The Surprising Challenge of Having Fun for Fun’s Sake
Photo courtesy of Cliff Johnson.

The Surprising Challenge of Having Fun for Fun’s Sake

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Mental Health

I often feel a lot of pressure. I don’t think I’m alone in this. The world we live in creates a constant sense of pressure for many of us.

My experience of pressure is a feeling of questions burnt into my brain by endless repetition:

Am I contributing to the world right now?

Am I making enough money?

Am I deepening myself, learning new skills and growing as a person?

You might think that achieving any of these goals would be sufficient, but sometimes even managing one of them feels like it’s not enough. While I’m learning something valuable, I still feel pressure that I’m not contributing, or earning, or… or… or…

Part of me sometimes feels like I need to be contributing to the world, earning money and bettering myself, all at once. This makes relaxation a little tricky.

Must We Do Anything?

Each of the pressure questions contains an implied should. And each of these shoulds is important. Of course. We all want to make an impact on the world, to be financially successful, and to grow. But a life spent purely in service of should is draining.

It’s also important to give ourselves permission, at least sometimes, to simply have fun.

The prevailing culture looks down on fun, treating productivity as the most important goal which all other goals must be subservient to. But productivity and self-care/happiness/fun (however we want to think about it) are equally important. They are two sides of the same coin, if you will.

(Arguably, if it’s a happy life we’re after, fun is even more important than productivity. As Alan Watts points out, if we work to earn money just to finance our lives so we can go to work… what’s the point?!)

To counterbalance how we are taught to value productivity above all else, let’s look at some ways we can allow ourselves to have fun for its own sake.

NOTE: This isn’t so we can re-energize ourselves in order to be more productive. That kind of thinking is exactly the same as making productivity the highest goal! Instead, I want to figure out how we can allow ourselves to enjoy things for no purpose other than our own happiness.

Learn for No Reason

Do you have an interest that you never let yourself play with because you “can’t justify” it? Ever say to yourself, “learning Latin would be fun… but it won’t help me,” or “understanding how ancient Egyptians domesticated cats won’t make me better at my job”? Or something similar?

Take the pressure off of yourself to justify every use of your time in productive terms. Give yourself an hour. Learn something for no reason at all. It’s alright!

Create Without Purpose

There’s something beautiful about monks creating mandalas – amazing artistic works made in sand – only to destroy them afterwards. The mandalas serve as a reminder that nothing is permanent. I like that the monks decouple the act of creation from any need to be anything in particular.

In a similar vein, you could:

  • Write without worrying if anyone will like what you’re writing.
  • Paint without wondering if anyone might pay for your painting.
  • Create without fearing that anyone might see your creation.

It’s freeing, healing, and inspiring to create without purpose (and if you accidentally create something amazing to share with the world, that’s a fantastic bonus).

Rest Without Guilt

I’m sure we all know this, but guilty rest isn’t restful.

It can be hard to truly switch ourselves off, especially if we’re in the habit of living with constant internal pressure: that litany of shoulds in our heads.

Of course, rest can be difficult for external reasons too – juggling work, family, and routine. But whatever your circumstances, you can surely find at least a few minutes (or hours, or even days) to allow yourself to rest.

However long it is, try marking that time out in your schedule, vow to ignore any internal pressure, turn your phone off, and have a little guilt-free rest.

I’ve noticed just how resistant I am to this idea, even though I know it’s good for me. Sometimes we have to get over our resistance in order to live more healthily.

Free Yourself from “Should”

If we’re in the habit of shoulding ourselves, it feels unnatural to stop justifying everything we do. But there’s no justification needed. There’s no must. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just play.

Your Turn

Do you have any tips for multipods who struggle with getting enough fun, play, and rest? Share your ideas in the comments!

neil_authorbioNeil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at www.walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

21 Comments

  1. RC says:

    I found rest when I discovered that over working myself doing everything all the time for my entire life sent me to the doctor. Crazily enough, the doctor said I had high blood pressure and would have a stroke before I left the office if I did not take medication. For me, the stroke was not an option and the medication was not an option.

    I had a brain to heart discussion with myself and instructed myself to give myself a break. Imagine that. A break! My health was justification enough to learn to rest and to rest without justification.

    Over a few months I learned that not being busy doing something every minute of every day was ok and it felt great, at times. It was a struggle for a long time just to allow myself to rest. After all, I was raised in a very productively busy household where “work comes before play” was instilled in me. This served me well for years.

    One of my favourite things -walking my dog was even a hectic race to…the next thing I must get done. I realized spending time with my dog should not be work. I might still have to schedule it in my day but it should not be a job. At the time I wasn’t even enjoying it. Or the fresh air. Or the scenery.

    My advice for others who need to learn to play? For those never-stop, workaholics like me, it has to be a conscious effort, all the time. At least it had to be for me. I was programmed to go-go-go. I still tell myself periodically “You know it’s ok to do nothing”. Self-pep-talking works for me. If I try to be in the moment I soon realize that I need to just back away from a task and sit a spell as the Clampetts might say.

    It’s been a few years and I have relearned how to play and rest and enjoy it. Sure, the dishes aren’t always done or mowing the lawn waits an extra day or two but somethings really don’t run away if we don’t get at them today. They will still be there tomorrow. And we HAVE TO tell ourselves that that is ok.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thank you SO much for sharing your story. I’m so glad you learned to slow down – even if your body had to give you a strong signal that you needed to! I think it’s sadly common that we push ourselves until we break – my experience with anxiety was very similar, it took reaching a real low and my body sending huge warning signs before I learned to slow down.

      Just because we’ve “always” managed with this hectic schedule doesn’t mean that burnout isn’t around the corner, so it’s so important to have this reminder. Thanks again for sharing – I will reread your comment many times so it sinks in as another reminder to me :)

    • Melissa B says:

      Wow, RC,thanks for sharing that story! It is amazing how things work out for us. I am glad you were able to slow down a bit before things got really scary. I agree that sometimes “downtime” needs to be scheduled and you need to make an actual effort to get it in.

  2. Thanks for this post Neil. I related to everything you said. This year I’m doing a Happiness Project, each month has a different focus and I set resolutions for ways to boost my happiness to do with that theme. January’s theme was Energy and one of the resolutions was ‘learn to rest’. I think it’s going to be the hardest resolution for me all year, but really hope by the end of the year I have learnt how to rest. As RC says above, it is so important.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This sounds so cool! So you’re intending to keep practicing your new resting skills all year? Good luck!

  3. Kit Dunsmore says:

    All of these are tricky for me, but resting without guilt is a big one. I was recently diagnosed with health issues that require me to slow down and rest more. Part of the cause was overwork and too much stress. I always thought I was great at “goofing off” but I’m not. I’m having to learn how to rest. I currently take a 2-hour siesta during which I lie down, read for fun, and nap. Some days go better than others. Not feeling guilty about taking this break is the hardest thing for me, but having it built into my daily schedule is helping me to embrace it.

    Thanks for your great ideas.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Making it a habit is definitely the way to go, long-term! I know what you mean about thinking you’re great at relaxing… I realised recently that very little of my ‘leisure’ time was actually being spent restfully. I was frittering it away on the internet, or doing other things that were fun but didn’t actually recharge me. I hope you learn to let go of the guilt: you really don’t need to feel it. (Perhaps even you could feel proud you’re looking after yourself so well, though that’s exactly the kind of idea I think is good but struggle to actually implement!)

  4. Melissa B says:

    Another great post Neil!!! I have recently realized how much “should” I have in my life and that I have even given a “should” to things that I actually just want to do like dance or read. Once I “should” something it becomes a chore or something unpleasant that I need to tick off my list in order to be seen as successful or productive.I will then procrastinate, dig in my heels, and complain about all these things I “have” to do which just creates more stress and anxiety when I don’t get them done.

    I did not realize until you mentioned that often we will view our downtime as something to accomplish that I realize I do this as well. Anything I choose to do has to have some sort of sense of accomplishment to it or has a reason as to why I am doing it like self improvement, skill development, or for financial gain.

    I also have realized recently that I do not actually know how to relax; that I have never felted rested(except perhaps once in the last 15 years)!! I have viewed my rest time as a way to re-charge so that I can get back to work or daily life.

    Thanks for all the great insights!!!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Melissa! Glad it helped you to realise a few things about yourself – I hope they are helpful for actually finding the rest/fun without turning it into a chore. And I definitely hope you manage to actually relax and recharge soon :)

  5. Alex says:

    I find routine helps me. So if I decide to have a period of relaxation every morning (even 10 minutes helps), and stick to it, I do it.

  6. Annie says:

    I was just struggling with this last night! Thank you for sharing this. Reminds me that it’s OK to pick up a book for no reason, spend a weekend watching X-Files because I need some time off, etc.. :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Exactly! Relax without guilt, but without using it as an excuse not to do things… it’s such a tough balance to find. Enjoy the X-Files :p

  7. Marian says:

    Wauw, I really love this post! For me this is also a difficult one, with a tired body as the result.. What’s helping me is remembering myself of what I already accomplished, the things I already realised. This changes a lot in me, gives me rest and makes the feeling of ‘I really should do something’ less dominant.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That’s a good point: sometimes we forget how much we’ve done, and so we feel we don’t “deserve” rest. (Of course, the whole idea of ‘deserving’ rest is the problem in the first place…!)

  8. Steven says:

    I needed to read this article. I bought a ticket to a concert that I really want to go to. The band is on their final world tour, unless they do some kind of reunion in a decade. But of course nothing is planned. So this is the last definite time I can see them live. But I didn’t want anyone to know how bad I want to go. I only have a part time job right now, and I feel like I shouldn’t have fun until I have things figured out.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Sounds like you should allow yourself to enjoy the concert, Steven! It sounds awesome :) I think there’s no contradiction between having great things to look forward to and also not having life fully figured out yet.

  9. Great post Neil! I’ve never even heard of mandalas. Wow. That’s fascinating. The YouTube video linked to a time-lapse video of a mandala being created. Equally fascinating. (And yes, I need to schedule myself some fun time too!) Thanks!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      They are fascinating aren’t they? And I have such a powerful reaction to their destruction. I think it says something about the way I think things “ought” to be.

  10. Maryske says:

    Thanks, Neil. I believe I needed to hear that. “Stop shoulding.”

    In itself, it seems like I’m certainly capable of having fun for fun’s sake only, like the concerts I went to last week. But all in all, it seems like my life these past years has degenerated into an awful lot of shoulds. And even many of my creative hobbies carry a certain pressure in that I want to make some special present for a friend, or something like that. I love doing it, but it is indeed a pressure. A should. So maybe that’s why it feels my job is so awfully energy draining. (Or at least that may be part of it…)

    “Guilty rest isn’t restful…” “Re-energizing just to be more productive is not the same as rest…” Words of the wise. I’ll try and better myself in the matter!

    So thanks!

  11. Beka says:

    For some reason my previous comment got eaten :(

    To recap: I am currently reading E E Smith’s book, The Power of Meaning which presents the need for the pursuit of Meaning over Happiness/Fun. Pursing happiness/fun actually brings unhappiness/fun, but pursing meaning has the effect of generating happiness/fun.

    Furthermore, you may like to explore Glasser’s Choice Theory which explores the 5 psychological needs we have after the foundational needs are met. Fun is one such need. “Each time we learn something new we are having fun, another universal human motivator. It is our playfulness and our sense of discovery that allows us to learn as much as we do”.