfect answer to that, because I do think that fun is much like romance: if you try to force it too much, it’s not going to happen. What you can do, though, is set the stage for it—light the candles for fun and hope that it will come in. I think if you’re in a leadership role, one thing that actually is conducive to fun is to allow your humanity to show. When we are having fun, one of the prerequisites is that you’re not putting on a facade; you are actually expressing your authentic self. You are laughing with people. You’re letting down your guard and letting go of it. That is not something that often happens in a professional culture. I think anyone in a leadership position who’s able to make a joke at their own expense—or just have a more lighthearted, less professional, less jargony attitude—that’s going to help.

Fun is much like romance: if you try to force it too much, it’s not going to happen. What you can do, though, is set the stage for it—light the candles for fun and hope that it will come in. I think if you’re in a leadership role, one thing that actually is conducive to fun is to allow your humanity to show. When we are having fun, one of the prerequisites is that you’re not putting on a facade; you are actually expressing your authentic self. You are laughing with people. You’re letting down your guard and letting go of it.

I wouldn’t necessarily do this on a Zoom call, but one thing I found helpful in personal life is to create what I consider to be playgrounds for fun or props for fun. Don’t freak out everybody who’s a grown-up and is, like, “I am not going on monkey bars.” I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about structures that facilitate fun in the form of letting people let down their guard a bit. In your personal life, it basically is anything you can do to get people engaged in doing something together, so that they’re not just going to fall into the same rut of talking about the pandemic or politics or whatever it may be.

One thing I found useful in my own life is to leave a bowl of conversation prompts on our table, even though we don’t have anyone over for dinner right now. We just use them ourselves: little things like, “What was your go-to outfit when you were a teenager?” That’s a fun one to ask multiple generations. Or “What’s a song that always makes you happy?” These little prompts give people something else to grab onto and allow them to interact with each other in a different way.

Props get people to interact differently with each other. For example, you might notice I have a friendship bracelet on my right hand. I’m 43. Why do I have a friendship bracelet on my wrist? Well, that’s because I organized a friend camp this past summer for friends and their families during a pretty good moment in the pandemic, when there was lots of testing. I left out a box of embroidery floss and a hula hoop and thought, “I don’t know if anyone is going to do anything with this. There’s a bunch of people in their 40s. Maybe the kids.”

I looked over, and there was a whole group of adults making friendship bracelets—men and women—and chatting with each other in a way that was very different and never would have happened if they had just said, “Let’s sit down and talk.” Similarly, people just started hula hooping. The person you would have thought to be least interested in that hula hoop was definitely hula hooping and getting people to teach him how to do it. All that is to say, I think that if we’re able to provide people with little opportunities to interact with each other in different ways and on a more human level, that’s really helpful. If you are able to see each other in person, that’s also very helpful.

Another thing I would suggest—as a thing to think about in the workplace or beyond—is starting a delight practice, which is a way to introduce what I call a fun mindset. Which is just shifting your attitude to be more appreciative of opportunities for playful, connected, flow that already exist. To do that, it’s very simple: notice things in your environment that bring you any delight. It does not need to be profound or awe inspiring—it can be a funny squirrel. A friend of mine texted me a picture of ice crystals on his windshield, and it said, “Delight.” I think that it actually could be a nice thing, which doesn’t feel onerous in a workplace culture, to just suggest that you spend a week sharing delights with each other. You could do that on Slack. You could do that wherever you use workplace communication, like a text chain.

I think that’s an excellent use of technology because it actually brings people closer, gives them something positive to notice in their lives, and is self-reinforcing. For example, every time my friend texted me, he could have said, “Oh, it’s cold out.” He lives in Boston. He could have said, “Darn, I’ve got to scrape the ice off of my windshield. This is so annoying.” Instead, because we’ve had this delight chain going on for a while, he thought, “Those are really beautiful,” so he took a picture and he sent it to me, and when I got it, I got a sense of delight. That’s another suggestion that’s very easy to implement in a workplace setting or elsewhere.

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