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
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).
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From the May 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.