While a lot of people say that fun is totally subjective, I’ve been learning that if you compare diverse experiences fun, you start to see patterns.  So far, I’ve noticed two distinct patterns.  First, I’ve noticed a pattern in what kinds of activities people find fun.  For example, most people find exploring fun.  Second, I’ve noticed patterns in the characteristics of things we find fun.  For example, we tend to find things that are rare or unusual more fun than those we things we experience every day.  This is good news because, if these patterns hold true, they can point the way towards having more fun.

Let me give you an example.

Now, I have to preface this example with a disclaimer:  it’s about hair.  My hair.  And we all know that there’s a bit of a taboo in terms of professional women speaking publicly about something so apparently frivolous.  Thankfully, Grant McCracken has been a great forerunner here with his lovely book Big Hair: A Journey into the Transformation of Self, which, if not as personally revealing as the personal account which follows, at least sets a precedent of using hair to explore cultural phenomena.

So here it is:  I had a ton of fun getting my hair done the other day.  The background is this.  My hair, in its natural state, is blonde and curly, and in no ways conforms to the current sleek norm for working women.  But there it is:  I have the most classic “feminine” hair imaginable.  Its unruliness suggests ungovernable emotions and its blondness suggests ditziness.  It is the hair that launched a thousand jokes.

As those who know me are aware, I have tackled this issue in different ways over the years.  I have dyed it brown.  I have had it shorn to a pixie cut.  And, for the past four years, I have straightened it.  However, the other day, on the recommendation my friend, the teacher and mystery writer Francine Volker, I found myself in The Curl Ambassadors, a hair salon that specializes in helping women with curly hair.  Actually, “help” isn’t the right word.  These stylists celebrate curls.  The experience of being there was arguably straightforward:  for $20, a very nice young woman shampooed my hair, gave me advice on how to manage it, dried it and sent me on my way.  We’ve all done this a thousand times, right?  But somehow the whole experience wound up being terrific fun.

So, of course, I had to dissect it to figure out why.  What was different about this particular trip to a salon that made it so fun?

It quickly became clear that the experience was fun precisely because, for me anyway, it contained a number of the properties of fun experiences.  For example, I’d never been to the salon before, so it was a novel experience.  Moreover, the salon is self-consciously feminine, with a color palette of pink, white and silver and pretty, and pretty French-style furniture.  I don’t normally seek out such environments, and there was something really fun about it – like I had a guest pass to being a girly girl for an hour.  Letting someone encourage my hair back to its true nature was also a light or playful thing to do.  I was quite literally playing with an aspect of my appearance.  And there was a degree of uncertainty involved:  what would happen?  What would I look like?  Would I feel silly or strangely empowered to be back to my true self?

But there was also a sense of what this experience was really about, and that somehow added to the fun.  First, it felt highly social, if not quite Steel Magnolias, then at least something beyond the affected coolness of a typical hair salon.  There was camaraderie.  It also felt like a real escape from routine, and even from the strictures of the flat iron and the professional look.  And with that escape, there was a joyous sort of rule-breaking:  for at least an afternoon, no one was going to tell me what I should look like.  Finally, as Grant McCracken’s book argues, there was a sense of fun attached to the possibility of transformation.  I went in looking one way, and came out looking another – with all the marvelous possibility that suggests.

Now this is not to suggest that everyone would find a visit to the Curl Ambassadors fun.  However, I think it’s fair to say that fun exists where certain conditions exist.  Novelty, uncertainty, lightness:  these are characteristics of fun things.  And sociality, exploration, escape and rule-breaking, these are kinds of fun.  Identifying these empowers us to seek out certain experiences that are likely to be fun.

If you feel inclined, please feel free to join the discussion and add examples of fun that demonstrate or challenge this idea of the characteristics of fun.