Each of us is born with a propensity to have fun doing certain types of activities, in certain proportions—you may love doing something I hate and vice versa. I call the pattern of activities you most enjoy your "funprint," and like your thumbprint it's unique. It seems obvious to me (and research backs me up) that we are most productive, persistent, creative, and flexible when we're engaged in precisely the combination of activities that brings us maximum fun. Your funprint isn't a frivolous indulgence. It is the map of your true life, an instruction manual for your essential purpose, written in the language of joy. Learning to read and respond to it is one of the most crucial things you'll ever do.
My views on fun rely on a rather narrow definition of the word. Fun is sometimes used to describe both the best and worst of human behavior. Bullies may torment others for "fun"; addicts may have "fun" that destroys their health and relationships. I'm using quotation marks because these forms of fun aren't really fun. They're faux fun, and they lead straight to misery. It isn't difficult to tell faux and real fun apart once you've learned to recognize the manic giddiness of the former and the nourishing pleasure of the latter.
If you're not clear which is which, the following factors can help you spot a fake:
1. Faux fun helps you ignore problems; real fun helps you face them.
In high school I had a group of talented friends who defined fun as playing fantasy games and smoking pot. The more stress they felt at school, the more they pursued "fun" that helped them ignore their anxiety and its underlying causes. Another group of friends tackled school stress by scheduling study sessions during which everyone would work in silence for periods of half an hour, with breaks in between spent talking and joking. The companionship of these friends may not sound very hip, but I found it more fun than the thinly veiled distress of my pothead buddies.
2. Faux fun gets boring; real fun never does.
Real sources of fun are what psychologists call renewable pleasures, enjoyable no matter how many times you do them. For example, if you're getting just enough food, eating will be fun for you at every meal. But if you're devouring more than your body needs, you'll need more and more exotic treats to make food interesting (I indulge in this form of faux fun every December, without fail).
If you have a voracious need for more and more expensive toys, prestigious awards, kinky sex, and so on, the root of your craving probably isn't the sparkle of real fun, but an inner void.
3. If you're having real fun, you'll never regret it.
Guzzling a gallon of tequila may be fun for a while, but eventually, it's going to make you feel like hell. The same is true of all faux-fun pursuits: You can identify them by their wretched aftermath.
The discomforts of alcohol abuse are obvious, but all faux fun creates a hangover. Have you ever had a conversation that seemed enjoyable but left you feeling wary or uneasy? Your instincts are telling you that at least part of the fun was false. I've experienced this after interactions where either I or some other person was dishonest, mean-spirited, or passive. Often I didn't see the problem until a disturbance in the Fun Force prompted me to identify and change my behavior.
4. Real fun makes everyone feel better; faux fun makes everyone feel worse.
I recently read an interview with a radio shock jock who spends virtually all his on-air time humiliating people. This man is constantly smiling and laughing, as are his guests, though many of them later seem traumatized (one committed suicide after appearing on the show). At one point the reporter asked the shock jock how he was feeling at the moment. "I'm sad," he answered with admirable candor. "I'm always sad." Apparently, this man isn't really "making fun" at all. He's making sadness, not only for the people he mocks but for himself. We can't do deliberate harm without damaging our own psyches, especially if we're dysfunctional enough to call it fun.
Next: 3 techniques to reconnect with your sense of fun