I have been slightly miserable, of late. Yes, because of wanton slaughter and injustice and environmental disaster, but also for the supremely selfish reason that I want, need, more fun. It has suddenly struck me that I have worked a bit too hard my whole life long. And now—send in the clowns—I am ready to play, but in the rare spontaneous moments where that is possible, my husband, the playmate closest at hand, is preoccupied with class or politics or routine. He has always had lower expectations of life than I do; he is content simply for things not to go wrong. So he continues his research or his doomscrolling and humors me with replies that boil down to “Sure, honey, we’ll have fun someday soon.”
Complicating my new need is a shift in my definition of fun. I mainly work from home now, so the goofy or semi-hysterical moments of collegiality that broke the workplace’s tedium are gone. Theater and music require an actuary’s assessment of contagion risk. To plop down on the sofa for a streaming binge, I have to be physically exhausted. To enjoy a book thoroughly, I need it to be both funny and deep—why is it that so many of us Serious people are too serious? Why are so many books either laced with physical or emotional violence or cozily devoid of substance?
Junk food burgers or ice cream treats used to act as signposts: “We are having fun now!” Alas, my body has finally come to understand the meaning of the adjective “junk.” Shopping used to be fun, but it has been reduced to an electronic spin through hell. Travel could be fun, but I am not brave enough or rich enough to do it right, and lesser dislocations are often as much work as they are play. Human nature used to be fascinating, stories and gossip a ready source of delight; now it is more often an occasion of disappointment or tragedy.
Food and conversation are still good; so are hikes in the woods. But when was the last time I laughed so hard I cried? Where is the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of fun, the “boisterous joviality or merrymaking”? I would wonder if people my age are just weary, except that Millennials seem even less inclined to laugh; they mastered irony and Experiences but forgot about fun. Overall, it seems to me, we all make sure to have diversions and escapes, but we do not really play.
I am thinking all this, grumbling and comparing, succumbing to a FOMO I thought I was too mature ever to feel—and one that seems inaccurate to boot, since nobody around me is having too much fun either—when I open The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. And there it is, in boldface:
The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.
I am making myself miserable trying to have fun. That has a ring of truth. But I have a hard time thinking my husband’s doomscrolling is more positive. I do remember how, in the early days of COVID, there was a novelty to all the limitations. If you could subtract the mortal fear, it was almost a game, figuring out the new rules and how to stay safe and what fun you could still have within those new constraints.
But lockdown gets old.
Having typed those two sentences, I feel the tingle of an epiphany. The central tension in our marriage is that Andrew likes the familiar and I crave novelty. And as you move through life, less and less is novel. New people remind you, à la Miss Marple, of someone you once knew. New ideas feel like old ones reframed. New technology…is not fun.
Nor am I the only one feeling this lack. In a One Poll survey of 2,000 Brits, more than half said that the older you get, the harder it is to find amusement in everyday life. Those ages twenty-five to thirty-four were the least happy (5.9 on a scale of 10). One fourth of all respondents said they were just too busy to enjoy their lives. They also said the very “concept of fun” ended when they entered adulthood.
When I watch my friends and what lights up their faces, the answer is consistent: the successes of their kids and the antics of their grandchildren. I always wrote this off to procreative pride and the joy of being attached to a child but not responsible for their welfare. Hugs, fun, and send them home. Now, I wonder if there is more to it. Because what kids have is what many of us have lost: imagination, and with it, enthusiasm and wonder. “One of the benefits of being a brand new person—one that is wholly unfamiliar with the boring trappings of how the world around you works, is you get to fill in the details with whatever you like,” notes journalist C.W. Headley. That wild cognitive creativity peaks around age six, he continues. Then we begin to absorb the thought patterns of our parents (a process that continues until we become them). Teachers train our brains to categorize, compartmentalize, analyze, reduce. We learn about joykillers like Consequences and Ramifications.
“It is because of their often more heightened sense of imagination and ability to act without worry of what people might think that children are free to embrace the fun side of life,” psychoanalyst Steve McKeown commented alongside the One Poll results. A full 83 percent of the respondents said they usually had more fun when they were around children, and 60 percent said they wanted to reclaim that spark of imagination they felt in childhood.
As good as it feels to know a bit about the world, it was more fun to see it with fresh eyes and think anything was possible. To imagine a hundred different lives; to consider a new degree or language or career without immediately counting the years left and deciding there was no point now. When we were all wide open, the stories we shared about our stumbles, exploits, or unlikely triumphs were priceless. Now, perhaps because we take fewer risks and fuck up less often, the liveliest stories are about kids’ and grandkids’ adventures. Imagination’s role has been narrowed to problem-solving.
A rollicking adulthood would find ways to see the world afresh and reimagine its possibilities. Humor does that, shifting our perspective and toying with our assumptions. Changing up routine does it. Defying limits and expectations. Refusing to be jaded or to dwell on what is no longer possible or worry about what might be. We come to think of fun as anything pleasurable, but what I want is the carefree sort, the laughter that cannot be stifled, the wonder that pops your eyes open. Capitalism co-opted that experience and renamed it “the wow factor,” jazzing up stuff so we would exclaim over it. But good luck trying to manufacture real wonder and lighthearted joy.
Craving fun is a miserable experience; you feel boring and old and bogged down. But realizing what I am craving and why—that is already helping. I had fun at an art festival a few weeks ago because the live music was so good, I started dancing with the dog (he is very good at spins) and people joined in. Anything can be fun if you feel free—free to embarrass yourself, free to experiment, free to use your imagination. It is the difference between shopping because you have to buy what is on your list and shopping to see what might delight you, what might open some new possibility for you. Work is dull when done by rote but great fun when you are brainstorming or playing with new ideas.
It is not the constraints of adulthood that are the problem, but the auto-pilot obedience to all those accumulated habits, rules, conventions. It is not my familiarity with the world (or disappointment at its brokenness) that is the problem, but the jaded way I let that familiarity close off further observations and fresh ideas. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Same-old. It’ll never work. Seen that before.
What would a six-year-old say?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.