I interviewed an elegant and articulate woman who told me that she’d once had amazing fun at a small town square dance.  I found her story fascinating, not because she enjoyed the dance, but because she herself seemed half mystified and half embarrassed that she’d enjoyed it.  Indeed, she herself had tried to analyze why it was fun, speculating that perhaps it was the sense of community in the town hall where it was held, and the exhilaration of the dancing.  Yet, when I asked if she’d ever attended another one, or even planned to, she said, “No.”

Now this is a woman whom most would describe as upper middle class urbanite.  She’s sophisticated and comfortable in her own skin.  She also knows herself well and usually pursues fun in the form of extreme sports, intellectual pursuits and pretty highbrow theatre.  Why on earth wouldn’t she go square dancing again if she’d enjoyed it so much that it had left her switched-on and virtually high?

I think at least part of the answer lies in the concept of fun rules.

Every culture has a suite of values and norms that encourages its members to adopt particular ideas and behaviors, and conversely, inhibits them from others.  We like to think of ourselves as independent and self-directed, but our expectations, desires and behavior are shaped by many factors beyond our conscious recognition.  Psychology and sociobiology have etched themselves into the popular imagination as two means of uncovering hidden drivers of behavior.  We recognize that we might have unconscious motivations stemming from mysterious Darwinian drives or from formative childhood experiences.  But culture also shapes us – powerfully.  Our everyday and aspirational lifestyles, the rules and habits by which we engage with each other and the natural world, our sense of right and wrong, our orientations to risk, fear and pleasure and so on are all shaped by our culture, as expressed through its history, laws, technologies, institutions, possessions and media.  However, in a given society, all of these elements are so self-evident, so normal, that we tend to take them for granted as natural or inevitable.  It’s a case of most of us following most of the rules most of the time, without ever really stopping to ask ourselves what those rules are, how they’ve come to be, and whether they’re actually optimal for us.

When it comes to fun, culture shapes our views of it in ways that are not always fully visible to us, and that this has discernable impacts on our attitudes and behaviors.  We aspire to certain kinds of fun, see others as appropriate or inappropriate for our gender or social status, admire or abhor others’ ideas of fun, feel entitled to fun, or even feel that fun is a worthwhile pursuit, because of specific cultural inheritances and norms.  If we want to free ourselves up to have more fun, we need to understand how social conventions govern our access to fun, and how we can work with or against them to have more fun.

This can mean moving past what we feel we “should” find fun, and embracing what we do find fun.  It can also mean a whole lot of experimenting, and discovery through action versus our sense of self-knowledge.  We may find that there’s more to us, and more ways available for us to switch-on, than our sense of self or our sense of what’s “right” will readily admit to.

In coming posts, I want to start exploring the fun rules that govern us, and would welcome any comments on the things you think you ought to find fun, but don’t, and the things you think you oughtn’t to find fun but do.