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I Spent a Day with the Professor of Fun to Find Out How to Make Life Less Miserable

Life is rough, so how can we turn our lives into one big laugh?

by Hannah Ewens
Sep 30 2016, 2:40pm

What is fun? Everyone knows what it feels like, but how do you describe it? Start trying and you'll realize you're just talking about the emotions fun gives you. It's completely subjective: one person's idea of raucous fun makes another want to take a power drill to their cornea. Plus, as you get older, your idea of fun changes: it becomes much more "let's play a nice game of Reversi after dinner" and less "let's poison our blood with alcohol and run around naked."

Fun evades definition. And if you can't pin fun down, then how can you have more of it?

I had a lot of questions for Dr. Ben Fincham—the man I've decided to call the "Professor of Fun" because of the time he spent at the University of Sussex, studying how to have fun before writing his book, The Sociology of Fun. If anyone was going to be able to teach me how to have a laugh, it was him. Of course, I wasn't sure exactly how much fun I could have over an entire day and night with a man I'd never met before, but I was willing to find out.

On the way to Brighton to meet the Professor of Fun, he texted me asking if I wanted to go to a soccer match. I hate soccer. I hate hearing people talk about soccer. I hate that echoed roar in the background every time it's on in the pub. But I figured this was probably some kind of initial test, and I wanted Ben to think I was fun, so I said, "Yes, I think we should."

Upon meeting him, I could immediately tell Ben was an interesting character—the opposite of a stuffy lecturer. Which kind of makes sense, considering he literally just wrote a book about having fun. He's got an outrageous and contagious laugh—the type that makes people nearby turn around to see who it belongs to.

"Fun is a subtle way of working out who is with you and who isn't," he explained, walking up the pier. "If someone says they had a fun time at the weekend robbing a tramp and pooing themselves, you instantly know if they're your kind of person—you start discerning everything about them. Importantly, they're saying a lot about the sort of person they want you to think they are. You haven't had to do a lot of the overt identity work to find that out."

At this point, I was pleased I'd said yes to the soccer. I wanted to be "with" him.

Soundtracked by an endless loop of James Brown screaming about how he "feels good," I bought us a card for some fair rides. The card said "fun card" on it—surely this was meant to be.

Ben told me that one facet of fun was experiential, and that hopefully after experiencing rides we'd be giggling, and after that talk about what fun we'd had.

Ben started laughing hysterically at the rust on the ride as we were cranked up the slope. "Look at that rust!" he screamed. "We're going to die!" I started to get extremely anxious. It legitimately did not look safe. Fuck, I thought. This isn't fun. This isn't fun at all. Adrenaline was pumping through me and I started screaming without stopping until we were brought back down again.

"I thought we were going to die!" Ben howled. "Me too!" I screamed. Then I started hysterically laughing and couldn't stop. Was that fun? I realized that it had been.

As we ran to get on more rides, Ben explained that fun is a temporal thing and very clearly defined. You can pinpoint when it starts and finishes. "We get on a ride, we have fun, now we're off the ride and we've stopped having fun," he said. "You only know something is fun after the event. That's important, because to have fun you have to be taken away from analysis. Otherwise you would be in an analytic state, which would preclude you from having fun."

That's where fun is different from pleasure, enjoyment, or happiness. Sometimes you bask in those feelings as you're having them; the ones which last for much longer. But having fun can also induce those feelings: since we had fun on the first ride, I felt happy and couldn't stop smiling.

I asked Ben if there was a limit to how much fun we could have, seeing as I was technically here to work, even if we were just messing around. It turned out work is a heated topic for him. He said it was possible, but only because I was away from my desk. We designate spaces for fun, you see, often subconsciously. The pub: a place for fun. A friend's house: place for fun. The office: absolutely no chance.

"It's extremely difficult to have fun at work," he said passionately. "We're not dopes. We seek out fun in the places we know we can have it, with the few people we know we can have it with. At work, everything is structured. It's an institution and they operate on structural levels, which means it operates normally."

This all goes back to the very origin of the word. Fun emerged in the late 17th century and all it meant was "low-wit" or "stupidity." Around the time of the industrial revolution it was appropriated by the bourgeois class to describe the middle classes as being stupid and feckless. It then got picked up by the working classes in the 19th century to essentially mean "not doing what your boss is telling you to do." The word itself became subversive to the productive process.

"So when companies have 'fun' offices, all that means is they're squeezing production out of people," says Ben. "It's very sly. Say no! Say, 'I'll have fun when I have autonomy and control. Fun is mine!'"

Yeah, VICE—fun is mine!

Strolling around the pier in damp clothes from a stupid log flume, I challenged the Professor of Fun. What about work banter? That could be fun, right?

"Banter is a cultural artifact and it's nothing to do with having fun," he said. "Funny and fun are two different things, but they're often conflated. Humor relies on the imbalance of power. Often we laugh at the expense of others. With fun, it's the opposite. You can only have fun when the power is equalized out. You can't be aware of the differences of hierarchy of power, so if you're drinking with your boss, you won't be able to have fun until the both of you forget they're your boss."

So basically, when your manager takes you all out to the bar on your $20-a-head bonding budget and you're stuck next to wine-breath-Nick as he tries to banter with you, remember: it's not your fault that you're having a miserable time.

I found the dodgems fun because the object of the game is to smash into people. The more I managed to sneak up on Ben and Jake, the photographer, and ram into them, seeing the shock on their faces, the more I reveled in the activity. Which probably says a lot about the sort of person I am.

"Competitiveness is a funny one," said Ben afterwards. "Usually it just makes people angry and kills fun dead."

I thought about my nan, who gets drunk at Christmas and, within five minutes of everyone having a lovely seasonal time playing Articulate, starts swearing and upends the board.

After dodgems we moved onto Dolphin Derby, where Ben illustrated the point he'd just made. I'm one of those people who claims to not be competitive, but then starts honking like a goose as soon as favor starts to swing in my direction. I wasn't winning Dolphin Derby and, because I am a petulant child, Dolphin Derby was not fun.

See, fun isn't supposed to have an aim, like winning. As Ben kept telling me, fun can't involve heavy commitment.

As we walked back down the pier, Ben asked me a simple question that floored me: when was the last time I'd had fun? I had to go back a few weeks. I'd got drunk in my friend Sophie's apartment and we turned up the music very loudly and played a game. She lives next to a bus stop, and every time a bus passed the window we danced really aggressively to catch the attention of the upstairs deck and try to get them to not only stare but start smiling. It was the first time in a long time I'd cried laughing—the kind of fun that makes your face crinkle up and your insides go all warm. Afterwards, lying on her airbed, not helped by the glow of the booze fading, I felt sad, because I couldn't recall the last time I had felt like that.

When you're a kid you can sing to lyrics videos at sleepovers, and as a teen you can run around screaming with laughter after pulling a stupid prank on someone, or texting something awful to the person they fancy. But our lives aren't made to facilitate fun as adults. Ben made me feel better by telling me how difficult his case studies found it to remember a singular time they'd had fun. That was sad. I didn't want to be that person.

At this point we started drinking. It was only about 2:30 PM. A couple of pints in, Ben suggested going in the ocean, which I absolutely didn't want to do. I can't swim and therefore hate the sea as much as soccer. Because we were meeting in Brighton, which is famously next to the sea, I thought he might suggest this, so deliberately didn't bring a bikini—and the last thing I wanted on the internet was pictures of me stomping around the beach in my actual underwear.

But something in me clicked. Ben kept going on about being spontaneous.

"Forget about the camera," he said. "We'll leave it behind on the beach. We're here, the sun is shining, and this could be the last chance you'll get this year. This isn't about the piece—this is us, now."

He started laughing his laugh at a decent volume and I knew it had to be done.

Surprise, surprise: it was fun. I lost my favorite ring getting nailed by waves and I didn't even care. We got out onto the sand, felt the end-of-summer sun on our faces and let the fun dry out into contentment. "You were able to have fun because you lost your inhibitions," said Ben. "That's so important in fun having. You have to forget your responsibilities."

If I wasn't a huge fan of this man already, he then suggested getting really, really drunk. So that's what we did.

Alcohol and drugs get a bad rep for their relationship to fun, according to Ben. The large proportion of his case studies mentioned one or both of the two when talking about having fun.

"Some people would judge others for using booze to have fun, but we don't do it because we're stupid or because we have to in order to have a good time," he said, swigging a tarty cocktail. "It facilitates fun, so what's wrong with that? We have to feel unburdened by responsibilities in order to have it, which is why I think drink and drugs are so heavily mediating lots of people's fun, because they allow you to step outside of those responsibilities. It takes a lot of willpower to convince yourself you're going to be disinhibited. You can't easily go, 'Now, I'm not going to worry about this thing I'm really worried about.' It's no wonder people use artificial ways of achieving that."

After ploughing through more liquid fun, we walked up to the dreaded soccer stadium.

"In essence, football is a carnivalesque or even pantomime experience," Ben said as a cocky little shit of a player walked painfully slowly towards the ball to aggravate the crowd. "The tension, being in a crowd, the faux aggression in the stands, the spectacle and twin possibilities of elation and disappointment, are an intoxicating mix. However, I think that generally being at the football, while involving many positive things, is not fun."

But there were fleeting moments of it—when everything began to rumble, the air in my ears went flat, and in the shared euphoria when a goal was scored, I felt it. Fun in this space was all wrapped up in the feeling of togetherness. Me, Jake, Ben, and hundreds of other people roaring in unison.

And that's the very nature of fun, right at the heart of it. After all his studying, Ben concluded that you need other people to have fun. You just can't have fun alone. Even when you think you're having fun by yourself, it's with reference to an absent other. It's doing something you know you've had fun doing with others in the past, or it's I-can't-wait-until-someone-else-hears-about-this.

We talk about loneliness and happiness when we talk about mental health and wellbeing because those things resonate throughout time and have a lengthy impact. But if you think about a life without fun, it's completely dystopian. If fun is antithetical to loneliness and can make someone happy for such long periods afterwards, then why don't we place more importance on it?

How can we have more of this elusive thing? According to Ben, we should make an effort to be as spontaneous as possible. To be more open to strangers, because those interactions will always be enriching, and openness to them really greases the wheels for fun. Just like I had with Ben that day.

Place yourself in the designated spaces for fun more often. When commitments and restraints meant Ben couldn't be in these spaces as much as he liked, he changed his mindset. "I realized that the spaces in which I allowed myself to have fun were much too restrictive. I'd assume it was going out, in the pub, and with a small group of people," he said. "But I realized it could be much more broad. Because fun is contextual I could think myself into a space where I could have fun. Even being in the car with the kids doing the school run became an area for it. I just had to let go."

I left Ben seriously rethinking the way I spend my time. As pathetic as it sounds, I had joy in my chest for days after our day together. I'm a lone wolf type, which makes my life rich with enjoyment—and I've been so satisfied with that because it's safe. If my mental health is bad, retreating is the default. When it gets better, I'm not good enough at putting myself back into those spaces. I desperately want to prioritize fun now and do everything I can to facilitate it, not forget about it. Life is so difficult most of the time that paradoxically it's easy to stop trying to find escape. But fun is the greatest escape we have as young people, and we can't let our responsibilities and burdens steal that away from us.

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