Who stole fun?

In the long sweep of history, we have never been richer or healthier. We have never had so many consumer goods to buy, at such high quality and such low prices. Our boredom can be alleviated at the touch of a button—yet much of the time we feel disengaged and hollow, our highest-intensity experiences somehow inauthentic and lacking in comparison with the simpler enjoyments of our youth.

Maybe we should be asking the obvious question (even if it does sound a bit conspiratorial): Who stole fun?

by Lisa Meekison

© SCOPE Magazine, 2012

This story starts on a summer afternoon, with an egg flying through the sky in the northern Canadian wilderness. It was on a trajectory across the roof of my uncle’s cottage. He, standing on one side of the house, had vaulted it up into the air with one of his elegant overhead throws. On the other side of the house, a dozen or so of his family members waited in the ready-position, tense and expectant. The competition was fierce. The assorted forty-something cousins were the worst: we had decades of crazy rivalries under our belts. But the little kids were right into it too. They kept running into us because they were too excited to stand still, and too focused on watching for the egg to look where they were going. The sun warmed our backs, the tough grass tickled our feet, and our calls and laughter rang out across the lake. We’d gathered at this place for the first family reunion in twenty years, but at that moment, we were only interested in one thing: catching the egg.

Winking in the slanting sunlight, it cleared the cottage’s low roof and hurtled towards my brother. “I’ve got it!” he yelled triumphantly. My cousin, a businesswoman and mother of three, shamelessly threw herself in front of him, but he was taller so the egg was his. He raised his hands and smiled, relishing his victory. But as he caught it, it exploded in a sticky, streaky, gelatinous mess. Raw egg dripped from his hair onto his face, and all over his clothes.

We doubled over, weeping with laughter. The children screamed with excitement: my eighteen-month-old nephew threw himself down on the ground and pounded his plump little fists into the grass with uncontainable glee.

The egg-toss provided pure, exhilarating fun: a taste of the good life. It energized us, and made us feel connected, happy, and alive. It also created a vivid memory that provided an experiential snapshot of the family reunion: this is what it was, this is what we did, this is who we are as a family. But, by very virtue of how much fun it was, it also raised unsettling questions: what made that simple game so transcendent, and why do most of us seem to experience such joyful, visceral fun so rarely?

The answer to these questions involves a journey into the nature of fun and a recognition that something that seems so much a part of life, so inalienable to human experience, has changed profoundly. Fun has become commodified. It’s as if a human birthright has been quietly embezzled, only to be sold back to us in diminished form. And this loss is hurting us because it turns out that fun does matter, both personally and socially.

Most dictionary definitions will describe fun as something that is enjoyable, and this is probably the baseline for how most of us think of it. Although it is difficult to know precisely when the notion of “fun” came into common usage, its appearance in works such as Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, written in 1813, suggest that the term has been with us for at least two hundred years. Anne of Green Gables, written in 1908, sparkles with references to fun. For example, Anne and her friends have “fun” making taffy while trying to prepare a grown-up tea, attending a concert to raise money for a school flag, and naughtily jumping on the bed in the guest bedroom. It’s worth noting that, in each of these scenes, the fun is embedded in activities that are simultaneously part of their daily lives and symbolic of their total way of life, one defined by connection to place, strong community ties, and a keen sense of one’s social role.

However, while this baseline of enjoyment is a useful starting place, fun is a funny topic and there’s more to it than any given dictionary definition. This is because enjoyment, pleasure, and fun are not value-neutral terms in Western culture. As anthropologist Lionel Tiger has pointed out in relation to pleasure, depending on any given religious-political-social climate, fun has been promoted or abhorred, facilitated or banned. In other words, our culturally-rooted attitudes layer meanings on to fun that affect our experience of it. In North America, this has resulted in a paradox in which fun—thanks to an enduring Puritan inheritance —is sniffily dismissed as trivial or juvenile. We also typically see it as too self-evident and nonsensical to discuss seriously, as even Oprah Winfrey found out when her fun-themed issue of O Magazine bombed at the newsstands. This has led to a situation in which there has been virtually no public discourse about fun in the way there has been about happiness and well-being, both of which have become perennial stars in the social sciences and popular culture alike.

In this vacuum, “fun” has come to mean almost anything, depending on the context. It is perfectly possible to think of cross-country skiing, lip balm, going to a restaurant, cross-dressing, beer, watching a movie, cars, surprises, a holiday in Venice, novelty tea towels, sex, a good brainstorm, and Facebook as “fun”, even though they are vastly different things. Perhaps more strangely, it is equally possible to think of these things as fun whether we perceive the experience as a not unpleasant distraction, mildly amusing, highly engaging, or profoundly uplifting. This is problematic because it makes it harder for us to notice, let alone to discuss, the qualities of fun that might be missing from our lives, why they are missing, and the effects that missing them produces, including adverse impacts on our health and happiness.

It is worth, then, giving shape to this discussion: we need to understand what forces are moulding our expectations of fun in order to restore it to its proper place in our lives. This endeavour starts by recognizing a recent inflection point in our relationship with fun that profoundly changed our view of it: the dawn of the era of technology. The philosopher Albert Borgmann has pointed out that the ostensible promise of technology has been with us since the Enlightenment, but where the original focus had been on lifting humanity out of material vulnerabilities such as starvation and disease, from the 1950s it also started to promise more time and opportunity for leisure. Housewives were to be liberated by washing machines; labourers and office workers were to be freed by efficient and automated workplaces; cars and roads were to open up new vistas for exploration, and of course there was to be boundless prosperity for all to take advantage of these benefits. In this brave and beautiful new world, “fun” took flight, changing from something that was specifically demarcated social time (such as Anne’s fundraising concert) or unselfconsciously embedded in day-to-day life (such as Anne’s tea party), to being a self-conscious project.

The increasingly self-conscious pursuit of fun started to reshape the ethos of what life was all about. As early as 1958, the psychoanalyst and writer Martha Wolfenstein suggested that society was seeing the rise of a new “fun morality”: an explicit social imperative to have fun all the time, in all areas of life. However, far from being positive, Wolfenstein saw this fun morality as problematic. First, it created a source of anxiety in which one felt “ashamed” and “secretly worried” that one wasn’t having as much fun as one ought to be. Second, it triggered a strange new pressure for parents, educators, and even employers to ensure that the people around them were always enjoying themselves; it was also their duty to demonstrate that life was supposed to be pleasurable, with boredom to be avoided at all costs. Finally, Wolfenstein worried that in attempting to make everything fun, we were diluting its impact, a point Shakespeare’s Prince Henry elegantly espoused when he said, “If all the year were playing holidays; To sport would be as tedious as to work.”

This was the trigger for the commodification of fun. The rising imperative to have fun, and the anxiety that Wolfenstein argues it produced, created a whole new suite of material and emotional needs: not only did we need to have fun, but we also needed to help others have fun, to record our fun, to demonstrate to others that we were having fun, and to receive emotional assurance that we were having the right amounts and the right kinds of fun. Marketers sell products by promising to meet needs we may or may not even be conscious of, and they lost little time in making us comforting promises that they could satisfy them all. We listened. And this was the second inflection point in our relationship with fun: the dawn of the consumption of fun.

To be fair, this has taken place in an environment in which, since the 1950s, consumption itself has been an integral part of how we understood and pursued leisure in the first place, and the unlimited opportunity to consume vaunted as the quintessence of the good life. If there ever had been a dream of using an increase in available leisure to enhance civic participation, develop the arts, and so on, that quickly gave way to an orientation in which more time and prosperity meant more opportunities to consume. Indeed, consumption itself tends to be viewed as “fun”, possibly because of a lingering polarity with its apparent opposites, production and work, possibly because it is dazzling and glamorous, and possibly because we quickly lost site of the fact that fun in the context of daily tasks, social life, and even work often involves more effort than laying down a credit card. The most exquisite examples of consumption itself being vaunted as fun are the world’s sparkling super-malls such as the West Edmonton Mall, the Mall of America in Bloomington, the Dubai Mall, and the new Golden Resources Mall in Beijing, which overtly bill themselves as “family fun” and promote shopping-as-experience. But more intimate and close-to-home examples abound too, perhaps one of the most poignant of which is the design trend to make over formal dining rooms into home theatres, where we consume entertainment someone else has made, instead of nourishment we’ve made ourselves.

Beyond this, however, is the reality that marketers frequently promote specific products and services as “fun”, irrespective of their actual natures and functions. Marketers make implicit and explicit promises about fun. Implicit promises rely on consumers recognizing and responding to shared cultural referents. For example, alcohol marketers implicitly promise fun when they show people consuming their products at parties or in fantasy leisure spaces, such as ski resorts and cottages. It’s also possible to suggest fun through the use of symbols such as, for example, McDonald’s Ronald McDonald clown, or even more subtly, Coca-Cola’s use of the colour red, which conjures the jolliness of the Big Top. The inevitable joyful smiles in advertisements about everything from yogurt sticks to jewellery are similarly offered as irrefutable evidence of fun and happiness.

Lest these suggestions be too subtle, however, other advertising campaigns spell it right out for us. At the time of writing, for example, Pop Tarts is running a campaign called “Joylicious”, in which they claim that Pop Tarts are “sprinkled with joy, frosted with fun”. Their online advertisement shows sad, bored little figures, yawning in a barren black and white world, until, suddenly, they catch the scent of Pop Tarts brought by a colourful, dancing messenger. The voice-over claims that “on a dull, dull day, in a ho-hum world, something wonderful is as near as your nose.” The black and white figures themselves become colourful as they eat the Pop Tarts, and we are left with the promise that any day can be “joylicious”.

But let’s be straight: Pop Tarts are sugary toast-like snacks, and while eating sweet things will bring a fleeting flicker of pleasure to the palate, there is nothing in them to suggest they will deliver actual fun and joy. Pop Tarts are targeted at children, of course, but there is no doubt that advertisers see adults as equally susceptible to fun’s appeal. Last summer, for example, two separate campaigns used fun as a way to sell fuel-efficient cars. In New York, Toyota 4Runner billboards promised, “Less Fuel, More Fun”; in Toronto, colourful signs proclaimed that the Chevrolet Cruise, “Craves Fun, Not Fuel”. Indeed, Chevrolet seems to be employing fun as an overarching brand attribute, perhaps as part of an attempt to revitalize its place within the American car market. It is advertising a vehicle called the “Orlando” (a name no doubt meant to conjure Disney, that archetypal signifier of fun in America) in advertisements that use a balloon shop as the background, and also a subcompact car called the “Sonic”, which claims that “It’s Fun. Turbocharged”.

Fun’s movement from something we once understood as experiential and embedded in daily life to something descriptive of products and services is the essence of its commodification. While commodification can mean different things depending on whether you are talking to an economist, anthropologist or philosopher, I am thinking of it in two related ways here. The first is that commodification occurs when we assign economic value to something that we previously did not think of in economic terms. This is a trend in our culture, as more and more domains that we used to think of as largely outside the economic sphere, such as childcare and healthcare, are reconfigured to fit patterns of economic exchange. This is not to say that there were no economic aspects to these areas of life before now, but rather that the economic aspect has grown to the point that it has substantially affected our understanding of the thing itself. The commodification of higher education, for example, has led to our current perception of universities and colleges as service providers that need to deliver value for money, rather than as institutions that provide students with opportunities for learning and intellectual growth—a change that has affected all the relationships that take place within them.

A second relevant aspect of commodification is the idea that one can parse out and sell individual elements of a thing formerly understood to be whole and inalienable from its original context. This parsing takes many forms. For example, at one time elder-care would simply have been an intrinsic part of family life. Now, it exists squarely in the economic realm, and one can pay for all or any number of its aspects, from housing, to nursing, to meals. Anthropologist Alexis Bunten’s work on cultural tourism in Sitka, Alaska illustrates how this process can also extend to comparatively intangible domains as well. For example, she describes how Tlingit tour guides effectively “sell” tourists historical stories that fulfil their fantasies of encounters with exotic Natives. These stories, such as the Battle of 1802 in which the Tlingit (temporarily) drove Russian colonists out of Sitka, are an important part of Tlingit cultural history, and of how the Tlingit know themselves, but they can nonetheless be detached from customary modes of transmission and meaning-making and retailed to tourists as part of an authentic Alaskan experience, like so many boxes of candied salmon.

Marketers have fostered the commodification of fun by doing essentially three things. First, as discussed above, they’ve claimed fun as a brand attribute, either by making explicit promises to deliver it, or by signalling it through playful brand icons or an irreverent tone of voice. Second, they’re increasingly trying to sell us fun experiences. These might be fairly modest, like Virgin Atlantic (a fun, irreverent brand) giving out ice cream when flights are delayed, using something “fun” to pre-empt passengers’ irritation. At the extreme end, there are brands that create and sell total environments designed for fun and pleasure, such as theme parks and cruise ships. David Foster Wallace gives us a literary and hilarious view of this sort of fun—and its coerciveness—in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, which documents his experience on a Celebrity Cruises ship, carrying out an incognito assignment for Harpers magazine:

The pretty setting and glittering ship and dashing staff and sedulous servants and solicitous fun-managers all want something from me, and it’s not just the price of my ticket—*they’ve already got that. Just what it is that they want is hard to pin down, but by early in the week I can feel it, and building: it circles the ship like a fin.

The third way in which marketers have brought about a commoditization of fun lies not in what brands promise or create, but in the way they have intruded into our culture’s existing collective forms of engagement and fun. At one time, religious, civic, and national events created shared symbols of identity and collective forms of engagement that gathered and radiated meaning for participants, much like the humble egg toss did for my family. First of July picnics, Stanley Cup playoffs, school festivals, summer fireworks, and street festivals: these events still mark highlights in our year and provide fun and engagement for us. Now, however, they typically require funding and sponsorship, and brands have become our not-so-silent partners. But there is a cost when brands participate, because the symbolic value of these events, and of the community they collect within them, becomes less clear. When I hand my daughter a balloon emblazoned with the Bank of Montreal logo at our neighbourhood street party, who is the “we” that we are celebrating? And to what do we owe the excitement and positive feelings generated by our fun: the brand or the community? To ask these questions is not to ignore that fun has an instrumental role: community leaders would have employed all that pre-branded community fun to reinforce particular social values (the most appalling example of which must surely be the Nazis “Strength through Joy” program in the 1930s). It is, however, to ask whether we accept brands, with their vested interests and the paradigm of consumption that sustains them, as legitimate members of our community with a role to play in shaping our collective experience and identity.

All this said, the commodification of fun would be no cause for concern if fun itself didn’t matter in the scheme of things. If, as Pop Tarts tells us, fun’s job is just to add a little colour to a black and white world, why not try to buy it?

But it turns out that fun does matter. In a recent conversation with me about the role of fun in mental health, the eminent psychiatrist David Goldbloom emphasized that it’s “profoundly adaptive” to have fun. At minimum, a capacity for fun helps us endure. But, like a magnet, it also draws us to things that are good for us. Consider the kinds of things that humans tend to find fun: pursuit, movement, play, social engagement, exploration, collective effervescence, and creative expression. These activities are part and parcel of our humanness. We need to engage in them to develop fully as individuals, to have participatory and inventive societies, and to be healthy. Evolution has ensured that we find these things enjoyable: we do them because we experience them as fun, but in turn, they yield extraordinary results. Even ostensibly darker aspects to fun, such as breaking rules or subverting quotidian social order, can have important roles to play in terms of helping us test personal and social limits, providing psychological outlets, and adding bursts of creative energy to culture.

This is why the commodification of fun is so troubling. Consider just several possible effects. First, commodification changes the meaning of things. Elementally, we’ve experienced a shift in consciousness in which it is now normal for us to expect to buy fun rather than to experience it as naturally embedded in both mundane and celebratory aspects of human life. And this fundamental change has been exacerbated by competing marketing claims that make the idea of fun simultaneously ubiquitous but so polyvalent that it’s nonsensical. If anything can be fun, then what does fun actually mean? Does it mean childlike? Colourful? Naughty? Luxurious? Entertaining? Surprising? Flavourful? Exciting? All of these things? None of them?

The inevitable disconnects between marketing claims and our own experience of fun distort its meaning even further. We live in an era in which we are accustomed (and encouraged) to rely on the claims of others rather than on our embodied experience to render our reality for us: for example, we frequently trust GPS systems more than our innate sense of orientation, and medical tests more than our own sense of well-being. While marketing claims lack the imprimatur of science and technology that a GPS system possesses, their ubiquity and sheer volume give them a powerful role in shaping our reality. But to be promised fun is not necessarily to experience it. For example, if we visit a McDonald’s, do we actually have fun? The experience might be convenient, even pleasurable, but it is probably not truly fun in the sense of producing positive emotions, being highly engaging, connecting people over meaningful activities, and so on. And yet we are unlikely to say, “That was false advertising!”, as we would if the restaurant had served us pork instead of beef. Instead, the very meaning of fun is quietly, unconsciously assaulted.

The commodification of fun also fosters a kind of radical individualism. In a world where it is normal to seek decontextualized fun, and competing claims tell us how to get it, one ultimately concludes that fun is somehow deeply mysterious and subject only to individual taste. For example, happiness-guru Gretchen Rubin defines one of her “secrets of adulthood” as “What’s fun for other people may not be fun for you—and vice versa”, and discussion boards on her website confirm that her readers share this perspective. It is reasonable to want to account for individual taste: there is no doubt that, say, a day at the horse races is a treat for some and a bore for others, just as online gaming is irresistible to some and a waste of time to others. However, it’s important also to search for the commonalities in what we find fun because they teach us about fun’s adaptive role. In my own ethnographic research into fun, I found that people are actually remarkably consistent in what they find fun, and that differences of taste exist only at a comparatively superficial level. Thus, for example, we see that horse racing and online gaming both provide a kind of managed uncertainty, something that everyone seems to find fun, and this finding hints at the importance of psychological solace in an uncertain world.

Finally, however, the worst thing about commoditized fun is that it enfeebles us: we get used to viewing fun simply as something one buys, and we see creating fun (or creating the spaces in which fun can happen) as work. The results of this are potentially even more serious than ending up with a lacklustre life and hefty credit card debt. For example, in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, the writer Mark Bittman challenged the belief that North Americans eat junk food because it’s cheap, positing instead that we eat it because food manufacturers have convinced us that it’s fun—and that cooking isn’t. Bittman suggests that the solution to our continent’s junk food addiction, and to the health problems that go with it, is therefore not a campaign to get McDonald’s to serve healthier food: it’s convincing people that the “work” of cooking can be fun, even more fun than the unhealthy and addictive fast food we eat so much of.

Bittman’s suggestion is also a reminder that fun doesn’t necessarily require expensive equipment, exotic destinations, or even leisure: fun lives in real life, and real life can be the good life. Similarly, re-creating fun as part of our lives does not require an overzealous earnestness. Fun should be fun, and our pursuit of it joyful and playful. We must, however, maintain an awareness of the ways in which commodification creates competing visions of fun. The images are alluring, but they are pale facsimiles of the real thing. And the real thing is something we already know. We must trust our own experience of fun. Surely all of us have our own equivalent of the egg-toss: moments of deep, embodied, uplifting fun that made us feel alive. These experiences are our touchstone, our reminder of what we are seeking and of what the good life feels like.

Perhaps ironically, pursuing fun asks us self-consciously to make space in our lives for the kinds of everyday activities in which unselfconscious engagement can happen. Albert Borgmann has developed the idea of “focal practices” to talk about just these sorts of activities. On the one hand, they are mundane, the stuff of daily life: cooking, long-distance running, reading aloud to a loved one, making music. On the other, focal practices are special because they provide a sort of compass point in our lives: they tell us who we are and what really matters to us. They also generate meanings and feelings that are “unprocurable”. The key is that focal practices create a space for fun, and when we have fun in the context of an activity that is meaningful to us, our lives our illuminated. We’re transported and engaged. Fully alive.

Activist Laurie David’s recent book The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time illustrates how to cultivate family dinners as a focal practice. There’s nothing nostalgic about David’s advocacy for the family dinner: she recognises that realities such as two-income or split families and busy schedules make sitting down to regular family meals challenging. The goal, she argues, is not to attempt to live up to an unattainable ideal, it’s simply to collect family members together—daily—in a way that maximizes their engagement with each other and with the food they are consuming. She sees fun as the engine of this engagement and puts forward a variety of creative tactics, such as themed dinners, to draw family members together into the meal. In David’s words, the engagement provided by family dinners is “emotional nourishment” that gives family members a tangible sense of connection to each other, and a sense of their place in the world. To David, this sense of interconnectivity is every bit as fundamental to health and happiness as the physical nourishment provided by the actual food.

Play presents another means for inviting more fun into our lives. We tend to think of fun and play synonymously, but really play is a precursor to fun: as with focal practices, it creates the space and time for fun. While there is no single definition of play, we can think of it as genres of activities in which participants implicitly agree to “pretend”, that is, to create a situation in which the normal rules and goals of life are supplanted, for a time, by those of the game, be it in the context of a corporate role-playing exercise, a high-school rugby game or a children’s tea party. Play can be formal or informal, rule-bound or free, gentle or rough, but in all cases, it offers us a sense of a time out-of-time, where we test ourselves, each other and the environment in a spirit of absorption, engagement and fun.

It’s worth noting that, as with fun, play was long dismissed as something “for children”, but new research within the emerging field of play studies, which includes input from psychology, anthropology and neuroscience, highlights that it’s actually critical for optimal human development and happiness. For example, it has been shown to improve cognitive functioning, boost mood and strengthen social ties. This is creating play-advocates across a spectrum of contexts. Just to take two examples, writer Daniel Pink makes a case for play in his bestseller, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, and the non-profit organization Right to Play uses play to transform individuals and communities in societies coping with war, poverty and disease. Play and fun both produce positive benefits, and, if it’s not yet possible to isolate which benefits come from the play itself versus the fun we experience as we play, well, it also may not really matter. The key is to start playing. Sports and board games, creative expression, imaginary play, outdoor play, social play—our culture offers many opportunities to play, and we are required only to make room and time for them. If we do, the fun will follow.

The ways in which we choose to understand and pursue fun are important. Culture and commodification shape our desires and behaviour, but in turn, we also have a role in shaping culture. We are agents in our own right, and as such, it’s time to take fun back. The conversations that we have, the daily choices that we make, the things that we buy or don’t buy, the fun that we have: all of these contribute to shaping shared understandings and experiences, and to our health and happiness. Knowing this, what vision of the good life do we want to create? How do we want to create the energy that fuels us as human beings? And how do we want to live? Do we want a life based on production and consumption, one in which we outsource fun because it’s easy and modestly pleasurable to do so? Or do we want engagement and vivacity, bright moments of being that give us the experiences and memories of who we are and what our world is about?

Most of us yearn to be fully alive. Having fun is a means to do it.

Lisa Meekison is an anthropologist, writer, and consultant. She has a PhD in anthropology from Oxford University and has worked extensively in healthcare, studying the ways in which culture shapes experiences of illness. She has published fiction and non-fiction internationally, and is currently writing a book on the behaviors that drive health and happiness.