A Simple New Year's Resolution: Fun

There’s a funny thing about our brains (or, more aptly, our minds).

It’s that we often get confused about the origin, the journey, and the destination.

Just for example, let’s say that once, long ago, you decided you wanted to become a scientist. You thought it would be fun to explore the workings of the world. You thought it would be thrilling to make the next big breakthrough, and to share it with the world.

Let’s say that, based on this notion of the fun and the thrill of science, you decide to embark on a journey. It’s a difficult journey of training and education. It’s fraught with perils and challenges. It lasts for many, many years. Some of us even add extra time to the journey, just because we’re gluttons for punishment. In my own case, the journey from BS degree to being a tenured faculty member who had “made it” was about 18 years.

A funny thing happens along the way. We often completely loose sight of why we started the journey in the first place! I often did. I’d get caught up in the minutiae of the process of “getting there”, taking it all too seriously, and totally forgetting why I embarked on the journey.

If it wasn’t for something my PhD mentor once said to me, I may have been completely lost in the journey. He once commented that whenever he was feeling frustrated by something like a grant proposal, he’d step back and just remind himself to have fun with it.

It worked for him, and it worked for me.  Many of my biggest successes with things like big grant proposals resulted from a process that went something like this:

  1. I get lost and frustrated in a project to the point of exasperation (a state of mind often lasting weeks to many months)
  2. In a flash of desperation-driven insight, I remember the words of my mentor about having fun
  3. I come back at the project with a renewed attitude of “just having fun” instead of worrying about the outcome
  4. The project succeeds beyond my wildest imagination

In other words, it would take a state of desperation and exasperation to remind me to simply have fun with it, and having fun with it would, more often than not, lead to success.

Having short memory, I rarely remembered this principle much beyond the completion of each project. I had forgotten why I’d gotten into the career in the first place. This “having fun” was just something I used as a tool to accomplish a goal such as getting a grant proposal written, or whatever.

It wasn’t a core, working principle of mine. Instead, it was like a rest stop along the freeway, where I’d occasionally pop in to relieve myself, then get back to the “hard work” of driving forth towards my (now forgotten) destination.

It took some wild twists and turns to finally take me back-to-my roots, to remind me of why I started doing what I’m doing in the first place.

This isn’t just true of science, it’s true of anything we do in life. We do things in life because we think that, somehow, some way, they’ll bring joy, happiness, fun, meaning, and satisfaction.

Yet very few people I encounter remember that principle. It is just so easy to get lost in the “getting there” – taking the process way too seriously – that we never “get there.”

It’s a kind of hellish limbo. I see it all the time in my work with scientists, who struggle with meaning and purpose (and fun) even more than they struggle with getting grants funded. The two struggles aren’t separate. Grant reviewers can sense when you’ve run out of steam, when you’re writing from a defensive, uninspired position. But this post isn’t about grants, it’s about something deeper.

Why do we get lost?

Our society doesn’t much remind us about having fun. Instead, it reminds us about danger, responsibility, challenge, and being a good citizen. Those are all worthy things, yet if you’re living a life driven by only those things, what’s the point?

A recently published longevity study by Stanford researchers showed that “happy-go-lucky” types don’t live as long as hard working, “conscientious” types. This might sound counter to fun, if you associate fun with partying and overeating and the like. But fun is multi-faceted. Long-lasting fun doesn’t come from excess drinking, partying, or overeating. Those quickly become stale unfun activities, if that’s all you do.

Long-lasting fun comes from the pursuit and accomplishment of worthy, inspiring goals. It comes from facing the challenges and overcoming them. Fun comes from being immersed in the process of pursuing your goals, and once accomplished, setting a new goal.

However, the danger is getting lost in the process, much like I was for most of my faculty career. I forgot why I was doing it, and so my only goals became to achieve external goals like getting tenure. I was not having fun, and therefore I was less conscientious. I resorted to other avenues of “fun” such as overeating. I stopped taking care of myself. I stopped taking care of others around me.

I’ll bet if I’d been interviewed by those Stanford researchers during that time, I’d have scored lower on the conscientiousness scale (which they associate with longevity) than I have at any other time in my life, including now. It’s hard to be conscientious and hard working when you’re hating every minute of it – when you’re having no fun at all.

If you’re not having fun, what’s the point?

Even if the Stanford researchers, led by Howard Friedman, had found that having fun shortened lifespan (which they did not), I’d have to ask: what’s the point of living longer if you’re not enjoying it?

That’s like going on a carnival ride that you hate, then asking the attendant to let you keep on riding after the first ride is over. It just doesn’t make sense.

The first priority should be fun, joy, satisfaction, and only second should we then worry about the length of time we’re here on the planet – not the other way around.

Really. We. Are. All. Here. To. Enjoy. Our. Lives.

There is no other reason for existence. We are not here to feel guilty. We are not here to work hard for some external goal that only makes our parents or peers happy. We are not here to please others.

We are here to live a fully expressed, creatively engaged life: which is a fun life.

Let’s make this New Year be a year of fun. Not just stupid, drunken fun, but real, deep, core fun. The fun that comes from work we enjoy doing, from time spent with family and friends we enjoy being with, and from experiencing the riches that our world has to offer.

3 thoughts on “A Simple New Year's Resolution: Fun

  1. Morgan, Frank Kern emailed a link and I listened to your wonderful talk. The biggest challenge we face in the world is sheer overwhelm. I love a quote by Earl Nightingale: “How can I be of the greatest service doing the things I most enjoy?” I look forward to learning more from you about how to dig myself out of the digital and paper avalanche.

  2. Morgan – I found you through Frank Kern – and I must say you are very inspiring. You have brilliantly answered the two most burning questions I have right now – How do I become more productive, and how do I not feel so stressed to get everything done? Thank you for sharing this with the world. I look forward to seeing more from you in the future.

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