There is a common belief among people of all ages that the main obstacle standing between us and a joyful existence is the lack of free time. We tell ourselves that if we had more leisure time — whether through retirement or a vacation or even just an unscheduled long weekend — we would be happier, with no thought or effort required.
You already may have discovered this yourself: You work extra hours to “earn” your vacation, only to spend your time at the beach restlessly checking your email. Or you finally retire and are surprised to find that the lack of regular interaction with colleagues leaves you feeling lonely rather than relaxed.
In extreme cases, you might even find yourself experiencing what psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl described, rather dramatically, in his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, as “Sunday neurosis” — namely, “that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.”
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The problem is that most of us haven’t learned how to use our leisure time effectively — and so it ends up feeling boring or unfulfilling rather than satisfying and joyful. So how, exactly, can you learn how to use your leisure time more effectively and avoid falling into an existential void?
You focus on fun.
I know that might sound counterintuitive, but hear me out. Despite how often we use the word, most of us have not put much thought into what “fun” actually means — let alone how to have more of it.
As a result, we often fill our leisure time (and, for that matter, our internal voids!) with activities that have been marketed to us as fun but that, upon reflection, often leave us feeling numb or empty — which is not what most of us are hoping to feel at any time, let alone during supposed leisure.
The TV trap
In 2020, Americans over the age of 65 watched an average of more than 4.5 hours of television a day, while people ages 55 to 64 averaged about 3.2 hours.
If you assume that the average person spends about eight hours asleep, this means that many Americans are spending a full quarter of their waking lives watching TV. Add in the amount of time we spend on our phones and other devices, and it’s not unreasonable to conclude that many people are spending the majority of their waking lives passively consuming content on a screen.
Indeed, in both age groups, the time spent watching TV adds up to more than twice the total amount of time that people reported spending on socialization and communication, relaxation and thinking, playing games, reading for personal interest, and participating in sports, exercise or recreation.
Of course, some of our television watching may be genuinely enjoyable and relaxing. But the disproportionate amount of time devoted to TV suggests some of its appeal is due to its convenience and accessibility. After all, it’s much easier to allow our time to be filled than it is to figure out how we ourselves want to fill our time, and the platforms that stream our favorite programs are deliberately designed to encourage us to binge. (The CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, once famously said that the company’s main competitor is sleep.)
As a result, many of us continue watching well past the point of enjoyment. This is a problem, because much like eating junk food, binge-watching television might satisfy a craving, but it doesn’t nourish us. And when consumed in excess, it can leave us feeling gross.
What is 'fun'?
So how can you use fun to make better choices about how to fill your time? The first step is to become more precise about its definition.
If you look in a dictionary, you’ll find a variety of definitions for “fun,” including “lighthearted pleasure” and “an enjoyable or amusing time.” That may be true, but if you ask others to tell you about an experience that stands out in their memory as having been truly fun, their response will likely suggest something much deeper. Their entire face will light up; by the end of their story, you’ll probably find yourself smiling, too — and, in some cases, you’ll be emotionally moved.
I’ve collected thousands of such anecdotes from people around the world, and I can assure you that in its truest form, fun isn’t just “light-hearted pleasure” or an enjoyable amusement. Instead, the moments in which we truly have fun are the moments in which we feel the most alive.
These anecdotes helped me come up with a new proposed definition of fun that captures its essence and that we can use to make wiser decisions about how to spend our leisure time: Fun is the confluence of playfulness, connection and flow.
By “playfulness,” I mean a spirit of lightheartedness and freedom — of doing something just for the pleasure of it and not caring too much about the outcome. By “connection,” I’m referring to the feeling of having a special, shared experience with someone (or something) else.
And “flow” is a term used in psychology to describe the state of being fully engaged and focused, often to the point that you lose track of time — think of a riveting conversation or being fully absorbed in a project or game. (It is very different from “junk” flow: the hypnotized state we fall into when we binge-watch TV and look up to find that five hours have passed.)
Playfulness, connection and flow are each enjoyable on their own, not to mention good for both our mental and physical health. And when all three happen at once? We experience what I call “true fun,” a term I use to distinguish it from what I call “fake fun” — namely, activities and products, such as social media and television, that are marketed to us as fun but that, in reality, do not result in the confluence of playfulness, connection or flow.
How to have true fun
Identify what’s truly fun for you.
Once you have internalized the idea that fun is a playful, connected flow, you will have the first tool you need to make better use of your free time. Simply identify the activities that you do for fun and ask yourself whether they result in a playful, connected flow. If so, they are examples of true fun and should be prioritized. If they don’t, they’re examples of fake fun and should be minimized, if not eliminated altogether.
I also suggest that you call to mind several memories that stand out as having been truly fun — the ones in which “fun” is the dominant descriptor. Then ask yourself: What were you doing? Who were you with? Where were you at the time?
This exercise will help you identify what I think of as your “fun magnets”: the activities, people and settings that are the most likely to generate fun for you personally. While I believe the definition of fun as a state of playful, connected flow is universal, each of us experiences it in different contexts — in other words, we each have a collection of fun magnets that is unique to us. The better you understand what yours are, the easier it will be to put opportunities for fun on your calendar.
Will this guarantee that true fun will always result? Well, no. Fun often involves an element of serendipity. But if you make a point to prioritize your fun magnets, you’re greatly increasing your chances — and whatever you do is much more likely to produce true fun than spending the same amount of time watching TV.
Pay attention to moments of true fun.
I also encourage you to get into the habit of noticing moments of playfulness, connection and flow as they occur in your everyday life.
Too often we assume that having fun requires us to travel to an exotic location or to do something far out of the ordinary. It's true that travel and novelty are often conducive to fun. But chances are that even if you aren’t traveling or doing anything new, you already are encountering multiple moments of — and opportunities for — playfulness, connection and flow in your everyday life; you’re just not paying conscious attention to them.
This is an important point, because our lives are defined by what we choose to pay attention to. If we only pay attention to things that make us anxious or that stress us out, then we will perceive our lives as being filled with anxiety and stress. If we decide instead to pay attention to things that delight us — and that bring us moments of playfulness, connection and flow — then we will perceive our lives as being delightful and full of opportunities for fun.
The more you practice paying attention to the positive things in your life, the more you’ll be able to enjoy them and reap their benefits. And the more you do that, the more buoyant and resilient you will feel, which in turn will leave you with more energy with which to pursue true fun.
Try new things.
Speaking of novelty, another suggestion is to try something — anything — new. This can be as simple as varying up your daily routine. Yet I also encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and experiment with something that you’ve always been curious about but haven’t had the time (or the courage) to try. Take a lesson or sign up for a workshop in a topic or field that interests or excites you. Try not to worry about looking dumb.
Also, keep in mind that while flow itself can feel effortless once you’re in it, gaining the ability to get into a flow often requires a bit of work up front. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term “flow” liked to point out: If you don’t play chess, a chessboard is just a board with carved figurines. But to someone who has put in the work to learn how to play, it is an opportunity for flow (and, I’d argue, for playfulness and connection, too). In other words, don’t give up if something at first seems hard. If you’re interested in it, the effort will be worth it.
Put your phone away.
Lastly, the fact that flow is a state of complete focus and engagement means that if you want to experience flow (and, therefore, have a chance of experiencing true fun), you must also make a point to avoid potential distractions whenever possible — including those from your devices. So minimize your notifications, and make a point of putting your phone away, out of sight, when you’re with other people.
I follow all of these suggestions myself and I can assure you that the effects have been nothing short of life-changing. Far from being frivolous, fun is a tool that can help us utilize our leisure time more effectively. And the more we do that, the more alive we will feel.
Catherine Price is a science journalist, founder of ScreenLifeBalance.com and author of several books, including How to Break Up With Your Phone and The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again. Learn more (and sign up for her newsletter) at at screenlifebalance.com and howtohavefun.com.