What is Fun?

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I have fun sometimes. I don’t have a very strong framework for defining it. This great vox article by Rachel Sugar addressed the feeling I’d had for a while in quarantine: that fun had become nearly impossible to find. Here’s their breakdowns of what makes things fun.

Standards for something to be fun:

  1. Hedonically engaging
  2. Liberating

What do these two things mean?

The valence-arousal model

According to behavioral psych, anything on the right side of the chart can count as ‘hedonically engaging’ – e.g. reading a book and attending a metal concert can both be engaging in a hedonic ‘pleasure’ sense.

The article notes that doing something new (like maybe adding something to your secret bucket list) is more likely to be pleasurable and engaging, and to absorb you in the activity, which is important for the second criteria.


To be fun, something must release you from something: work, social expectations, your own self-discipline. This means that:

  • work can never technically be fun. Engaging or meaningful, sure. Not fun.

  • boundaries are important. (e.g. this is not a good way to have fun:)
    • this does make me think that being able to unplug seriously improves your odds of having fun
  • leisure and fun are not synonymous, but leisure time is important because it creates space for fun things

  • I see this as another piece of evidence that the things you focus on will determine whether you’re able to have fun

The quarantine conclusion

Sugar arrives at the conclusion that things are no longer fun in quarantine because release is impossible. Things that might have been fun before are

“an exercise in planning – what is an equidistant park, is there a bathroom, will it rain? … Instead of fun, release is yet another obligation.”

I’ve definitely felt this myself, the few experiences I’ve enjoyed during quarantine have been the moments where I’m able to put time aside and do something semi-spontaneous but still positive, safe, and different from my day-to-day. It will be interesting to see how our relationship to fun things changes when we’re through being in a pandemic.

This vox article is the basis of most of this.

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