Does having fun equal happiness? How can you invite more fun into your life, and why do you need to? Here to answer all these questions is Michael Rucker, Ph.D. Mike, aka the Fun Expert, is an organizational psychologist, behavioral scientist, and charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association. He joins host Whitney Lauritsen to discuss and explain the challenges in “chasing” happiness and when it starts being problematic. Mike also dissects the concept relative to concepts such as toxic positivity and hustle culture. Psychology terms happiness as “subjective well-being” because it’s all in how you perceive it. You have more agency in it than you think. Listen in to learn about the different ways you can invite fun and happiness into your life with more insights from his upcoming book, The Fun Habit: How the Disciplined Pursuit of Joy and Wonder Can Change Your Life!
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Is Your Fun Cup Full? With Michael Rucker, Ph.D
I find myself smiling and my guest, Mike, from ear to ear. We are going to talk about happiness. From some different angles, having fun and discovering ways to invite more fun in your life is a great place to start because, at least from my perspective, spending time online, talking to people, and having guests on the show. I spend a lot of time on TikTok.
For me, I find it’s an interesting place to learn but also have my finger on the pulse, if that’s the right term, of what’s going on. TikTok is known for its demographics being on the younger side, although I’m a nerd. Statistically, that’s not true. I did a presentation and found out that it spans so many ages. Even 50-plus was 11% of the age range on TikTok. Under 50, it was very even amongst all the different age groups in terms of how much time they are on that platform, which makes it interesting to learn about what people’s experiences are.
At least from what I’m picking up on TikTok, it seems like a lot of people are feeling very down and frustrated. They are seeing life through this lens of, “We never get a break.” In fact, I saw a TikTok video that I felt encapsulated a lot of this, which was that we had ten minutes between the pandemic and the recession. Throughout that, we have a lot of violence in the world that we are seeing. We have a war going on or at least the beginning of the war, perhaps. We have inflation. I could go on and on.
The media, in general, outside of TikTok, is covering a lot of this if you turn on the news or read the news online or in a paper. There’s a lot. There is a deep desire to invite more fun into life and to pursue happiness but what we are going to discuss in this episode is the challenges behind that. I would love to know some of your thoughts about what I shared. What is your perspective on the world from where you consume media and where you connect with people? What would you say the general feeling that you observe is about people’s state of mind?
It is an interesting time. The underpinning of a lot of my research comes from social determination theory. One thing we know about that is both from looking at folks that thrive in the workplace and thrive in general, a big piece of what makes us feel good is that sense of autonomy and agency that we have over our lives.
What has happened during the pandemic specifically, to address your question, is that we lost that sense of autonomy. To some degree, because there is a lot of uncertainty still with regards to the economy and social things at play, it’s when we can get our footing and believe that we do have that. To jump right into things, the truth is that we always have that. That’s not with notable exceptions.
During the pandemic, if you believed in the greater good, you did give up some of that because that was the right thing to do during that time. The problem is that it happened for such a length of time that a lot of us don’t know if it’s safe yet. That’s a genuine question to ask. Certainly, by the numbers, it’s less safe but we do have the ability to regain control over how we experience our day-to-day.
It comes from a place of privilege to say to some degree that we are a product of our choices because sometimes, shitty stuff happens, and we can’t control that. We certainly can’t control external stimuli but we do have some agency about where to place our time. We also have the ability to reframe things in a way as long as we are biologically sound in a way that isn’t a framework that makes us feel good about the things that we do. That’s the underpinning and the brief summary of what you would find in my book.
The additional piece that’s important is what we found, and this is especially prevalent in the Western world. There is a problem with chasing happiness. I always knew it this way. I got this work from Dr. Iris Mauss. I don’t want to appropriate research that I’m just regurgitating. She’s out of Cal Berkeley. She and her colleagues have looked a lot at the cultural aspects of how we perceive happiness and what makes folks from collectivist cultures different than individualist cultures like we are in the West.A big piece of what makes us feel good is a sense of autonomy and agency in our life. Click To Tweet
There’s this distinction in the West that we have desired happiness for so long that we become concerned about it. I want to make that distinction that it’s okay to value happiness because I still value happiness or I wouldn’t have written a book that’s in that happiness elk. Where it becomes problematic is a lot of us are overly concerned about how happy we are and tend to spend way too much time on asseverating on over-engineering these tactics to make ourselves happier. What happens instead of taking action is we are sitting there concerned about our own happiness.
This is out there in the ether. If you follow Elizabeth Gilbert about ideas of these tigers that you chase by the tail, Dan Sullivan has come out and talked about this in his own work. I had a version of it that I feel like proceeded it but it doesn’t matter whose idea it was because ideas are universal. The problem is that when you asseverate on something, your energy focuses on the gap.
The problem is that when you are overly concerned about happiness, you are like, “Happiness is over here, and I’m here. This gap is a problem,” which poses immediate problems. It also causes long-term problems because what happens is that gaps start to bleed into our identity. You are like, “I’m chasing happiness. Therefore, I must be unhappy,” because, at the moment, you always aren’t where you want to be.
Slowly but subconsciously, this is empirically validated because identity is so important to how we feel and what we do. We identify as unhappy people even if we wouldn’t tell somebody that. You are like, “I want to be here. I’m not there. Therefore, I’m the person that’s here.” That’s all subjective but that’s why in psychology, we call happiness subjective wellbeing because so much of it is how we perceive how we feel.
I’m absorbing so much of what you are saying and reflecting on it too. As I described in an episode, I did it on my own, and I’m pulsating through life. It’s something that I’ve observed about myself. Maybe this is what a lot of people experience. I’m curious if you do too but I will have moments throughout the day of a high and then a little bit of low. I will feel some stress, and then it will dissipate. I will get distracted by something or do something for my well-being.
It has been interesting because before I thought about things that way, I would maybe center my day on one specific experience, and that would be how I viewed that whole day. It was chunks versus pulses. I’m trying to think about its visual or even a curve. As we often plot data, we see a curve each day on a certain point versus each day having its own little points throughout it constantly.
It has been helpful because I know that everything is passing. As much as I might feel a low emotion, that’s going to pass but the high emotion will pass too. I also stepped away from trying to control it too much. As you were speaking, I thought about these highs and lows and the gaps. I’m planning to do some travel. It has been challenging for me because of maybe anxiety. I like to have things planned out. I’m trying to figure out all these details. It feels like so intense and so much work. It’s exhausting. I have to put myself in that place of, “I’m working towards going somewhere that is going to give me some happiness,” but I have no idea what I will even feel once I get there.
It’s interesting because a lot of times, that stress builds up. You do something and you are like, “This was worth it,” and that worth it feeling feels so fleeting. When you are talking about the gap here, I would love to know about it statistically or in the research that you’ve done. Do you feel like most people are fixating on the stress and the challenges, and that feels so much heavier and bigger in their life than the happiness? Does the happiness feel very fleeting or short-lived? Does it go by quickly and feel dominated by the hardship?
There are a couple of things to unpack from what you shared. Some advice I would give you about your travel is to figure out what you want to do and then relinquish any expectations because where happiness becomes problematic are a few different areas. One, it’s a product of comparing. What you are setting yourself up to do is compare reality against your expectations instead of accepting what might take place, and whatever it is, it’s going to be great because you are there. That’s not Pollyanna. That’s true.
You’ve set yourself up for things. If you’ve done your homework, which clearly sounds like you have, that should be enjoyable. If they are not, give yourself the grace and the space within your itinerary to pivot. The other is with regards to experiencing happiness, that’s the distinction I make. A lot of times, when I get into these discussions, someone will have a pre-definition of what they believe happiness is. Ultimately, it’s all about semantics.It's ok to value happiness, but where it becomes problematic is when we become overly concerned about it. Click To Tweet
As part of my research for the book, I talked to a bunch of linguistics and folks that are experts in linguistics. You can go down deep rabbit holes. The one that’s often talked about is how in the English language, we only have one word for love, yet some of the more romantic languages can nuance that. Do we only feel love in one way where other folks have this whole pallet to express themselves?
Happiness can be the same. We have this whole palette of emotions but oftentimes, we look at happiness as a choice. What I’ve done is juxtaposed it to what I call fun because fun is an action orientation. We can always have fun. We are like, “I’m not having fun now, so let’s go have fun doing the next thing.” That’s hypothetical with regards to your vacation, not us at the moment. That’s the distinction. We enjoy things at the moment, and what we found about happiness is it does require a reflection.
I had an amazing discussion with a researcher out of Duke. Her name’s Jordan Etkin. We unpacked this. This is an idea I’m appropriating from her to give attribution. As soon as we have to start asking ourselves whether or not we are happy, we are out of the moment. We are almost not happy because we are deliberating, “Was that something that made me happy?” We get back to that problematic state of starting to compare.
The interesting thing is that there’s this adapting component too. In positive psychology, we talk a lot about the hedonic treadmill. We know that we weren’t meant to be happy all the time because a lot of things that give us pleasure, especially from an evolutionary standpoint, things like sex and food, is if we were satiated when it happened, we wouldn’t do the things that biology want us to do. We wouldn’t keep ourselves alive and procreating.
These ideas of feeling pleasure as a constant are not in our makeup. Once we accept that, some interesting things happen. This is based on research from Barbara Fredrickson. She calls it Broaden-and-Build Theory. Susan Cain wrote an amazing book about it as well called Bittersweet. We know that when we are in these states of melancholy, as long as they are not distressful, that gives us the pallet to understand and enjoy the times that are amazing as long as we are making sure that we deliberately placed those in our lives too because we know what the difference is.
We are all going to experience loss in some form or another, whether it’s a job, our parents or relocating. There are small deaths and big deaths but death is a part of human existence, and those deaths are painful. Knowing whether there is a creator or not that we were meant to feel that way at some point in our lives and accepting that means we can take some control to limit those and experience more joy and delight by being deliberate about how we spend our time. Knowing that those things will come and we need to acknowledge and mourn when we need to but then also move on from them.
I love all of the data that you have because I could geek out about this too. I cannot wait to look up some of the books you are referencing. I didn’t realize Susan Cain had a new one, so thank you for sharing that to better understand why we are experiencing these things. It’s interesting because I sometimes wonder how much of it is nature versus nurture. How much of it is human nature and how we are as a species versus how much are we nurtured into this behavior? How much are we encouraged? How much of it is capitalism? Convincing people that they are not happy enough and for them to be happy, they should buy this thing, we hear that all the time.
There’s this mentality of, “You can’t buy your way to happiness,” but certainly, it seems like we can feel some sense of happiness when purchasing things. It might be fleeting by going on experiences like travel. In fact, I remember reading something or maybe seeing a social media post about if you travel a lot, maybe you are trying to escape life and chase happiness all the time.
I stepped back to think about it because, in the last couple of years, I have been much more in a traveler’s mindset than I probably ever have in my life before. Oddly enough, this all unfolded during COVID. Maybe that’s part of the reason. Did I feel a lack of something during COVID and use travel as a way to feel better, chase that happiness, and escape the mundane? Perhaps it is all interconnected.
There are two things to unpack there. One, don’t feel bad about experiences because, hands down, science supports experience over things. The evidence there has been replicated over and over again. I’m happy to send you some of those studies. Especially for children, the stuff that I found fascinating with regards to kids and buying things is how much creativity and fun gets sucked out when they are forced into the paradox of choice. If you give kids 2 or 3 toys, they’ve got to get creative about how to use them.As soon as we ask ourselves if we're happy, we're out of the moment. Click To Tweet
I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole but the short version is we know that experiential activities are better for our well-being supports or our well-being as a generality than buying things. We certainly get a very short burst of excitement. There are some strategies on how to buy things, being mindful of how you will use them, and making sure it’s not disposable. That’s the backup of going on the trip and don’t buy the thing because 9 times out of 10, that’s going to be the right choice.
The other thing to unpack there is, “Is escapism bad?” I looked at the research into that, and escapism as a tool isn’t necessarily bad. It’s a great way to cope. There are two forms of escapism. There’s one way that we escape for betterment, and then there’s one that we use to alleviate discomfort. The latter is what tends to be quite problematic.
What kicks off the book is that I lost my younger brother at quite a young age. I was lost. To jump ahead, initially, I was trying to use all these tools of positive psychology, and they were failing me. I was using forms of escapism but because I had an academic underpinning of how escapism could be useful, I went and did things that filled my cup up.
I connected with friends that could lift me up, and I knew I wouldn’t drag them down or be what is sometimes referred to as an energy vampire. There would be this reciprocity of melancholy over things that we could discuss. I started doing things to get my mind off stuff, like kite surfing and things of that nature. I was trying to learn new skills because, at that moment, I could have fun even though I didn’t necessarily need to identify with being “happy.”
Escapism is a useful tool if you check yourself and go, “Am I running away from my priorities or not doing the things I need to do, or is this a good use of my leisure time because I’m able to cope with things that don’t feel that good?” You used the example of the pandemic. I feel like we could all use some healthy escapism. That loops us back to the original concept at the beginning of the show, right?
It is interesting to frame it that way. I was laughing over here, thinking, “Wow.” Travel to me is such a balance of stress and happiness. The way my brain works, I feel safer and more comfortable planning out the details. It’s hard for me to do spontaneous trips, although I like to lean into discomfort, so I will try to challenge myself with that.
I take a lot of road trips usually these days with the pandemic. I could not believe that the last trip went so seamlessly because I went in there thinking, “I planned as best as I could. I’m going to let go and see what happens.” Very few things went wrong, and I came back from the trip thinking, “Wow.” What was interesting about that was observing how I felt a bit on high alert, speaking of the anxiety I referenced earlier.
I found myself having to practice not expecting something to go wrong, and that was an interesting thing. Clearly, previous trips were something that had gone wrong. I was trying to prevent all that stuff while knowing I will focus on preventing one thing, and then something else will catch me off guard. That’s generally how life goes but not getting wrapped up in making things stay balanced and safe for the whole time is part of my challenge. That’s part of why I do so much pre-planning. I’m hoping I can get it all out of the way and set my expectations as best possible.
Travel is experiencing so much life all at once in a quick amount of time because there are so many factors that you are not generally exposed to in your day-to-day life. When I’m sitting here at my desk at home, I have a very controlled environment but when you travel, you are experiencing all different places, people, factors, and on and on. I can get caught up in the stress of that and find myself having trouble being in that moment you described earlier because I’m waiting for the next shoe to drop, I suppose.
That sounds like not a fun place to be in. Do you have any strategies that are inherent where you can be like, “This moment is meant to be enjoyed, so I’m not going to worry about that next shoe per se, but enjoy either the company of the people that I’m with or the experience that I’ve prescribed yourself to?”Experiential activities support our wellbeing more than buying things. Click To Tweet
Absolutely. It’s still that pulsating thing. I find the pulse of the stress coming in, and I have to reel it in and say, “Everything is fine. I’m okay.” It’s an interesting thing because, like any part of life, I observe something, and then I think, “Could I adjust that a little? Do I have to experience it that way?” It’s nice to have this conversation with you before my next trip because it gives me another opportunity to practice.
This is where I struggle. Based on some of the things that you are saying about happiness if you don’t want to chase happiness or force happiness, how do you get yourself out of that state of stress? What if that stress is beneficial to you? How do you identify it? That stress could be anything. It could be frustration. Let’s say you are in a place where you would like to be happy instead. Do you force yourself into it somehow? Do you be intentional or let it flow in that present moment and accept it?
You want to have a breadth of emotion. The idea is not to engineer a perfect life. In psychology, we call it valence. My thesis is that we should have a bias towards positive valence, which means we are experiencing pleasure. If you are truly frustrated, that would be a negative valence state. That’s something where if we are classifying emotions, as psychologists often do, we would say that’s a negative emotion. We are certainly not trying to get to a place where we don’t experience negative emotions. We know once you start to do that, things can go off the rails.
Some of this is emerging research but there are folks that have qualified research backgrounds that are starting to see when people are overprescribed to positivity, you can create mental illness. That’s not something that I focused on in particular, so I’m not going to take that stance. If you look in Google Scholar, there’s a sense that we are doing true harm with toxic positivity. Should you worry when your body is telling you to worry? Absolutely.
What is a strategy where you could potentially bias yourself towards more pleasure? One tool borrowed from clinical psychology is to time block. Knowing that you enjoy that, say within your itinerary, “I’m going to give myself time at the end of the day to worry about the details and then accept what may come the next day.” You spread out what’s important to you and what you need to resolve. Maybe for you, it’s experiencing that.
I like to be melancholy too. I’m borrowing this from that Susan Cain title. She brought up some research. I haven’t looked at it yet, but folks that like melancholy songs as opposed to folks that like uplifting songs tend to listen to those songs with more pleasure hundreds of times versus someone that listens to a Pharrell song dozens of times. Folks that experience these rich emotions like you are describing likely also experience pleasure in a much richer, non-superficial way.
I don’t want to suggest to you that you shouldn’t do that but maybe what you want to do, because it does sound like there’s some worry in there, is that give yourself that grace. You could be like, “I’m going to do it during this period. This is a period that we’ve set aside for that practice. I’m going to try and work on doing the things that I set up to be pleasurable and have pleasure doing those things in those moments.” Maybe you can figure out the amount of time that you want to sit with negative emotions and maybe over time, minimize that if that’s something that suits you.
In this paradoxical manner, if you are sitting with these heavy thoughts and find pleasure out of that, then extend it, and say, “I’m going to time block three hours to worry,” or whatever works for you. That’s another thing we got into in the pre-interview. If you are taking this practice to the next level of figuring out how you can make your life more pleasurable, it is understanding that any piece of advice you get may not work for you, so play with it and throw it out. Try and acquire as many tools as you can in your toolkit, read good books, and listen to smart people. If it doesn’t work for you, then throw it out there.
There are a couple of insights but one is that I kept trying to be a morning person. We got into talking about hustle culture. Everyone said that was the magic hour. It’s not. I spent way too much time trying to believe that nonsense. For me, it’s late at night, which is problematic because I have kids. I’ve had to work through it but waking up in the morning is a disaster. I’m a mean person. That’s one.
Another one, which is more at a micro level but really interesting, is you can leave a book. I got this from Tim Ferriss. A lot of my teenage angst was probably because I had undiagnosed ADHD, so that I would leave things behind. Now that I’ve had a level of success, I realize that’s because I’ve overcompensated for that, so I will never leave a project unfinished. Tim said, “If you don’t like a book, you can put it down after twenty pages. There’s a high likelihood that you are not going to like the 180 pages later.”The idea is not to engineer a perfect life. Click To Tweet
Sometimes, it’s those little nuggets. That little sage piece of advice saved me so much time because I would be like, “I can tell by Chapter 2 that this is crap.” I put another six hours back in my week to go do something more enjoyable. All of these things tend to be pretty pedestrian but it’s little tactics like that. I would have spent hours reading a horrible book. Now, I’m like, “This book is horrible. I’m going to go do something more fun.”
To bring it back to your question, perhaps you could do that like, “Why am I not enjoying myself on something where I’m investing my own money and time to be pleasurable?” Start experimenting with what might work for you without saying, “I shouldn’t be worrying,” because that is asinine and toxic positivity.
I’m so glad that you touched upon some of the “toxic mentality.” Even the word toxic is used as clickbait. It’s funny when you start to examine words, which is something else I want to get in with you because we talked about linguistics earlier before we started. I have a bunch to touch upon. To address what you are saying here, first of all, I’m a night person too.
It’s crazy how much propaganda there is around the time you should wake up and all of the years that I’ve spent feeling shame or trying to change but when I embrace it and allow myself to be, I am somebody who is generally the happiest if I can wake up after 10:00 AM and go to bed around 2:00 AM. That is my ideal schedule. That is what I will go towards every time without fail except when I’m traveling. Travel is the big exception because I like being up early to have a lot of daylight. Especially if I’m on a road trip, that’s imperative for me so that I will find myself in a different mode.
Every trip I take, I think, “This is great. This means I can go back home and stay on the schedule,” but without fail, within a week or so, I’m back at the 10:00 AM to 2:00 AM schedule. What if I could accept that? Who is it that’s convinced me and other people that experience this too that waking up at a certain time is imperative for success unless there are circumstances like, in your case, kids or, in many cases, work? For me, that was one of the big reliefs I felt when I decided to start my own business, become an entrepreneur, work freelance, and all this stuff I’ve done in the past couple of years because I didn’t have to adhere to that 9:00 to 5:00 schedule I used to be on.
Autonomy is helping support your well-being.
Thank you for pointing that out too, because I’ve realized I haven’t felt a lot of autonomy in a few years. Despite living a pretty flexible, fluid life and having a lot of acceptance around me, there is still a lot of that mentality that I’ve almost felt caged in by because of all this pervasive messaging that you are mentioning. That idea of the hustle has been a topic I’ve had in many episodes of the show. Clearly, I don’t align with it. I used to, though.
You and I were bonding earlier over all of these people we know in the entrepreneurship space. I was saying how I don’t follow those people as much as I used to because I feel like there’s a lot of hustle culture tied to that. I wonder for them how much they are shifting and either not acknowledging it yet because they don’t feel like they can due to their audience.
Do they choose to turn a blind eye to a lot of that input around anti-hustle, capitalism, even patriarchy issues, racism, and all of these things I’m learning that tie into our well-being? I feel like there’s still not enough push. I wonder what would happen if Gary Vee was no longer known as the king of hustle. I’m putting that name on him.
He has walked it back.Feeling busy is a form of escapism. Click To Tweet
I fully agree but he’s still known for that.
Crush It! is an entire text that tells you to hustle. I’ve taken down a lot of my entrepreneurial content from my website but one of my original posts was celebrating him telling me not to watch Lost. It was some keynote where I was like, “I got to stop watching Lost. That’s the reason I’m not successful.” How dumb is that? I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was like, “I got to stop watching Lost, and I will start making money.” Now that I’ve done the work, that’s the opposite of true.
This is where it comes from Cassie Holmes out of UCLA. We now know that if you are not taking ownership of 2 to 5 hours of your day, you will be less productive. If you look at it as a function of math and productivity, even if it’s knowledge work, try to make the leap and look at it as widgets. On any normal day, if you are working a 50-hour a week, you only produce one widget per hour, even if that widget is knowledge work. If you build in some resilience, you back that up to 35 hours a day, and then you are enjoying the other fifteen but that allows you to be twice as productive. You then have 70 units output. How dumb is it to work for 50 hours?
This has been well studied. I don’t need to decide on a bunch of stuff. We know that feeling busy, especially if you are A-type, is a way of escapism because it avoids that discomfort. You are sitting and responding to 200 random emails that aren’t going to have any impact but your body tells you are working. What we know is that it slowly grinds away at you and isn’t actual work. It’s busyness, as some refer to it. It’s a real epidemic.
Before the pandemic, a lot of what my work was focused around was alleviating burnout because burnout was already becoming such a problem pre-pandemic. That hasn’t gone away. It’s a more nuanced topic because people are like, “How can you be burnt out with all this autonomy and work from home?” There are lots of reasons why we are even more burnt out. It’s gone down the tier of things that we were concerned about because there are frankly much bigger problems in the world but it’s still a big deal.
The long story short is that we know that by being conscientious of taking time off for renewal, we are better people. One of the studies that I’ve hung my hat on, and we talked about it in the pre-interview that I’m finally going to get to interview one of the professors about it, is this amazing study out of MIT, Stanford, and Harvard that had a huge sample group of 28,000 people, which is pretty spectacular for research in psychology. They were looking at this idea that if we are in a negative valence state, do we want to escape that? If we are in a positive state, do we want to continue to be positive? Are we truly pleasure-seeking animals? It is the idea of the Hedonic principle.
What it found out was that, indeed, when we think life is shitty, we want to escape it. We do things like drink or try and connect with our friends. These are forms of positive and negative escape depending on what you feel is necessary or potentially, these negative consequences of negative escapism. What was fascinating is they found that people that are enjoying themselves so that their fun cup is full look for opportunities for betterment. They are the ones that do the harder work. They are the ones that engage in service. They are the ones that have the resilience to potentially put themselves in discomfort so that they can gain mastery in a certain subject or be strong parental figures for their family.
When I stumbled upon that, I already had this huge corpus of evidence that fun was important but making sure that you have good hygiene with regards to your valence and hedonic state is extremely important because we know the folks that do that deliberately are much better off. You do the harder stuff. You have more productivity, and frankly, you make the people around you happier too. Through social contagion that if you are doing stuff that’s pleasurable, that generally transfers onto the folks that you are with.
You can either create this upward spiral for yourself and others or be non-deliberate about how you are spending your time. Oftentimes, that’s when these negative spirals come about because we are perseverating on what we don’t have. We are more miserable. Our emotions are skewed towards the negative, and then everyone around us is negative. That’s science. It’s not even bird-of-a-feather stuff. We know that because we have these huge, immense datasets. I’ve gotten way too deep into the science but believe me, and all this stuff is real.
It sounds like the science brings you pleasure, so I feel like leaning into that is supporting you. It’s contagious. I love all of this. I love researching. I love learning. I love your footnotes. The title of your book is The Fun Habit, which comes out on January 3rd, 2023. People do have to wait a little while. Can they sign up for a newsletter to be notified?You have to be very deliberate if you want parenting to be joyful. Click To Tweet
You can pre-order it. Apparently, with the zero-tolerance COVID policy in China, all books with major publishers don’t have anyone to man the printing process. It is a very first-world problem. We want everyone to stay well. That’s part of my ethos, family, and health first. Those folks need to stay healthy. Apparently, most of the major publishers are only printing about half the books that they had planned to print because they don’t have the capacity.
That’s fascinating, but in a way, January is such a great time to think about fun and happiness. People had plenty of fun this time of year, which is in the summer. It’s interesting how summer is associated with fun. I have so much that I want to chat with you about but time is running out, so I’m like, “Where are we going to focus?”
I will say that I have tried to be more intentional about having fun this month. I’m like, “Why am I trying to have more fun just because it’s summer?” I was thinking about this as I was driving back from some errands about how as a kid, summer was natural. You naturally had so much fun. Everything felt exciting.
Although I do remember periods of boredom and complaining to my parents about wanting to go to a water park or the movies and struggling to find fun with my stuff at home. As an adult, we don’t always have as much intention, and our work lives are generally not centered around that. Is it easier with having kids? Do you find yourself more aware of having fun with them?
You need to be deliberate. I am not a parental expert. They call it the sandwich generation. With folks that have kids and aging parents, my message is resonating with them. A lot of times, I will go on podcasts that are specific to parenting, and I will qualify. I probably don’t have too much wisdom that’s going to be specific about how you should engage with their children. This comes from some of those interesting survey studies, and we do know that one of the least pleasurable activities is caregiving to children. You have to be deliberate about how you want to parent if you want to make it joyful.
There are some simple strategies so that I don’t gloss over it like, “This guy said that.” That sounds pretty bleak. There are tons of things you can do. Co-create those experiences with your kids. It’s another Western problem. It’s interesting. It’s almost North American specific, although you see it a lot in individualistic countries. It’s this idea that not only do you need to be a parent but you also need to be your child’s best friend. In a lot of collectivist countries where parental duties can be spread across bigger families, then it becomes more about creating group experiences.
There isn’t this burden of like, “I have to be my child’s best friend and also their parent.” All the roles that you have to play when there’s all of this one-on-one time do become quite problematic. It is a unique issue here. What do you do? One, you figure out how to do slops. Oftentimes, you can create that environment that you see in collectivist cultures like, “Watch our kids so that we can have a date night?” Going out, we don’t already have the economic burden of whatever that date is but then also paying an extra $100 or $200 for childcare, which puts this extra burden on reconnecting with your partner.
Also, realize that if your kid is sitting and playing Roblox or Minecraft for the eighteenth time and you feel this obligation to do it with them, you can dialogue with them and be like, “This isn’t fun for me. Let’s figure out something that you enjoy but that’s also enjoyable for me.” It’s a very pedestrian intervention. You hear it and go, “That makes sense.”
Time and time again, it takes that nudge like, “I have watched Naruto or the movie Frozen for the twentieth time. I don’t enjoy that anymore. Let’s go off and do something else.” That same toolbox can be applied to anything, but especially for parenting because there’s this sense of duty that makes it this burden that if you are not mindful, you have agency and autonomy over how you are spending that time, and you can co-create that with your kids.
I wanted to fill that in case parents that are reading this are not like, “We are doomed.” This comes from Dan Gilbert. He wrote one of the first books that kicked off. He’s one of the key figures as Martin Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi wrote Flow. Folks that know this space are going to know his name. He was one of the ones that highlighted that parents, especially Western parents, have some of the most unhappy times. It was his research. They call it the U curve of happiness because of all the things that we have to do.The what ifs are the things that eat us alive. Click To Tweet
A lot of our time is sacrificed for the betterment of others, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It goes back to what we have been talking about the whole time. We have to accept that some of this isn’t that great and not look at it with this despair but realize that we do have quite a bit more control over how we experience than we think and that we can enjoy the moments that are pleasurable. Give yourself some grace, no matter what it is, the parent or otherwise.
It’s super interesting for me because I don’t have kids. It’s a fascinating space to be in as a woman, the age consideration and the ticking biological clock. Sometimes, I think, “Do I want to disturb the life that I’ve created for myself?” The older I get, the less compelled I am to have children. Sometimes, I pause and wonder, “I hear things about it being hard, stressful, and maybe less joyful for a time. Is that truly a reason not to do something?”
As you’ve touched upon the human desire to feel pleasure, we are going to go towards it but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice for us. It’s always fascinating to reflect on it but in my decision, and I’m glad that I haven’t had kids or at least not yet. Hindsight is always interesting, though. Who knows? That’s the other big lesson. It is this idea of control and expectations. Certainly, you can collect all this information but I have no idea what it will be like to have kids because everybody’s experience as a parent is so nuanced.
Let’s take that apart, especially considering why I was so excited to be on this show because we are supposed to get uncomfortable. I’m probably going to split the difference with you because I don’t want to jump right into that. With age, what I’ve realized is I don’t want to have an opinion about an experience that I can’t ever approach with empathy. There is a biological component of being a mom that I don’t think males are ever going to understand truly. We can believe that we might but I don’t know what that’s like. I don’t know the draw or the biological clock.
We could draw parallels to hustle culture. We believe that this is important. I can admit to an academic understanding of what social norms do to any of us that there are negative social norms, and that’s certainly one. My last point on that is that there is a ton of empirical evidence to suggest that you are making the right decision because it’s a sense of duty. There’s a great book called All Joy and No Fun. There are going to be a lot of things you can reminisce on but we know that loss aversion is this fear that we are going to be missing out. FOMO or any of its context is a powerful force.
What I meant by splitting the difference is the person that put this together, similar to myself or Daniel Pink, is Aziz Ansari, the comedian. I forgot if it was a book or a thesis but he looked at modern dating and was able to coalesce a lot of interesting science about why relationships don’t garner the same amount of pleasure now as they used to.
One of the interesting insights is the idea that it goes back to the science of the paradox of choice. Since you have apps like Match.com and Cupid, you know no matter where you are that you have access to dating hundreds of people. No matter who you find, even if they are the most amazing person, if you wanted to do the homework, you could likely find someone a little bit better. Knowing that you could make it as metaphysical as you want but that’s an objective aspect of reality and modern architecture.
Any of us, even myself, who has been happily married for many years, if I wanted to drop everything, I likely could find someone a little bit better, and so could she. Maybe that would be episodic, and then you would regret the decision because relationships are so dynamic. We are talking at the most surface level of lust and not all the complexities of love. We already talked about how benign we make love here in the US with only one word. It’s a very complex thing, and volumes have been written about it.
The reason that relationships, at least at the onset with regards to hedonic pleasure, are more problematic is that we do have all these options. That goes back to the angst that you are feeling. The what-ifs are the things that eat us alive. I’m going to wrap all that up in a bow and say another argument for enjoying what’s in front of you, especially if it’s enough, and not worry about, “Could I have more?” if enough is enough.
We will use relationships as an example. If you are not happy, you are always in a negative valence state, you are frustrated, and it’s clear to you that something is missing, then do the work. If you are happy, going out, and trying to be happier, that is the crux of the problem. I thought it was interesting in the context of dating because it makes absolute sense.Enjoy what's in front of you, especially if it's enough. Click To Tweet
That’s a very interesting point to end on as much as we could branch out into all different angles. We are hitting our time for this episode. I love that idea of enough and evaluating what’s in front of you because it’s an actionable step for someone who’s sitting and thinking about their own happiness, joy, fun, situations, and nuances. We get so many mixed messages. It’s fascinating.
Throughout this conversation, I have been reflecting on all of the different things that we receive, the commercials on TV about what makes us happy or the books about happiness. You’ve referenced so many. I want to read them all. Although maybe I’m better off reading your book, where I imagine you’ve cited all these amazing books. You’ve compiled all this information about fun. I’m very grateful for that and your deep research.
You probably are one of, if not the only guest, that has ever referenced that many different sources and cited them properly. It’s really cool. I love that you do that because it’s helpful to have that data versus when it’s just based on anecdotal evidence. You are repeating what other people have said. When Gary Vee said, “Don’t watch Lost,” you were thinking, “That’s the way.” How many people refuse to do those things? It reminds and gives me insight into a friend who introduced me to Gary Vee. At the time, he would not do a lot of activities. He was like, “I don’t have time to do activities or fun things.” Even hiking or going to the movies, he wouldn’t be bothered with it.
He shifted over time and now laughs about it. I wonder how much he heard people saying, “You can’t waste your time doing that stuff.” To your point, we get pleasure from many different sources, and we need that. We need that autonomy and that time. You have been a wonderful reminder that it’s unique to each of us because we are all so different.
You have ADHD. That’s something I can relate to being neurodivergent and thinking differently than people. I can’t assume that what works for somebody is going to work for me too. Why feel shame if something is working for me but it doesn’t work for somebody else? Thank you for touching upon all of these important points. It has been a joy and a lot of fun talking with you. You’ve embodied all of your research, passion, and work.
It was my pleasure. It was so much fun for me too. I enjoyed it. I can’t believe that we’ve spent a whole hour. It feels like five minutes.
That, to me, is exactly what I touched upon earlier. I remember maybe being 10 or 12 with some friends, and we talked about how quickly time flies by. We collectively decided that we were going to try to have a little less fun so that we could slow down time. We wanted to spend a great time with each other so badly but we were afraid to enjoy it too much because we knew the time would go by so quickly. That has been such a fascinating experience in life. Some of the best things feel fleeting, even if it’s a substantial amount of time, and this is one of those.
It’s certainly a cruel master, for sure.
That’s something else I would love to know your research on, maybe on a future blog post of yours that’s like, “Is there a way to navigate that experience of time? Is there a balance in which you can slow down time but also deeply enjoy it?” Meditation is what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Yeah. Mindfulness is similar to gratitude. They overprescribed a ton that is such useful tools. That’s why they are foundational. We’ve given pedestrian and entrenched tactics. This is more on the pedestrian level. The interesting mindfulness practice if you are enjoying yourself, especially in the company of others in a low arousal situation, and trying to figure out temporal landmarks is staring at a picture, so you are slowing down time and trying to remember the details.
We can go on a whole other hour on this because I’ve dug into the neuroscience too. It’s not my field, but I love it so much. What we know is time is experienced by the way we encode information. The more we can encode a certain experience, the more time will dilate. That is a very useful way. I talk about it in the book. I’ve certainly talked about it in forums like this. One of the best pieces of advice I got for my wedding is to take mental snapshots every 5 to 10 minutes.
It was something that was high arousal. You talk to many people and they are like, “Wedding was a whirlwind. I can’t even remember it.” Even though we were inebriated and having a great time, it was one of those days when we had no stories of problems. Sometimes, you often hear, “Everything went well. It was the most amazing day.”
It’s because I was given that sage advice to use that tactic of mindfulness. I was like, “Johnny is here and laughing. That’s great. I haven’t seen Lisa for a long time. I didn’t know that she could dance that well.” I have those moments where I took these mental pauses and added rich information to the memory that I can still relive to this day. It was only four hours. It probably could have gone in a heartbeat but since I’ve encoded rich memories from it, I can look back, smile, and still relive it.
That is another great piece of advice to end on. You are full of it. I’m so grateful for the time you spent with me and for offering so much to the reader. I am so excited to read your book when it comes out. I am going to be adding that to my upcoming reading lists. Are you doing an audiobook version or have you done one?
I haven’t recorded it yet, but yes.
That’s my favorite, especially when I travel. I will look forward to listening to your voice that shares all of your sage wisdom and experiences in there. For anyone who wants to not only find Mike’s book, The Fun Habit, and pre-order that but also all the references, that is all at Wellevatr.com. Find this episode. All of that information is there, and more links to Mike’s work so that you can stay in touch and follow his journey as well. Thanks again.
Thank you for having me.
- Michael Rucker
- Crush It!
- The Fun Habit
- All Joy and No Fun
About Dr. Mike Rucker
Dr. Mike Rucker is an organizational psychologist, behavioral scientist, and charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association. He has been academically published in publications like the International Journal of Workplace Health Management. His ideas about fun and health have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Fast Company, Forbes, Vox, Thrive Global, Mindful, mindbodygreen, and more. He currently serves as a senior leader at Active Wellness and is the author of the upcoming book The Fun Habit (https://bookshop.org/a/17878/9781982159054), available January 2023.
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