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July 29, 2021, 4:59 a.m. EDT

When was the last time you had fun? It could be the key to the challenges of growing older

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Travis Tae Oh

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

One of the most intriguing questions in life is to ask ourselves what makes us happy. Sure, it’s a millennia-old question, but it keeps popping up, generation after generation, with many scholars and philosophers spending their lifetime studying it.

In contrast, very few people have seriously inquired (or researched) about what it means to have fun and why fun is important to our well-being, even during adulthood and in the second half of life.

To better understand fun and explore its implications, I have devoted the last five years to interviewing dozens of individuals from all walks of life, collecting over a thousand written narratives, amassing hundreds of images for what’s known as photo ethnography and conducting multiple experiments and analyses to build a theory of fun.

What my research on fun reveals

My ongoing work has revealed that the underlying psychology of fun is  an experience of liberating engagement —a temporary release from internalized restrictions, such as social obligations or self-imposed disciplines, by actively engaging in an activity for pure enjoyment. Although individuals may vary in the types of activities that they consider fun, the experience of fun is generally characterized by a sense of liberation and hedonic engagement.

Also see: Is there a way to avoid doing stupid things in your old age?

Let me illustrate this concept through a particularly memorable interview I had with Greg (not his real name, for privacy reasons), a retired teacher in his early 70s.

Greg emigrated from Greece to the U.S. via a trans-Atlantic cruise ship when he was seven and has lived in New York City since then. He worked as a language teacher for 35 years before retiring. His eyes beaming with pride as he explains his teaching experiences, there’s no doubt that his career accomplishments brought him meaning and happiness in life.

Yet, as we start talking about his fun experiences, Greg’s tone changes into one of youthful exuberance. I can feel a sense of pure joy and happiness as he puts down his classic black beret and steps toward the center of the room, telling me that he will show me the spirit of “Zorba the Greek.”

Completely spontaneous, Greg starts singing a Greek folk song, in a conversational, medium-pitched vibrato. He takes diamond steps at each beat and jumps up in sort of a scissors kick and claps his hands in between his kicks.

It’s a brief moment, but magical.

For this retiree, dancing is the epitome of fun

Returning to his seat, Greg recounts his dancing adventures decades ago when he would go to clubs in Manhattan (most of which are now closed.) For Greg, dancing is the epitome of fun.

“What makes it fun? Well, it’s a total abandon,” he says. “You get inspired by the music and jump up and down. Like, you let go. Your worries, you let go of everything. You get up there and dance.”

While dancing might not be fun for all of us, Greg makes a vital point about the nature of fun. That is,  the essence of fun is an experience of liberation . Of letting go and being carefree.

Whether you’re dancing on the disco floor, trekking on a nature trail or playing a round of golf, fun arises from a temporary release from various obligations and psychological restrictions. It’s not the  type  of activity that matters, but whether that experience engages you with a sense of liberation.

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