Catherine Price is a science journalist, speaker, consultant, and the author of books including How to Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life (Amazon, Bookshop) and Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food (Amazon, Bookshop).
I couldn’t wait to talk to Catherine about habits, happiness, and fun.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Catherine: It might sound counterintuitive, given how little serious attention we devote to it, but I’ve found that the best way to make myself happier, healthier, more productive and more creative—not to mention more resilient—is to prioritize fun.
The connection between happiness and fun is particularly interesting to me. As you well know, we all want to be happier, but happiness can feel like an elusive, nebulous goal. What I’ve come to realize is that when we are having fun, we are invariably happy. That means that the path to long-term happiness is actually quite simple: we need to provide ourselves with more opportunities for fun.
We use the word all the time, but what is the definition of “fun”? And why do you draw a distinction between what you call “True Fun,” and what you call “Fake Fun”?
One of the most fascinating parts about writing my new book, The Power of Fun, was the realization that, despite how often we use the word in our everyday speech, there actually is not a great agreed-upon definition of “fun.”
I realized that it obviously would be impossible to write a book about fun without defining the word, so I set out to create a working definition, based on my previous writing and research into fields including happiness and positive psychology. In order to test my definition, I also recruited a “Fun Squad”—a group of over a thousand people who agreed to answer questions about fun and to share personal anecdotes. The Fun Squad members confirmed that my proposed definition described their own experiences.
So here’s the definition: fun is the confluence of playfulness, connection and flow. By “playful,” I mean that you must have a lighthearted attitude and not care too much about the ultimate outcome of what you’re doing. Connection means feeling, well, connected with someone else (it’s possible to have fun alone, but in the vast majority of instances, another person or creature is involved). And flow is a psychological state in which you’re so actively immersed and engaged in your present experience that you lose track of time—think of an athlete in the midst of a game.
I decided to refer to it as True Fun to distinguish it from its evil alter ego: Fake Fun. I came up with the term “fake fun” to describe activities that are marketed to us as fun—and that may indeed result in an initial jolt of pleasure, thanks to their ability to trigger the release of dopamine—but that ultimately leave us feeling dead inside. Social media is one of the most common examples of fake fun; others include binge-watching television till your eyes glaze over, excessive gaming, or shopping for things you don’t need (and can’t afford).
If we want to have more fun—and reap its benefits—we need to be able to distinguish fun that’s real from “fun” that’s fake, so that we can better allocate our time.
How can we have more fun?
The first step is to notice moments of playfulness, connection and flow that are already occurring so that you can appreciate them—many of us are already having more micro-moments of fun than we realize.
Next, I encourage people to reflect back on past experiences from their lives that they would describe as having been truly fun—moments in which they felt joyfully alive—and to ask themselves what activities, settings and people pop up as recurring themes. These fun-generating activities, settings, and people are what I refer to as “fun magnets”—each of us has a collection that is unique to us—and once you know what yours are, you can up your chances for fun by making space for your fun magnets on your schedule.
For example, playing music with friends is a powerful fun magnet for me (I play piano and guitar, and am learning drums). I know that if I want to have more fun, I should make space in my schedule to play music with friends. Will the amount of fun that’s produced always be the same? No—fun is an emotional experience, and can vary in intensity, even if you’re doing the same thing with the same people. But the more often I put myself in situations that are likely to attract fun for me personally, the more likely I am to have fun—and the happier I’m likely to be.
Those are the basics, but for more information, the second half of my book lays out a step-by-step plan.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That the secret to long-lasting happiness is the everyday pursuit of fun! Also, that self-criticism is kryptonite to fun, as well as happiness. So maybe go easier on yourself.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
Many people think that fun is that it’s frivolous, something that we don’t have room for in our adult lives. But I’ve found that far from being frivolous, fun is absolutely essential for our mental and physical health. The more I investigated fun’s effects, the more surprised and amazed I became.
For example, if you look at the scientific research behind each of the three elements of True Fun—namely, playfulness, connection and flow—you will find ample evidence of how these three states reduce stress levels, increase social bonding, and amplify our self-esteem and sense of meaning and purpose.
Anything that reduces our stress levels will also reduce cortisol, a stress hormone that is absolutely essential when we are trying to respond to and survive acute physical threats, but that is very bad for us when its levels remain elevated over time.
If you look at how cortisol helps us survive, it’s easy to see why it might not be good for its levels to be chronically high. For example: cortisol increases our heart rates, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels, all of which are great if you’re about to sprint, but are not great for long-term health. This explains why chronically elevated cortisol levels have been shown to increase our risks for everything from heart disease, heart attack and stroke to type 2 diabetes and obesity—and even dementia and cancer.
In other words, anything that stresses us out consistently over time (such as the hypervigilance encouraged by our devices!) is bad for our long-term health.
Anything that reduces stress—which playfulness, connection and flow have all been shown to do—is very good for our long-term health. The more True Fun we experience, the healthier we are likely to be—and the longer we are likely to live.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I used to spend way too much time staring at my phone. I changed this habit by taking a step back and asking myself what I, Catherine, wanted to spend my time on. Once I had that intention in mind, it became much easier to change my habits, because I realized that wasting my time on my phone was not how I wanted to spend my life.
I have also found that turning my personal issues into professional projects is an excellent way to hold myself accountable. I wrote a book called How to Break Up With Your Phone—and let me tell you, once people think of you as “that phone lady,” there is a lot of pressure not to be caught on your phone!
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I am definitely a Questioner. I am unable to accept things at face value, which I like to think of as a helpful trait, but which I also recognize can be annoying.
Speaking of personalities, I have a question to ask you: what’s your Fun Personality Type? (You can find out at HowToHaveFun.com; I’m a Fun Organizer.) [Gretchen: I’m a “Fun Seeker.”]
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Email definitely interferes with my ability to keep my healthy habits. Like many people, I have a compulsive desire to reach “inbox zero” (which, let’s be honest, is a dumb goal to begin with—and will never happen). So I’ve done a lot of work to reduce the amount of time I spend on email and the number of messages that I send and receive. (In fact, I even designed a course to help other people “break up” with their email, too.)
Also, are there really people out there for whom parties interfere with their habits and happiness? I wish that were the case for me. I can’t remember the last time I was invited to a party. (Do they still happen?)
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
When I wrote How to Break Up With Your Phone, my fundamental takeaway was that our lives are what we pay attention to. Writing it made me much, much more intentional about how I spend my time.
I realized, during an existential moment on my couch, that my dysfunctional relationship with my phone had made me lose sight of my own answer to that question; without the distractions of my devices, I couldn’t think of anything that I wanted to do with my free time.
So I asked myself the same question I had asked the people who helped me in my research for How to Break Up With Your Phone: what’s something you always say you want to do but supposedly don’t have time for? My answer to that question was, “Learn to play the guitar.” I ended up signing for a class for adult beginners—and the experience has changed my life.
I’ve developed a new skill, sure. But more importantly, I’ve connected with a group of people whose only purpose, when we come together, is to play. The feeling I got from my guitar class was (and is!) magical, and I came to realize that the best word to describe the euphoria it produces is fun. It felt amazing, and I wanted more of it. So, being me, I decided to write a book about it.
The connection between my two books, therefore, is straightforward: once you spend less time on your phone, you end up, unsurprisingly, with more free time—time that we can spend on things we truly enjoy. I’ve come to conclude that the thing that brings me the most meaning and joy is fun—or, more specifically, what I call “True Fun,” which I define as the magical confluence of playfulness, connection and flow. When I am having True Fun, I feel alive. And I want other people to experience this magic for themselves.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
When I was writing How to Break Up With Your Phone, the guiding motto that kept coming to mind was “our lives are what we pay attention to.” In other words, we only experience what we pay attention to; we only remember what we pay attention to. That means that every time we make a decision in the moment about how to spend our attention, we’re really making a much bigger decision about how we want to spend our lives. I now use “Our lives are what we pay attention to” to guide my everyday decisions—in fact, I even have a bracelet on my wrist that says, “Pay Attention.”
But what I came to realize when writing The Power of Fun is that acknowledging the value of our attention is really only the first step. The next challenge is to figure out what we want to spend our attention on. In other words, what brings you the most meaning and joy? What makes you feel alive? So now, in addition to reminding myself to pay attention, I also regularly ask myself, “What do I want to pay attention to?”
I’ve decided that I want to pay more attention to opportunities for true fun—and my life and relationships have dramatically changed for the better as a result.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
A lot of books have changed my life. At the moment, the first that comes to mind is anything by David Sedaris. His writing really encouraged me to embrace my own tendencies to seek—and appreciate—moments of absurdity in everyday life.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Most people think of fun as being frivolous, if they think of it at all. But what I’ve found is that the opposite is true. Far from being frivolous, fun is actually essential for a happy, healthy, well-lived life.