A Little Happier: Important Lesson from Dr. Seuss–It’s Fun to Have Fun, But You Have to Know How.

The Cat in the Hat said it, and it’s a truth that I feel more deeply with every year that passes: It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how — and that may take some serious reflection.

Research shows that the absence of “feeling bad” doesn’t mean that we “feel good.” We must actually strive to find sources of “feeling good.” Having fun on a regular basis is a pillar of happiness.

As you ask yourself, “How can I have more fun?” keep two things in mind:

1. Be honest about what’s actually fun for you. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for you, and vice versa. Wine-tasting, skiing, baking bread, reading mysteries—I personally do not enjoy any of these “fun” activities. They’re fun for some people; not for me. Don’t try to be self-improving, and don’t plan a “fun” event based on what other people would enjoy. Make time for something that’s fun for YOU.

2. Do have real fun. I often feel so overwhelmed by tasks that I think, “The most fun would be to cross some items off my to-do list. I’d feel so much better if I could get something accomplished.” In fact, though, I just make myself feel trapped and drained. If I take time to do something that’s truly fun for me (re-read All the King’s Men for the fourth time, call my sister), I feel better able to tackle that to-do list.

In case Dr. Seuss hasn’t convinced you, I’ll also invoke Samuel Butler:

“One can bring no greater reproach against a man than to say that he does not set sufficient value upon pleasure, and there is no greater sign of a fool than the thinking that he can tell at once and easily what it is that pleases him. To know this is not easy, and how to extend our knowledge of it is the highest and most neglected of all arts and branches of education.”

An example from my own life: I always knew that I found it fun to read children’s and young-adult literature, but I never paid much attention to that passion; when I made this activity a major pastime, by acknowledging what I found fun and starting three kidlit reading groups, instead of pushing it to the corners of my life, I dramatically ramped up the fun I got from it. (Read about these groups in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.)

How about you? Have you ever had trouble finding fun, or making time for fun? It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how.

Want to get in touch? I love hearing from listeners:


Happier listening!

  • Nicole

    I think this is interesting in relation to other people as well. If it’s not always easy to recognise what is fun for oneself, it is even more difficult to be sure what is fun for other people. For example, if anyone had the terrible idea of organising a surprise party for me, they might intend for me to have a lot of fun but in fact I would hate it. In my view, when someone observes you carefully enough to detect what would really, truly be fun for you and makes it happen, they are showing enormous love and consideration. My three kids gave me the best fiftieth birthday ever, because they cared enough to pay attention to what would be fun for me, and got it exactly right. 😀

    • gretchenrubin

      Such a good point.

    • Julie Coffin

      So curious what they did for your birthday? Please share…

      • Nicole

        We were on the island of Corfu in Greece at the time, which is one of my all-time best places on the planet. My kids suggested I go down for an early evening swim from the rocks in one of our favourite bays, so I wandered down on my own, suspecting they might have something up their sleeve… There are no houses there, and no other people at the time, just the olive trees and the crickets and the clear blue sea. Soon after, the three of them showed up with elaborate “mezes” (Greek appetizers) which they had prepared themselves, and a bottle of prosecco for us to drink “on the rocks”. I was presented with a hand-written menu for a beautiful dinner we would be sharing later on, but first we swam and then sat on the rocks eating our delicious appetizers and toasting to my first half-century in the calm of a Greek summer evening. Later on, I got a festive home-made dinner, gifts and music from my talented guitar-playing son. I also received a beautiful letter from my oldest son (20 years old at the time) which I will treasure forever. We were in rented holiday accommodation so there was not much in the way of kitchen equipment, but they had borrowed a cake-tin from the local taverna to bake me a birthday cake! There was so much love in all the planning and preparation that went into this low-key event. They knew I wouldn’t want a big noisy fuss; instead, I got elements of everything I love: my beloved children, the sea, the peace and beauty of Greece, good food, music…Not everyone’s cup of tea, but exactly right for me!

        • Trixie

          That almost makes me cry! It sounds wonderful. What a fantastic family you have.

        • Julie Coffin

          How lovely and personal. Great kids!

        • Julie Coffin


  • Lee

    My sister and I have fun while getting something accomplished. We live on opposite sides of the country. We call each other on the weekend and will often do projects “together” as we talk (on speaker or bluetooth headset so our hands are free). We might clean out a closet, fold laundry, organize book shelves, and so on, as we chat. We can consult with each other about what we’re doing while we’re doing it, or just solve all the problems of the world at the same time. It’s double fun because it feels good to get something done at the same time.

    • gretchenrubin

      What a great hack to spending time with your sister and getting things done!

  • Gillian

    I struggle with this concept of fun. I’m sure I was born without the fun gene. I experience enjoyment and pleasure but never really what others seem to call fun. Often, I find what others call fun is centred on silliness and I can’t abide “silly”.

    I, too, derive great delight from crossing things off my to-do list. If I ignore the list and do something more pleasurable, the pleasure can often be tinged with regret at tasks not completed.

    As an introvert, I find social gatherings centred on a purpose to be much more enjoyable than events that are only about getting together. I have recently attended a couple of talks given at my local library. There was socializing included, which was pleasant, but the presentations were what attracted me and most made the time enjoyable.

    It occurred to me recently that I seem to have a tendency to regard social occasions and events that are supposed to be fun as just another item on my to-do list. All items, pleasant or otherwise, seem to have equal weight. If I have a pleasant or unpleasant event scheduled, it seems to weigh equally on my mind and is a distraction until it is over with. Rather than wanting TO DO something, what I really want is to HAVE DONE it. Then I ran across the following passage by Eric Weiner in “Man Seeks God” that really resonated with me:

    “I want to get everything over with, which makes sense for something like a root canal but the problem is I also want to get the pleasant things in life over with as soon as possible. My favourite tense is past. This is crazy, I know. I wonder if my depression isn’t somehow tied to my lack of patience. If I want to get everything over with as quickly as possible, it begs the uncomfortable question: Why live at all?”

    I am not plagued with depression, nor am I particularly impatient, but the idea of the favourite tense being the past really hit home.

    So, when I want to devote some time to fun, or just pleasure, I have a very hard time figuring out just what it is I want to do. The default is usually to read. And that, as often as not, is serious non-fiction. It seems I was over-endowed with the serious gene at the expense of the fun gene.

    • Debbie

      I feel the same way! I read The Happiness Project many years ago but one passage that always stuck with me was about accepting that what’s fun for others may not be fun for me, and it’s OK that things like reading are what I find “fun.”

    • Trixie

      Gillian, that’s interesting about wanting to get things over (for the record, I am not depressed but am often impatient). I often feel the same way because I think that, at heart, I’m an idler. The to-do list seems endless, so even though I cross things off, more come up–some anticipated and some not. I keep thinking that, when things are done, I can idle. That never seems to happen. I function best in simplicity, but my life seems far from that. Maybe when the kids are more autonomous …

      • gretchenrubin

        Try scheduling time to goof off. Then you know you’ll have time for it, you don’t feel guilty during the “idle” time, and if you have more fun, you might find it easier to do more non-fun things. Give it a shot!

  • Meghan Maxfield

    I love children’s literature also, and wanted to read about your groups. However, neither link works. It says the page is not found.

  • Oh, I love children’s literature, too (probably ingrained in me through my mother!).

    This podcast/article is such a good reminder. I’ve realized that I sometimes just need to “embrace my boringness.” A lot of things that are fun for me just seem downright dull to others, like listening to jazz and walking and reading nonfiction.

    Thanks for encouraging me (and countless others) to accept what makes us happy, and take time to do those things!

  • Mimi Gregor

    So much of my time seems to be spent doing things for others, or doing things that must get done. Sure, it feels good to cross things off the to-do list, but that is satisfaction — not fun. So, toward evening, I try to carve out a little time to read (something that I do consider fun). Also, I take a day off once a week. Since my husband is off on Mondays and Tuesdays, and on Tuesdays he goes for an extended bike ride, I don’t have to make any meals. So I also go off and do something fun. A bike ride would not be my idea of fun, but I do like to look through resale shops, hike through the woods, or go to the library. So I do something like that, something that is fun for me. I leave enough time for an extended nap after lunch, and in the evening, we go out for dinner (our regular “date night”). We always have movies or TV series from Netflix lined up to watch in the evening. Sure, there are still a few chores that I have to handle (breakfast must be made, and I have parrots who do not understand the concept of “day off”, and they must be fed and cleaned), but all in all, it is a day I really look forward to all week.

  • Lawniss

    I just went on a vacation to Maine. I never realized that I loved the water so much. It was truly fun and I will definitely be trying to incorporate more nature in my list of fun activities to do on the weekends.

  • Anna Geisenhoff

    After reading your post here, and the comments of others, I realize that I do not really have fun very often! I can relate to others’ comments that refer to “just wanting to get things done,” and “focusing on what must be done,” especially for others…looks like I need to do a serious review of things in my life and try to figure out how to have more fun, and what exactly I consider fun. I am an Obliger, so I know this has a LOT to do with the way I feel.

  • Lauren M

    I really appreciate that the Cat in the Hat also made you anxious! The mess in the house and the impending arrival of the parents? So stressful for me! One of my least favorite Seuss books, honestly.
    Totally agree about knowing what you think is fun- falls under the “Be Gretchen” rule, right?

  • Jackie

    Good question, fun?
    I love reading and listening to my favorite podcasts, Happier, and Revisionist History, Relevant. After I listened to this I turned on my music and realized MUSIC is fun to me. I love dancing in my car, hands up clapping and concerts. Mini fun, maxi fun!

  • Heidi Kelly

    Thanks for this, we all need to be reminded sometimes to be happier! I went through 2 breast cancer diagnosis and the whole thing that goes with that. Surprisingly, I came out happier on the other side and even started my own business! Happiness is key to an amazing life! Live Life Now!