Are we having fun yet?

Who’s asking?

Each time I leave the house to play golf, my wife says, “Have fun,” to which I reply, “I’ll try.” On my return, she always asks, “Did you have fun?” And my standard answer is: “Don’t know. Have to think about it.”

So I ask myself, “Did I have fun today?

This might seem like a simple question. But it becomes more nuanced on review, as evidenced by a typical golf outing I’ll describe below:

On the first tee, I hit my drive about 150 yards on a pull-hook. Not a good shot. In fact, it was horrible. My partner moaned, feeling my embarrassment and disappointment. So I marched on to find my ball. Next time, I hit the ball about 175 five yards and I felt delight and redemption. My partner clapped. I smiled and said to myself, “Now that was fun!”

And so it went throughout the next four hours: Fun, not fun, fun, fun, not fun, not fun, not fun…

“That’s golf,” my partner said. “That’s life,” I answered.

Our group tends to meet afterwards to share some snacks and libations. As we review the day’s play, we laugh, compare scores, complain about our mistakes, brag about some great shots, and blame the course, the weather, old golf clubs, and injuries for keeping us from achieving our rightful greatness.

Sport and leisure is supposed to be fun. But golf often leaves me crabby and challenging to be around (according to my wife and grandchildren). On the golf outing in question, I scored an 86 — not bad for me. So, by definition, I scored a successful round of golf. But was it fun?

“How am I supposed to know?”

Read on for my final answer.

Fun is an emergent feeling

During the last month or so, I’ve been asking people to describe what they consider fun and to explain how they know they are having fun. The responses are all over the place: Fun for one person is not fun for another. Most people describe fun based on activities they do during their leisure time. “It’s like a release from constrictive prior states,” one of my friends declares. “Having fun means not having to work,” says another, noting that fun happens when you “don’t have to attend to required duties or obligations imposed by self or others.”

In isolation, the concept of fun has no intrinsic meaning. Instead, fun appears to be an emergent, multidimensional construct. Therefore, to define and understand fun, it is necessary to identify the different properties and behaviors that, by themselves, do not present as fun but, when collectively perceived, result in the emergence of what we label “fun.”

Labeling the different properties of “fun” has interested researchers for years. Real fun is an internal, perceived emotional experience, not an external activity. Below, I summarize the three most important and consistent elements described by several authors and researchers that contribute best to the emergence of real fun.

Feelings of lightheartedness & playfulness

A guy in sunglasses is draped in a tie-dyed cape and wacky cap.

We all know people who find fun in the simple act of dressing up. (Image courtesy of V. Katch.)

Imagine being able to do something just for the sheer pleasure of doing it. This can be different for each individual and includes all kinds of simple, everyday activities, including what we choose to wear. Playfulness represents a personality trait, perhaps inherited or learned during early childhood, that enables people to frame or reframe everyday situations so that they experience them as entertaining, intellectually stimulating, and joyful.

Playfulness is associated with the pursuit of an active way of life. People who know how to be present and engaged, with a lighthearted attitude about the outcome of their actions, report having more fun than those who do not possess playfulness as a core trait. Individuals with a high playfulness quotient don’t focus on “winning or losing” in terms of what they are doing. Rather, they derive intrinsic joy by participating, engaging, and even being silly. Being playful and lighthearted represents an essential emergent property that, by itself, promotes fun.

We need to practice improving our playfulness quotient so we can experience it more. Many people experience playfulness during specific activities or when they are around certain people. For example, some people get intrinsic joy from physical movement — walking, running, dancing, working in the garden, or playing games with others. It’s not the mastery or outcome of the activity that’s important, but the involvement and the sharing with others that leads to fun.

Feelings of shared experience

Connecting to and sharing special experiences with others also produces fun for some people. While certain individuals say they can have real fun by themselves, research suggests otherwise. When asked to describe and discuss when they had fun, most people describe experiences involving others. Connectedness promotes strong social ties and a level of attachment that brings people closer together. This closeness is an essential ingredient in promoting fun.

Feelings of “flow”

Flow represents a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it. Flow describes the active state of being fully engaged and focused on an activity, often to the point of losing track of time.

Eight characteristics define flow for most people:

  • being able to concentrate on the task at hand completely
  • being clear on the goals of engagement and expected rewards
  • having the feeling that time slows down or even stops
  • experiencing intrinsic rewards while participating in the activity
  • finding the activity to be effortless
  • mastering challenges via skills training
  • losing awareness of one’s actions or “being in the zone”
  • being in total control of what one is doing

The capacity to experience flow differs from person to person. Individuals who do things for their own sake rather than achieving an external goal or pleasing others tend to experience more flow. When an external outcome like winning, defeating an opponent, or scoring points becomes the primary goal, flow decreases and fun dissipates.

Real fun promotes optimal health

Three caucasian women dressed in Michigan gear are tailgating

Michigan tailgating is a shared experience that many consider “real fun.” (Image courtesy of V. Katch.)

Research shows that experiencing any of the underlying fun “ingredients” listed here leads to enhanced mood and better mental health. When all three states are experienced simultaneously — i.e., “real fun” — the experience becomes magical. When people report having real fun, they feel focused, present, and free from anxiety and self-doubt. With real fun comes laughter, and people say they feel more connected to their authentic selves and others.

Research indicates both positive physiological and psychological outcomes from real fun and associated laughter.

Improved physiological outcomes from fun and laughter include increased muscle relaxation, improved respiration and circulation, decreased stress hormone production, increased immune system function, elevated pain threshold and tolerance, and enhanced mental functioning.

Positive psychological outcomes include reduced stress, anxiety, and tension; reduced symptoms of depression; elevated mood, self-esteem, hope, energy, and vigor; enhanced memory and creative thinking; improved interpersonal interactions; positive psychological well-being; and other improved indicators related to quality of life.

Can you remember the last time you had real fun?

Although the feeling of fun is universal, everyone experiences it differently. Can you remember and identify one or two experiences where you laughed with other people and felt utterly engrossed in the activity? Can you describe what made the experience fun? These fun experiences occupy fleeting moments and often depend only on one’s frame of mind, the setting, and the people involved. Research suggests the more you pay attention to fun experiences and the energy they produce, the better you’ll feel.

Since fun is an emotional experience, it can’t be forced. But it is possible to create conditions that allow fun to occur simply by prioritizing the people and activities most likely to create fun experiences for you.


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(Lead image courtesy of V. Katch.)


  1. Bill Canning - 71&73

    I always had fun playing golf with you
    It wasn’t the score it was the comradity.
    The playfulness you sited and positive attitude is right on
    Thanks for the article
    Be well my friend


  2. Frank Marcinkiewicz - 97

    I always enjoy playing golf with everyone and can relate to the opening of your article. I really appreciate your insight to health and fun. I will have to tap into more of your insights on nutrition and weight control while playing golf with you this coming season. Have a wonderful holiday!
    -Frank M


  3. Ted Hall - 1979 (B.S.), 1981 (M.Arch.), 1994 (Arch.D.)

    “water (H20) is an emergent property of the interaction between one-hydrogen (H) and two-oxygen (20) molecules.”

    Egads! What an embarrassing statement from a university! How many people were in the chain that let that slip through to publication?

    Water (H20) comprises /two/ hydrogen (H2) and /one/ oxygen (0) /atoms/ — not molecules. H2O is the molecule. Entering freshmen should know this.


    • Deborah Holdship

      That was a bad one on my part. It’s fixed. — Ed


  4. Chris Campbell - Rackham '72; Law '75

    I’m an old guy (76) who still works full-time. I’m a legal aid lawyer and the work is rewarding in many different ways. If I didn’t work, it would be harder to coax myself onto the bicycle each morning for the commute, especially in the winter. The first quarter mile often has me wondering why on earth I’m doing this and not riding in a nice warm car, but when I arrive my response is usually, “I feel great!” How many times do we get out of a car and say that?

    My time as a student in Ann Arbor was very difficult for me–being young is not the idyllic period sometimes imagined–but eventually I figured out that one part of happiness was building fun into daily life. Like the bike commute…. From my clients over the years I have learned by positive and negative example that we can choose to be happy or not. One way to make that happen is to include small moments of fun. We do not need to reserve fun for big events–vacations, ceremonies, parties. It should be common and frequent, even if the events are small-scale. A bit of playfulness helps. One judge commented, “Mr. Campbell, you always make me smile.”

    We should all reflect a bit on what makes for fun and whether we are getting enough of it. Remembering the play element is a good start.


  5. Esrold Nurse - 1976: BA;1984: Ph.D

    What a wonderful article. Very timely, especially for retirees. I have experienced that as a retired person one has to be much more intentional in seeking out “fun “activities. The University of Michigan Retirees Association provides many opportunities to have fun. There are many “Shared Interest Groups” that cover a great deal of activities including kayaking, golfing, mahjong, Gardeners, Archery, book club, Travelers group, just to name a few. I am a member of the Board and am willing to respond to any questions anyone may have about the organization. Don’t hesitate to contact me directly if you have questions.

    Again, thanks to Victor for his extremely important article. Much appreciated. Esrold Nurse.


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