Are we having fun yet?

Dr. Sarah Marie Story
10 min readMar 21, 2024
Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Once again, I cried at the gym last week. It came upon me suddenly while stretching, per usual. I was remembering a panel discussion I had seen the day before. A handful of youth were on stage at a regional conference on opioids, quite beautifully sharing about their sobriety journeys. These were children, all the same age as my own kids, who could measure their sobriety in months and years. They were addicts before they could legally drive. When asked what the hardest part about their new life is, one of the girls said it was “figuring out what fun looked like without drugs… like, did I even know how to really have fun?”

It didn’t hit me at the time because I was too choked up already, bombarded by mixed-up feelings of (a) gratitude for my relatively mild flirtations with teenage rebellion as a kid, (b) intense missing of my own children, © anger at the lack of treatment facilities specifically designed for youth, and (d) shame that I almost skipped out on this part of the conference entirely because I needed to get back to the office. It took 24 hours for this off-the-cuff comment to really sink in. And once it did, I started crying right there on the artificial turf of the “functional fitness” area of the gym. (Side note, what is functional fitness?)

I had a very distinct and disturbing thought, then. When was the last time I actually had fun? Did anyone care whether I had fun or not? Was there anyone in my life who wanted to put my fun at the top of a priority list, present company (me) included? What was fun anyway?

Although this young woman’s response was an inciting incident for my functional fitness crying jag, it wasn’t the sole cause. It was just the little push over the edge of the cliff I had been teetering on this year, due in part to my extreme cutback of alcohol. Dry January has morphed into a very different lifestyle for me, one in which a nightly glass of wine or sip of bourbon to “unwind” is no longer the norm. Something is different this year — there’s a clarity I didn’t have before. It’s a choice that rests on a mental calculus of what I lose when I drink compared to what I gain.

I cannot drink in the evening and get up early enough in the morning to lean into a routine that makes me feel good. I cannot drink on Friday night and be at the gym early enough on Saturday to beat the workout-bros to the best equipment. Even one drink might make me say something I regret, and two drinks makes me sweat in my sleep and wake up feeling inexplicably sad or anxious. And, truthfully, I like the way my body looks better when I’m not drinking. I’m very thoughtful about when and where and what I drink, when I do. I love champagne and bourbon, and on the days where I choose to have a drink, I double and triple check that I’m not doing it to avoid my feelings or racing thoughts. I watch my own brain try and reason with itself. Just yesterday — a day where I was feeling sad — I basically had to white-knuckle my car past Whole Foods while the angel and devil on my shoulders fought. One side said, “You’re a grown woman; you’re allowed to have one wine can. Stop being a baby” and the other said, “what are you running from? What are you trying not to feel? Is this $5 can of wine actually going to help anything?”

So the crying on the turf wasn’t so simple. One of the biggest secrets I hold onto is the fear that by not drinking as much, I won’t be fun anymore. Could I have long, meandering conversations around a fire with people I love if alcohol wasn’t involved? Could I dance? Could I attempt to sing Olivia Rodridgo on a karaoke stage?

All of this got me thinking about something so basic it’s almost silly: What does it mean to have fun? Americans claim they get hours of “leisure” time every day. In 2022, the average American clocked around five hours per day of leisure. But a deeper dive into what constitutes leisure actually makes me feel quite depressed.

According to this data, we spend the majority of our leisure time watching things. We devote more time to watching stuff on a screen than socializing or exercising. And please don’t give us a BOOK, because we don’t want it. Also “thinking” is supposed to be a leisure activity, which — if you’ve ever been in my brain — is a legit lol.

In my opinion, “leisure” is not the same as “fun.” Fun is defined as doing something simply for amusement, and not for any serious purpose (according to the dictionary). Fun is not the same as joy — I enjoy my life and I have a ton of joy in my heart. I’m generally a peaceful person. But I wouldn’t say I’m a fun person, even if I’m an extrovert.

When I talk about having more fun, I usually get the same well-meaning advice. People tell me to adopt a childlike mindset — a newness, an innocence, a curiosity — I get their point. I’ve taken enough meditation classes to understand how a beginner’s brain begets self-awareness. But I wasn’t exactly a fun child. I was too worried the house would burn down after I was allowed to watch Backdraft. I could get lost in daydreams about being a pioneer woman like Laura Ingalls Wilder. I would obsess in the shower about my eventual Oscars acceptance speech, clutching the shampoo bottle and remembering to thank my agent. I was anxious to be an adult because an adult could solve adult problems, and a child is helpless.

I figured if I want to have more fun, I need to recall my most fun memories so I can try and capture a theme. But then my mind wandered to instances that should have been fun, but weren’t really. Why? Because I was busy making sure everyone else was having fun and then messing up the vibe with my “we are definitely having fun” energy. Classic mom stuff, even before kids. I wanted to make CAPITAL-M MEMORIES. It’s like taking your young kids to a carnival or parade or the beach. It requires preparation and vigilance. Or it’s like going to Disneyland when I was a child and not being able to have reckless abandon because I was already worried about when it would be done, and I’d have to wake up tomorrow waiting a whole year for our next trip. Or going to Vegas and dancing all night, semi-pretending at fun, because we were always ensuring our drinks wouldn’t get spiked, or wondering if anyone thought we were cute, or if our money would run out. I can count so many times in my life that were really wonderful, but if someone asked, “Oh my gosh, did you have SO much fun?” I would have to lie and gush, “Oh yes, totally, 100%” because I didn’t want anyone to know that I spent half of the fun times worried about the fun running out.

Writing this essay is bringing with it some existential dread. I’ve been sitting here at my kitchen counter staring at a half-eaten bowl of rice for what feels like hours thinking, “Am I fun?” I don’t know. I think I’m funny, but I’m not sure I’m fun. I make fun experiences, but would anyone describe me as a fun person? And if not, why do I care? Perhaps my issue is really about internalizing some external definition of what a fun person looks like, or what fun experiences are, instead of really asking myself, “Are you having fun?” If that is the simple question, then… yes, often. Not always, but not never.

Things I have done that were actually fun: going skiing for the weekend with no kids and no dogs; roller coasters; a cycling trip in the Cuban countryside; water slides; visiting my hometown full of childhood friends and family and laughing so hard my stomach hurt.

All of these things seem special, not ordinary, and hard to replicate regularly. The big mystery to me is how to infuse daily life with “fun” moments without investing in a backyard roller coaster. It’s like this recurring visualization I use when I am on a Peloton ride and it’s getting tough. This only really works if a song is playing from my younger days (like this one) spent dancing on go-go boxes. In this daydream I’m my current age, so this isn’t wishful thinking. I’m wearing a very particular dress, one I’ve never owned. It’s covered in those hanging mirrored circles that I love looking at but don’t know how to describe. They are the pieces used in some large art walls, often in public places where the wind can flutter them to create a shimmering effect. I’m free and uninhibited and I’m dancing with strangers — and no one is laughing at me. I want to bottle that feeling for everyday use.

Image source: Temu

This spangled sort of live-out-loud-dance-on-boxes fun isn’t always possible. I don’t want life to be just long periods of waiting in between getting my passport stamped, so I turned to the internet’s single source of truth: Reddit. The subs are packed with adults asking “how to have fun” and here are some of the best responses:

  • Do what you want. You’re an adult now. Nobody can keep you from buying a pecan pie from the bakery at 9 a.m. on a random Tuesday, then eating it in your car.
  • Play Supermarket Ninja: find something weird and sneak it into someone’s cart while they’re not looking.
  • Take random free classes at Home Depot.
  • Smoke weed everyday (classic Reddit!).
  • Write a short story.
  • Collect stamps or watch birds — anything that’s way outside the norm for you.

So many of the responses were about the satisfaction of finishing something. Knitting a scarf, building a bookshelf, mastering a yoga pose thought out of reach. This feels like cheating, like it’s results-oriented. In a 2020 New York Times article, Jeff Harry (whose job is “positive play coach,” which sounds like Jeff is living the dream) said, “One way to think about play is an action you do that brings you a significant amount of joy without offering a specific result. A lot of us do everything hoping for a result. It’s always, ‘What am I getting out of this?’ Play has no result.”

If I learn pottery, I want to be good at it. If I write a short story, I want to be published. The same NYT article cites a fascinating 2017 study that categorizes different types of adult fun-seekers. Instead of using the word “fun,” though, researchers in this field use the term “playfulness,” defined as “an individual differences variable that allows people to frame or reframe everyday situations in a way such that they experience them as entertaining, and/or intellectually stimulating, and/or personally interesting.” Researchers also contend that fun is not monochrome — there are actually four types of fun we have, and some people gravitate toward a particular type. They are:

  • Other-directed: The class clown; the one who brings the fun to the room and has a playful interaction style with others.
  • Lighthearted: Spontaneous, carefree. Might make a huge mess or get arrested, but couldn’t care less.
  • Intellectual: Loves playing with ideas. A sucker for a good brainstorm session. Loves a whiteboard and the NYT crossword puzzle.
  • Whimsical: Weird and novel things are fun — trying a very obscure artform, or staring at a strange-looking bug for way too long. Manic pixie dream girl vibes.

Digging into this field of work freed me. Weirdly, I had a ton of fun just reading articles and internet sleuthing. Fun is not a singular thing — it’s nebulous and contextual. It’s also seasonal. This weekend I read an entire book front to back and took a two-hour nap with my dog. That was fun. I ate a bag of Peanut M&Ms and watched Dateline. That was fun. I laughed hard with my daughter when I was trying to use Gen Z phrases in conversation, barely able to text legibly trying to tell her to “stand on business.” That was super fun.

These are not the experiences I would have found fun in my lighthearted David Guetta/covered in glitter season. Perhaps the key to unlocking more fun as an adult is recognizing that every day offers small openings to have small pieces of fun. Instead of waiting for the all-night dance party, the next international adventure, or the next Usher concert, I have to find the opportunity to make work fun. To make cleaning the house fun. To make the sitting in traffic fun. The most fun I’ve had today is coming up with an acronym for a climate change initiative that happened to spell out C.H.I.L.L. I also laughed very hard twice today, once at an unfortunate autocorrect and once at a story of a coworker falling out of a moving car as a kid. I’m starting to understand why another teammate, when I mentioned I was writing this essay and said, “Are any of us having fun?” responded with, “I’m having a blast every day.” Once I started looking for fun, I found it everywhere.

What started as a pouty moment, feeling like no one cared about my fun times, has morphed into a weeklong journey to understand what fun actually is. No one owes me a good time. And the people who really love me love me so much that they trust I can make my own choices and maximize my own fun. And when those people gather around at my funeral to reminisce about our lives together, I hope their memories aren’t crowded by forced fun. I hope the stories aren’t all, “Remember when we went to Disneyland and mom was so on edge that she gritted her teeth so hard one broke?” I don’t care if they characterize me as a fun or playful person, but I do hope that they have to shout over a 100-person gospel choir singing the Greatest Hits of Mariah Carey to say, “She had fun, she always found fun, and I bet she’s having the time of her life right now.”

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Dr. Sarah Marie Story

Lover of politics, data viz, storytelling, tech, and oversharing. Public Health champion, Policy PhD, reader/writer/runner/eater