Want To Have More Fun? Go On a Mission.

Writer Jean Stafford scoffed, “Happy people don’t need to have fun,” but in fact, studies show that the absence of feeling bad isn’t enough to make you feel good; you must strive to find sources of feeling good. Research shows that regularly having fun is a key factor in having a happy life; people who have fun are twenty times more likely to feel happy.

Recently, I noticed a pattern among activities that people find fun: Go on a mission. There’s something about having a playful purpose, of trying to achieve something, that makes an activity more fun.

For example, a friend told that she loved visiting flea markets and antique stores to look for old globes – not fancy ones, cheap ones. She has a rule that she’ll never pay more than $20. She’s the kind of person who loves poking around in those kinds of shops in any case, but having a mission makes it more fun, less aimless.

For that matter, having a collection of any sort is a very popular way to have a mission. My younger daughter is thrilled every time she finds a piece of sea glass, and looking for sea glass makes the beach more fun for her. My mother enjoys a perpetual hunt for truly outstanding Santa Claus tree ornaments.

It’s also possible to collect experiences, like my friend who wants to attend a game in every Major League Baseball stadium. You might want to run in as many marathons as possible, or try every flavor at your favorite ice cream store. I’ve noticed that I enjoy a walk more when I have some sort of mission–mailing a letter, buying a cup of coffee, doing a quick errand. I often walk in Central Park, and by making it my mission to see Bethesda Fountain (one of my favorite sights in all of New York City), the whole walk seems more purposeful.

In fact, much of the fun of a physical collection is the experience of searching and acquiring — not just the ownership of the collection itself. That’s why it’s not much fun to be given or to buy a collection.

Taking photos is a common way to incorporate a mission into traveling. Not only does this help keep memories vivid, it also makes you more attuned to your environment while traveling. (Although for some people, taking photos can become a barrier to experience; they get so focused on getting the photos that they don’t enjoy the reality.) For example, during one visit to New Haven, I had a lot more fun wandering around once I set myself the mission of taking tourist photos of my own romance.

Some people have a mission to take photos during everyday life: taking a photo of people’s bare feet whenever they get the chance, taking a photo of every red barn they see. Artist Nicholas Nixon did a series called The Brown Sisters, a series of black-and-white photos of his wife and her three sisters taken every year from 1975-2006. It’s absolutely riveting.

Why does the resolution to “Go on a mission” add to happiness? The First Splendid Truth holds that to be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

The more I’ve thought about happiness, the more surprised I’ve been at the importance of the “atmosphere of growth.” I think this is a huge engine of happiness, and when you have a mission, you create an atmosphere of growth whenever you pursue that mission.

Have you found a way to have a mission? What is it – and does it boost your happiness?

P.S. I got a big kick from choosing this image. Get it?

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

  • heatherp

    My family has really enjoyed geocaching (www.geocaching.com) recently. It is a great way to give us a mission that gets us out and walking around, exploring new places, and everyone in the family has fun. We especially like to go geocaching while visiting different cities as the geocaches often take you new, out-of-the-way, interesting places.

  • Paddy O

    This post reminds me of what I read in books by Temple Grandin about “seeking” behavior in animals. Most animals such as dogs enjoy the “seeking” behavior of walking where they explore their environments. The absence of seeking behavior often led to depression, and engaging in seeking behavior makes for happy dogs. It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was that type of behavior I enjoyed as well, but called it adventures or missions. It is why riding a bike is still fun. Great post!

  • Lisa H.

    I love this! Over the past year or so, whenever I walk around my neighborhood for exercise, I take pictures. I then delete all but one and post that one on my Facebook page. It gives me a fun sense of purpose during my walk, it gives me something to post about, and I strengthen my “purge” muscles by getting rid of all but my favorite photo. I wonder what other “missions” I could embark on…

  • peninith

    Brilliant! This is something I have done for years, but have not ever seen the idea summed up so clearly and so well. People usually say ‘get a hobby’ or ‘make a bucket list’ . . . and that sounds like such a bore or a threat. One of my great motivators is that I write a newsletter to my friends every week (yeah, I know I need a mission to start a blog) and I need interesting things to write about!
    Here are some missions I have greatly enjoyed:
    * Collecting and reading books by a particular author or on a subject that fascinates me.
    * Hunting for red transferware ironstone in thrift and antique shops
    * Visiting quilt shops wherever I go, bringing home a piece of fabric to remind me of the trip.
    * Keeping a life list of butterfles I have seen.
    * Learning everything I can about puffins (which led to ‘adopting’ a puffin through the Audubon Society).
    * Making it a mission to visit & learn something about every county in my home state and take a pic of the court house.
    * Working my way (much more slowly than the movie) through Julia Child’s cook books.
    * Planning a road trip out of state to go on a ‘quilt shop hop’ and do some sightseeing.
    All of these things are fun for me now or have been great fun for me in the past. Yep, ‘going on a mission’ is one of the best possible ways to have fun.

    • gretchenrubin

      I love your list!

  • Thank you, Gretchen! I love the idea of a mission, and it’s been inherent in my personality for as long as I can remember. The flip side of your idea: Can we become too mission-driven, at the risk of the goal threatening to overwhelm the experience?

    I sometimes find myself wondering whether everything I do, even when I’m supposedly having fun, is skewed towards this “eyes on the prize” mentality. “Chill out, Susan!” I tell myself, “Just have fun!” But honestly, I find if difficult, sometimes. Even on a day off, I rapidly structure it to make sure I accomplish something. (Strengthsfinder would call this behavior characteristic of “The Overachiever” … )

    Does anybody else experience this as well?

    • gretchenrubin

      This reminds me of one of my favorite Samuel Johnson lines: “There is no gift of nature, or effect of art, however beneficial to mankind, which, either by casual deviations, or foolish perversions, is not sometimes mischievous. Whatever may be the cause of happiness, may be made, likewise, the cause of misery. The medicine, which, rightly applied, has power to cure, has, when rashness or ignorance prescribes it, the same power to destroy.”

    • peninith

      I smiled when I read this–the other day when I flipped on the webcam to watch the ‘puffin loafing ledge’ on a rocky island off the coast of Maine, I found myself thinking “well, gee, these puffins don’t seem to be very PURPOSEFUL’ That of course made me realise that I tend to be doggedly over-purposeful, and that maybe a little more ‘loafing ledge’ behavior would be just fine in my life!!!!!!!!!!

  • Hannah Kane

    Thanks for this post! I have so many fun missions, it’s ridiculous. I’ve resolved to attend every trivia night event in Portland. I’m committed to reading the complete works of several of my favorite authors (and do an art project after each!). One “mission” I particularly like is my personal luck-themed scavenger hunt. I identified 11 “lucky” items ranging from a penny to a four-leaf clover to a unicorn, and I’m keeping track of when I come across them in my life. I’m tracking my own luck! (I wrote about that one here: http://everybodysinvited.in/2012/04/06/lucky-stars-scavenger-hunt.)

  • Jennifer

    I love missions! I take my camera with me wherever I go. Whenever my friends groan at my camera being taken out, I tell them I need to “document”. I look back at my photos and the memories come flooding back. My walls are covered with photos of exotic places as well as my family and friends in everyday life. It also reminds me of all the amazing people I know and places I’ve been.

  • Carolyn Kay

    My mission is to stay informed on practical ways to stay healthy as I get older, and to pass that information on to others.

  • jr cline

    This week my playful purpose was The Naked on a Train project.

  • Julianne

    You have hit on the secret I’ve used for 30 years or more! It’s SO much fun to have a mission…whether it’s poking through a thrift shop looking for embroidery thread (my passion is stitching) or just going on my weekly trip to the library. You also mention an atmosphere of growth. Boy, I’ve been in that atmosphere for the past couple of months, and it gives me such a lift. I’m learning Photoshop, from the ground up. It can be very frustrating, of course, but when that aha! moment comes, there’s nothing like it.

  • Anne

    I actually prefer serendipity to having a mission. Go into a junk store or for a walk and just be open to what turns up. Or maybe putting myself in the way of serendipity IS a mission? I dunno.

  • Polly Burns

    You are so right. I’m currently learning French and although I enjoyed it at school and was good at it, it seems to be going so much better this time because I’m exploring all things French: the food, cooking, fashion, children’s books, nursery rhymes, songs, French games, internet quizzes….etc. I’m aiming to collect phrasal verbs, idioms and colloquialisms, because those things fascinate me in English too. It may sound strange, but I’m having a fabulous time!

  • vashelle nino

    My problem is that I set out on too many missions! I am enthusiastic about life (which in and of itself keeps me afloat much of the time), and I want to learn everything, see everything, be everything! 🙂 My biggest challenge is narrowing my choices down and not becoming distracted by a *new mission.

    I read “The Happiness Project” while on vacation in June. It was a great little vacation companion, as it kept reminding me to enjoy the moment. Thank you 🙂

  • Jannine

    I read The Happiness Project a while ago, I became happier by following Gretchen’s ideas and thinking of my own happiness project. Then I got pregnant and kind of abandoned it a little. Until now when I thought I was getting pretty unhappy these days, with my new baby I found the first few months very overwhelming. Then I thought I needed a mission – to start writing a blog to my daughter starting since the day she was conceived- it has made me so happy.

    • gretchenrubin

      Congratulations on the new baby – and the new blog!

  • Mo

    This article definitely resonates with the recent changes in my life which have brought a greater sense of fun, accomplishment, and happiness. I never thought about the “Go on a Mission” aspect though–thank you for raising my awareness.

    I have realized that some of the things that add fun to my daily routines involve going on a mission. Whether I’m looking for interesting natural subjects to shoot during my Lunchtime Project at work, or absorbing much knowledge as possible about Mindful Eating, the sense of mission adds to my fun and happiness.

    Thank you for the timely post, Gretchen. Reading The Happiness Project has transformed my attitudes and outlook towards my everyday life, and the timely posts on this site are delightfully thought-provoking.

  • techmaven

    This is essentially my life story. I suffer from clinical depression. One of the ways I keep it at bay is by giving myself new missions, like deciding to learn French, or how to crochet, or even how much cleaning I can get done in a week.

  • Harmen

    Nice, a Star Trek fan, join the club! 🙂

  • Red

    This is very cool. I have a collection of pins (about 250). I might just have to start pushing myself to do new things so that I might get a pin out of it.