Fun is a great engine to help us switch-on.

This should be cause for celebration, because fun is theoretically accessible to everyone, but there’s a hitch:  we are deeply culturally schizophrenic about fun.    On one hand, we regard it with suspicion, as if it’s a fast-moving train that’s going to take us straight to the towns of distraction, decadence and ruin.  This is because most of us over 40 were raised to believe that work and fun are opposite things, with work being the more virtuous.  Case in point: when I was in grade seven, my class had to chant “Long-term satisfaction is better than short-term gratification!” until we got it firmly planted into our little thirteen year old heads.  While this might have been a bit extreme, this ethos, derived from the Puritan work ethic, is built into the foundation of our culture, from various folktales involving better outcomes for squirrels that spend their days collecting nuts instead of playing, to arguments about the importance of restraint and self-discipline in everything from dieting to financial planning.  We might have varnished it over with a glossy layer celebrating leisure and conspicuous consumption, but it’s still there, orienting our thinking and behavior in all sorts of ways.

On the other hand, that varnish of leisure and consumption is really, really shiny.  It dazzles us with promises of pleasure and fulfillment.  In this world, fun is perhaps the most desirable goal, suggesting as it does, that one is beyond needing to worry about being a sensibly-minded squirrel.  Thus, we admire and envy people, like celebrities, who look like they’re having more fun than we are, we dish out small fortunes to buy fun experiences like trips to Disneyland, and we’re suckers for advertising that promises us “fun”, whether it be in our cars, cheese sticks or airlines.

That’s quite a tension to build into one little thing called fun.

And what is this thing anyway?  “Fun” is everywhere, but for all that, it’s strangely undefined.  We have fun dentists, fun workplaces, fun parks, fun cruises, fun buses and fun facts, but as of October 2010, Wikipedia didn’t have a distinct entry on fun – one simply got redirected to “recreation”.  While Wikipedia has since updated it, at the time of writing, their entry on fun is 99 words.  That’s pretty sparse!  (By contrast, Wikipedia’s entry on the Doppler Effect is 2790 words, and includes a handy animated illustration reminiscent of Sheldon’s Doppler Effect costume in the Big Bang Theory.)

Fun also just sounds kind of…inane.  Words like “happiness” and “joy” come trailing clouds of significance and even virtue.  Fun doesn’t.  Typically, when we think of fun, we think of pleasant amusements, entertainment, children’s games, and maybe a little mischief.  Most of us don’t associate it with health and happiness.

But what if we’ve got it all wrong?  What if this is a classic false dichotomy?

I think it is.  Fun isn’t just indulgence, it is the means to health and happiness, and also to creativity and flexibility.  Think about how you feel when you are having fun.  You might feel alert, engaged, uplifted and delighted.  You might be laughing, or smiling, or excited.  Or you might simply feel good, and happy to be alive and in the moment.

Happily, here in the early 21st Century, there is a rising sense of fun’s importance, as exemplified by Daniel Pink’s claims that fun helps to develop creative, right-brained thinking, Jane McGonigal’s belief that fun can lead us to inspired problem-solving and Brian Sutton-Smith and Stuart Brown’s belief that play is adaptive.  Knowing this, we have an argument both to have more fun and to make a claim for it as necessary, both to our own well-being and even our culture.

So, at the start of this holiday weekend for North Americans – banish fun schizophrenia!  You don’t need to be the prudent squirrel, or the hedonistic reality-TV star.  You can be you, through joy.