After a year-and-a-half of loss, sickness and stress caused by the pandemic, burnout is high and morale is low. But in some positive news, according to Laurie Santos, Yale’s “happiness professor”, the way to feel better need not depend on restrictive diets, gruelling fitness regimes or testing mental challenges, but in something far more attractive: fun.
The American psychology professor and Happiness Lab podcaster, who rose to international fame when her course “psychology and the good life” became the Ivy League university’s most popular course of all time, says that consciously injecting more fun into our lives – which she refers to as a “funtervention” – can not only improve mental health and help prevent burnout but also improve physical health.
“We weren’t necessarily prioritising fun before the pandemic,” says Santos. “But the pandemic really made that worse, in part because some of the things we really need for fun involve connection.”
Many of the activities adults turn to for fun involve going somewhere new or playing sport, which were difficult to do amid Covid restrictions.
Santos says that burnout has risen as a result of the pandemic and left everyone feeling “even worse”. And the more tired we become, the less likely we are to prioritise fun because we are too tired.
“The irony is, if we put more fun into our lives then we wind up becoming more productive,” says Santos, “because fun makes you feel alive by definition, gives you a little bit more energy. It allows you to take a real break.”
So what does she mean by fun? Not flopping down in front of Netflix with a bottle of wine and doomscrolling on social media. True fun, she says, has to be active. Citing Catherine Price’s forthcoming book, The Power of Fun, Santos defines fun as “a state of playful connection to flow”, by which she means being entirely present.
In order to discover fun, she suggests carrying out a “fun audit”, also from Price’s book, which involves taking a “non-judgmental look” at what you found truly fun in the past – not what you found relaxing – and what elements it involved. For Santos, she discovered it involved a lot of music-related moments, including “goofy singalongs” in the car with friends and being in a musical as a child, and found it often involved people she doesn’t necessarily prioritise seeing in day-to-day life.
“You analyse ‘where are the spots where I’m experiencing the most fun? And can I reverse-engineer those to bring more of those into my life, to prioritise the things that allow me to experience more fun?’”
For Santos, injecting fun meant doing karaoke and putting herself into a position of vulnerability by going surfing for the first time. One of her biggest realisations is that adults are often prevented from having fun by judgment.
“We would probably all be having a lot more fun if we tried new things, just like kids do. They seek out new activities and try new things out – they don’t beat themselves up if they don’t like them. But as adults we say: ‘Well, we have the activities that we do and we do those and that’s it.’ Why can’t we try new things?”
However, fun is not to be confused with hedonism. Prioritising fun doesn’t mean quitting your job and constantly having the time of your life, says Santos. Instead she suggests “infusing” fun in “microdoses” into the day, such as playing music at work or engaging in witty banter with colleagues “to make the day a little bit more joyful”.
Despite its frivolous and childish reputation, fun is a very serious matter, says Santos. Citing research that found loneliness is as bad for the human body as 15 cigarettes a day, she said connection, required to have fun, is proven to make people feel good. “But there’s also evidence suggesting that the playfulness part of fun feels really good … play is less associated with things like dementia and even heart disease.”
Play is also associated with nerve-growth, she says. “It’s one of the reasons that play tends to happen during childhood, a period when we have so much brain-growth – that’s where the association comes from.”
While there is plenty of research on happiness and joy, fun is an under-researched area. “I think that’s in part because we don’t prioritise it, we don’t realise it’s as powerful as it can be.”
Price, whose book will be published in January, says true fun – “the magical confluence of playfulness, connection and flow” – has been “horribly missing during the pandemic” and is almost impossible to reach using a screen.
“The fact that we have all been so socially isolated over the past year-and-a-half – and that we’ve been spending so much time passively consuming content on our screens – has had an enormous negative impact on our ability to have fun.”
Price’s own interest in fun started after she wrote the book How to Break Up With Your Phone and realised, once she stopped using her phone so much, that she had forgotten what she enjoyed doing off-screen – and started learning to play the guitar.
If everybody prioritised fun, the world would be a happier, healthier and safer place, she says. “Fun brings people together. It reminds us of our shared humanity and encourages us to let down our guard.”