The power of purposeless activity: Fun (or why I mountain bike)…

When was the last time you had fun? I don’t mean the sort of things that, as adults, we often confuse for fun, like getting pissed or washing the new car. I mean something that was frivolous, purposeless, even pointless, and yet resulted in feelings of deep satisfaction. Chances are it involved other people whom you like.

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You see, fun and play, the primary purposes of being a kid, are features sadly missing from the lives of many adults, and are most often absent when there’s some sort of psychological dysfunction (not sure if this is causal or consequential). I see this every day in my practice. When I take on a new client, one of my standard assessment interview questions is “what do you do for fun?”. Invariably, my clients respond that they don’t do anything. They used to, but somehow life has got in the way and they’ve stopped doing the things that they enjoy. More unsettling is the fact that whenever I ask the same question of any sort of group (especially in a workplace setting), invariably I get the same response.

The fact that so many people have forgotten how to have fun is both worrying and depressing. Why, come a certain age, do we stop having fun?

Before I go any further, it might be useful to explain what I mean by the terms ‘fun’ and ‘play’ (it appears that many of you have forgotten what they mean). Let’s define ‘play’ as planned or spontaneous activity that is performed for no obvious or productive purpose and which usually results in ‘fun’. ‘Fun’ is a feeling of immersion in the present moment, usually accompanied by feelings of pleasure or happiness, and an absence of worry or distraction by internal or external events. ‘Fun’ is often the result of ‘play’. Play can involve pretty much anything. In children, play is usually unplanned and unprompted, involves active use of the imagination (from a plush toy picnic, to full-scale imaginary war), and seldom (if ever) has any rules. In adults, play is usually a lot more confined and scripted, mostly because our lives are set out that way, and there’s not a lot of room for the unplanned. As we age we become less comfortable with spontaneity and more used to rules and deadlines. So if we ‘play’, we do so in constrained, preplanned, ‘adult’ ways. If we’re not careful, this can denude play of any fun!

So why, as adults, do we stop playing? Well, for starters, our lives are a lot more time-oriented and regimented than when we were kids. Play and fun are often considered not only to be the domain of children, but actually childish. We’re told from an early age, that study, work, and life in general, is hard and needs to be taken seriously. Consequently, we often approach our daily lives in a regimented and humourless way. Worse, we get drastically (and disproportionately) upset when our regimens are disrupted. We get angry when the train is late, or the traffic’s ‘bad’, or even when someone’s walking too slowly in front of us. We take the same route to and from work, buy the same things at the supermarket, the same sandwich each day, sit in the same seat on the train, and rarely engage in anything that’s spontaneous or unplanned. Spontaneous things make us uncomfortable or embarrassed.

Nevertheless, we’re not supposed to be this way. We actually function a lot better when we’re having fun, mostly because we’re a lot less stressed and a lot more open to new ideas and experiences. Armed with this knowledge, I’m always amazed at how dour the workplace is, especially when productivity and effectiveness suffer for it. Not only do people not have fun at work, it’s actively discouraged, and (this is the worst part) looked on as unprofessional and inappropriate. Gah!

So, when we adults do ‘play’ it seldom feels as deeply satisfying as it did when we were younger. We’re seldom able to lose ourselves in the experience without being distracted by worries about work, or intrusive thoughts about our lives. Afterwards, we often feel slightly cheated – not enough time, not enough absorption, not enough fun. Even the things that we call play are usually watered down and socially sanctioned, resulting in a lot less passion and a lot less reward.

Now, one of the reasons that we associate play and fun with children is because, from an evolutionary perspective, once we reach sexual maturity (and can no longer rely on protection from parents) we’re obliged to take care of ourselves and our partners. In a very real sense, for the majority of our evolution (and still today) survival hasn’t been a lot of fun. It’s hard, brutal and unforgiving. In fact, it’s probably likely that we’ve evolved to regard play as a frivolous luxury that, at best, reduces the time available for survival-based activities (including vigilance, power plays, mating behaviour and aggression) and, at worst, actively reduces our chances of survival by reducing our alertness for danger. Consequently, play has become seen as a luxury that only children can or should engage in. Times have changed a bit, however. These days, our survival isn’t necessarily causally linked to our level of vigilance. In fact, excessive vigilance in the modern world tends to be interpreted as stress and manifested as anxiety. The result is a society of individuals who are constantly on the look out for non-existent danger, who jump at shadows, and who feel perpetually distressed. Although this worked great when we were in constant danger of being eaten (and when our life expectancy was around 35 years), it doesn’t work well for us now. With a life-expectancy of 70+ years, a life of unnecessary overvigilance is not only unpleasant, it’s actually likely to damage our health and reduce our lifespan.

In other words, in the modern world, play is the opportunity to engage in something that is outside of the usual evolutionary survival pathways that dominate most of our behaviour. In fact, no matter how we like to dress it up, most of our behaviour in a social and work context is tinged by our survival tendencies. Whenever we act aggressively, attempt to improve our social standing, go on a date, undermine someone else to look better, challenge our superiors, make a powerplay at work, or push for a raise, we’re unconsciously acting out primitive survival urges. Because play is the opposite of survival behaviour, it gives us a chance to chill, to interact in a cooperative way, and to (potentially) feel compassion for those around us. In other words, play might just be the one thing we need to get over our evolutionary, cut-throat past, and head toward a future that involves more cooperation and less ‘being an arsehole’ (read here).

Interestingly, we get a quite a large neurological reward for play-based behaviour and the consequent ‘fun’. Social interaction in a nonthreatening environment results in increased levels of dopamine, vasopressin and oxytocin, a cocktail that combines feeling good with feelings of connectedness and togetherness. Engaging in a complex activity for the purposes of personal challenge, skills development or mastery (rather than to achieve a predetermined outcome) tends to result in feelings of absorption, accomplishment and satisfaction. In extreme situations, it can even result in a feeling that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as ‘flow‘: the feeling of complete and total immersion in an activity without any intrusive thoughts, or even an awareness of time.

So let’s redefine play. How about ‘behaviour that allows humans to override inbuilt survival instincts through social interaction and cooperation for its own sake (no mating or powerplay behaviour), without the need for a purposeful outcome, and which results in feelings of satisfaction and wellbeing’? That should open things up a bit.

So that’s why I mountain bike. For me, mountain biking is completely frivolous and pointless. I could ‘legitimise’ my behaviour by claiming that it’s exercise and that that’s good for me, but that would trivialise the experience. I mountain bike because, for me, it’s fun. I challenge myself, develop my skills and mastery of a difficult activity, overcome fears, interact with other people who I like in a noncompetitive way, and get to see pretty outdoor environments. And none of it has any purpose at all (i.e., it’s play). In fact, the whole activity is somewhat selfish. I burn petrol getting to and from the trails, buy mountain bike bling that I don’t need, and waste a lot of my time fiddling with my bike. And yes, I’m completely aware of the irony of self-centred behaviour on a crowded, resource-limited planet. Mountain biking is a luxury and resource heavy. Does it, however, make me a more effective person? Am I better able to work as a result? Am I a nicer person for mountain biking? Hell yes. Having something in my life that lets me engage in an activity that I find meaningful for no particular outcome is awesome. It lets me focus on one thing without intrusions from the outside world; it lets me enjoy time for time’s sake; it lets me have fun. And, yes, because I live in an adult world with adult issues like appointments and reports and deadlines, it has to be scheduled, but within those scheduled times, I get to do something that has nothing to do with (and in the case of mountain biking is probably the opposite of) survival-based activities.

My advice? Pick your poison when it comes to seeking out a version of play that, for you, is genuinely fun. But please try not to fuck it up for everyone else. Try not to take your play (and yourself) too seriously. It’s supposed to be frivolous, so getting upset because someone else disagrees with you about your chosen form of play is sort of missing the point. Please remember that play is about engaging in behaviour that is the opposite of our preprogrammed survival states. So acting in a way that is aggressive, competitive, uncooperative, or just being a dick, isn’t play, it’s survival. Take a breath, chill, and have some fun. And remember that fun at someone else’s expense isn’t fun, it’s being a dick.

Oh, one more thing. A while back I wrote about values (here). If you want to take play and fun to the next level (in terms of extracting a strong sense of meaning, wellbeing and lasting satisfaction), try aligning your play with your values. Works a treat…

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