Whenever my clients realize that they're wasting time on faux fun, they always make the same mistake: They try to replace their bad habits with some strenuously virtuous activity, such as exercise, housecleaning, or office overtime. This does not work. The only thing that can successfully replace faux fun is real fun.
If you have no idea what you like doing—if you've never had fun in your life and don't know how to figure out what you enjoy—get help. Total funlessness is as serious as a heart attack and deserves the same kind of respect. Get a medical checkup; the problem may be exhaustion, illness, or chemical imbalance, in which case you need treatment. If you don't, you might have unhealed emotional wounds, such as a trauma or loss you've never processed. A therapist can make worlds of difference, and you should consult one. For less severe cases, these techniques can reconnect you with your sense of fun:
Technique 1: Fishing for smiles.
Sit down with a notebook and list things you enjoy—anything from picking your teeth to touring Nepal. As you write down each item, seriously consider doing that very thing later today or this week or this year. You'll have different emotional reactions to each idea. We're looking for one in particular, something I call the Spontaneous Smile. This is a smile that bubbles up almost irrepressibly, like a beach ball popping out of water. You don't feel that you're smiling so much as being smiled. Your whole body may relax. I've seen this happen to people—and felt it happen to me—while contemplating very small pleasures, say, tickling a cat, or very large ones, such as getting married. I've learned to trust this response as a powerful clue from the true self, a signal that one's innate sense of fun has been awakened and is pointing the way to a joyful, meaningful life.
Technique 2: Childhood revisited.
Genetic research suggests that our fun preferences are largely inborn and remain consistent throughout life. The time when we're free to act on them is usually childhood, so that's another great place to look for your funprint.
In your trusty notebook, begin listing things you remember enjoying as a child. Pay particular attention to things that made you "lose time," so that hours seemed to disappear in seconds. What absorbed you that completely? Telling stories? Climbing trees? Playing dress-up? You may want to ask family members, whose recollections can jog your memory.
Next, look for patterns in this childhood fun. Did you like playing alone or with others? Inside or outside? Calmly or roughly? With words, objects, or actions? Almost certainly those preferences still exist in you, even after all your years in prep school or prison or wherever. No socialization is so complete that it can override the funprint buried in our genes. Choosing careers, avocations, and personal activities that fit this code will make you happier and more purposeful across the board.
Technique 3: Real-time research.
This technique requires that you keep a cursory "fun journal" on a calendar. Every day jot down a brief list of your major activities. Give each experience a fun "score," with zero meaning no fun and ten meaning fun-tabulous. As the days go by, you'll begin to see which activities and people yield the most fun—and you'll be surprised. My clients almost always find that the activities they think will be supremely fun (eating dinner at the Ritz) consistently rank lower than things they've been taking for granted (eating Ritz crackers for dinner). Almost all of us can have wonderful fun without nearly as much money, education, beauty, and power as we think we need.
These methods are just training wheels designed to get you to the real goal of continuously feeling and responding to your sense of fun. Once you've learned to do that, it's time to align your actual behavior with your funprint. This is as far from trivial and self-indulgent as you can get. It may be the biggest, bravest thing you'll ever do.
For example, when my friend Gloria gave up the faux fun of chain-smoking, she discovered that her perpetual nicotine high had masked a profound lack of joy in her perfect-looking life. Her funless marriage couldn't stand the strain, and overnight Gloria went from country club socialite to starving student–single mother. She enrolled in college; she'd call me every so often to say, "I have no money, no social life, no time to do anything but study. I've never had so much fun in my life!" Today, six years later, Gloria is taking the board exams to become an MD. Her funprint led her right through med school, and she is following it onward, planning to do volunteer pediatrics in the Third World.
This isn't the sort of life that pops into our minds when we hear the phrase "Girls just wanna have fun," but I think maybe it should. Although most people don't stray as far from their purpose as Gloria did, we all tend to take unexpected and interesting turns when we do what thrills us most. I don't know where your funprint might take you should you decide to find and follow it, but I am pretty sure that along the way you'll be challenged, scared, stretched to your limits, and gratified almost beyond belief. You'll probably make this world a much, much better place. But we'll never know unless you try.
Martha Beck is the author of Finding Your Own North Star (Three Rivers) and Expecting Adam (Berkley).
More Insight From Martha Beck
From the May 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
We Hear You!