Consider the Three Levels of Fun: Challenging, Accommodating, and Relaxing Fun.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.

Here’s a mystery. We spend a huge amount of time with TV. Watching TV is probably the world’s most popular pastime and is the greatest use of time, after sleeping and work. In the United States, people spend more than four hours a day watching TV. Watching great television can be an enormous source of pleasure. Yet, often, channel surfing becomes a default activity that doesn’t add a lot to our happiness–yet we persist in watching, nevertheless.

So how does TV fit into happiness? To answer that question, I had to break “fun” into three types:

1. challenging fun
2. accommodating fun
3. relaxing fun

Challenging fun is the most rewarding, and the most demanding.

Learning to play golf is challenging fun. First you have to learn the equipment, the rules, the vocabulary, the motions. You’re frustrated. You have to do some errands. It takes a lot of time to get any kind of mastery. But slowly it becomes more fun. You’re outside, you’re with friends, you’re gaining mastery, you’re visiting new places—that’s fun! Challenging fun takes patience, time, energy, perseverance, and a long time horizon.

Usually less challenging, but still requiring a fair bit of effort, is accommodating fun.

Going on a family trip to the zoo is accommodating fun. Going to a family Thanksgiving dinner, going to a firm outing, going to dinner and a movie with friends, all require accommodation. You’re strengthening relationships, you’re building memories, you’re having fun – but perhaps not as much fun as you’d have if you dictated the terms. Accommodating fun takes a lot of energy, organization, coordination with other people, and, well, accommodation.

Relaxing fun is practically effortless.

Relaxing fun is relaxing. It takes little energy. You don’t have to hone skills or take much action. There’s very little coordination with other people or preparation involved. Sitting by the pool, flipping through magazines, and watching TV are examples of relaxing fun.

Challenging fun and accommodating fun, over the long term, bring more happiness, because they’re sources of those elements that make people happiest: strong personal bonds, mastery, an atmosphere of growth. Relaxing fun tends to be passive—by design.

So if relaxing fun is the least fun kind of fun, why is watching TV so popular?

Because, while we get more out of challenging fun and accommodating fun, we also must put more into it. Many of the activities that bring the most happiness also require a lot of energy, time, and planning. But in the end, they bring more happiness.

So to boost happiness, if most of your leisure time is dedicated to relaxing fun, try to incorporate some challenging or accommodating fun into the mix.

What kinds of challenging or accommodating fun activities do you make sure to include in your day? Do you struggle to limit your time with TV (or any kind of screen)?

  • I prefer focusing on incorporating more of something (accommodating or challenging fun) into my life than on restricting something. TV watching & internet surfing naturally tapers off as I engage more with the people physically present with me.

    • Kate

      I like this thought. It echoes what I do when I’m trying to, for instance, eat healthier. I focus on eating MORE good things and less on not eating certain things. I think applying the concept to time is great!

  • Malamadre

    Funny! I just wrote about the joy of just looking, which would be relaxing fun. But it’s now been a week and a half since we rescued our Jack Russell, Max, and living with him is definitely under challenging fun!

  • Amber C

    Last night I experienced some accommodating fun. A friend and I recently realized that we were both reading The Hobbit to our kids. So my friend suggested we get together and have a Family Book Club night to discuss the book and have treats. It didn’t require a lot of effort on my part (I had to made a treat and come up with a game and a few questions and a bit of minor house cleaning to be ready for company) and yet we had a great time! I got to spend time with a friend in an activity that we usually don’t do together (we normally just work out together), I got to know her children better, and I met her husband for the first time. My kids thought it was amazing and were still talking about it this morning. Now we’re talking about doing Family Book Club together again in a few months!

  • Susanne

    This is really a thought-provoking post, Gretchen. And I think it’s going to depend a great deal on what kind of personality you are — extrovert, or introvert. I’m not that much of a people person, frankly. I love my time alone, and realized, after reading this, that my idea of challenging fun is working on my house or garden. Hard work, solitary work (my choice), and extremely rewarding. I find accomodating fun to be okay, but only in limited amounts.

    I attended a birthday bash for a friend last week that entailed a good deal of organization, traveling & coordination, and while I certainly enjoyed it (and my friends), I was VASTLY glad to get home to the quiet & solitude. My favorite “fun” is to curl up with a cat or two, a crackling log fire and a good book. I watch TV, but only a handful of fave shows. But reading, writing, puttering, various art interests & projects — these are my idea of heaven.

    I think interpretations of the word “fun” will be as many & varied as the folk doing the defining. Maybe we all need to heed a dear friend of mine who “retired” (his word) many years ago when he decided to simply not do anything he didn’t love. He works harder than anyone else I know, but would be the first to tell you that his whole life is “fun” — all 3 types rolled into one.

  • Joanna

    I treat TV like a piece of chocolate. A piece at a time is fine, but too much in one go can leaving one feeling uncomfortably full (or empty). I also learned that if I’m really tired, participating in challenging fun can be a sunk cost as I don’t have enough energy to put in to get anything out. If I want to watch a couple of hours of TV, then I probably want to go to bed early and get a good nights sleep too.

  • Limiting TV is actually pretty easy for me. I’ve never had an addiction to the activity nor have I ever relied on it past the age of 10. For me, TV is best used strategically. For example, if I can’t seem to get working then I would turn on the TV for background noise and it changes the scenery up in a way.

    What I do make it a goal to do on a daily basis is meditate (inconsistently but trying) and enjoy walking. I absolutely love walking because it is for me, the time to slow down and really live.

  • Kerri Schweibert

    So true! Sometimes leisurely fun is like the little devil on my shoulder trying to lure me in, telling me that getting up to play golf or tennis would be too much work, and sitting on the couch watching TV would be so much better. But, as you say Gretchen, once I put on my shoes and get out of the house, I’m so much more energized after engaging in challenging fun!

    Thanks for the fodder!

  • AliB

    For me the best fun is usually ‘releasing’ fun – going out, getting a bit tipsy and dancing the night away with girlfriends or leaving the kids on the beach with their dad and diving through some waves – I don’t feel these really challenge or accomodate so I guess it must be relaxing fun even though it never involves being still!

    Since the internet, TV doesn’t really get a look-in – much more likely to be surfng the net of an evening – checking out this blog for example! Thanks for another thought-provoking post

  • LCD

    I find TV annoying for the most part so I naturally limit time spent on it. That said, I can enjoy a specific program every now and then, like a good football game or a series like Downton Abbey. I enjoy more challenging fun than any other category–I am always learning something new, visiting a new place, reading a new book, etc. I see accomodating fun as a chance to socialize and build/maintain relationships–having a great conversation, going to dinner or a movie, playing games, relaxing and talking together at the end of the day.

  • meseymou

    Hi Gretchin, I know you like quotes and there is a great one about fun from the movie “State and Main.” The line goes something like, “Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it isn’t fun.” Almost as good as the one from Dr. Seuss that you quoted on your blog a while back: “It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how!”

    I’m not sure about the three categories. I think there may be more; but I also know I am not particularly good at fun.

  • Allison

    Interesting post! Been a tv-aholic most of my life and am not happy with the time I’ve wasted over the years. Recently started to try and get a grip on this so now I have a rule that I can only watch tv with someone else. If my family is out for the day/night, then I need to find something else to do other than watch tv. (of course the ‘Moderator’ in me allows myself one evening a week to watch on my own :o) It’s been an eye opener for me to see how much I can do (chore-wsie or fun-wise) if I don’t allow myself to just plop on the couch with the clicker.

  • Emily

    I’ve never owned a TV myself (during college and a few years thereafter, I couldn’t afford one), but I’ve occasionally had roommates who had TVs. I now know that when there’s a TV available to me, I spend countless hours quite contently glued to the tube, but when I don’t have a TV, I don’t miss it at all. Though I can afford a TV now, I’ve decided not to own one, because I know I would struggle to control my TV watching at the expense of doing other things I enjoy. I do enjoy other “relaxing fun” activities, but even those require more planning and effort than simply switching on the TV, so I struggle less to control my appetite for them.

    For “challenging fun,” I make music daily, and I also enjoy studying languages, taking fitness classes, cooking, crafting, or working on “pet projects” when I have the time. Since I live alone, for daily “accommodating fun,” I socialize with my coworkers. We plan our breaks together to get the most bang for our buck — we play games, take walks around the building, have ice cream taste tests… 15 minutes of fun each day goes a long way to building healthy relationships and making the workplace a more positive environment.

  • Rachel

    Also, challenging and accommodating fun in general tend to cost more money than relaxing fun, something I have been struggling with lately. Who ever said money can’t buy happiness, right?

  • Great post and a good thing to think about-things I do for challenging fun are writing, beekeeping, gardening and sewing. Accommodating fun are things that I take the kids to do. I don’t have to wprry about getting too much time on the TV these days because we only have 1 TV and 1 computer among the 5 of us and I always get last dibs. I read magazines or books for relaxing fun

  • This is pretty insightful. I guess it probably boils down to our predilection to instant gratification and quick fixes. How many hours in a day should one limit their TV intake?

  • kate

    Thankyou for the post because that really does help breaking down two of my major challenging funs bellydance and poi which do take a lot of effort.

  • yaeldsherman

    This was very helpful! I like the term undemanding fun for the first level, because it is fun that asks little and gives little back. I just wrote about it on my blog–

  • JQ

    This post, along with one on potato chip news, really made me think about how I spend my free time. Primarily the value, or lack thereof, I’m getting out of it. Hopefully, it will help me form a new habit. 🙂