Focus on Fun Over Happiness Is the Key to Long-Term Satisfaction, According to a Psychologist and Behavioral Scientist

Photo: Stocksy / Pedro Merino
Over the past two decades, global analytics firm Gallup has surveyed Americans on 29 different aspects of life, from policy to the position of women in the nation to how happy they feel. In 2022, only 38 percent of Americans claimed they were happy, an all-time low. If you were only taking statistics into account, this finding would be alarming. But if you speak with mental health professionals, you may be surprised to hear that seeking fun over happiness is a better way to spend your time.

“The Western pursuit of happiness has become very problematic,” says organizational psychologist and behavioral scientist, Michael Rucker, PhD, author of The Fun Habit. “It’s not because we value happiness or strive to flourish, but it becomes an over-concern with the many external messages of motivation. Folks who see happiness so far in the distance end up using time for introspection to commiserate the distance between where they are and where they want to be.”

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This leads to not utilizing time efficiently and progressively beginning to identify as an unhappy person, according to Dr. Rucker. “Once you get on that downward spiral, it becomes an exercise of confirmation bias, and you start to see things in that negative way as well,” he says. Instead, Dr. Rucker says your time would be better spent focusing on having fun.

Our brains are wired for fun over happiness

“Happiness is a byproduct of fun,” Dr. Rucker says. When we do things that we see as fun, over time, we’ll perceive our lives as being happier. “We used to view happiness as a framework of cause and effect,” he says. "For example, 'If I get a better job, I’ll be happier.' But especially in the last 10 years, neuroscience has taught us the brain is algorithmic and more predictive. As we accumulate and index these infectious joyful experiences, we can bias ourselves and train the mind into realizing things are good and I do enjoy myself.”

When we seek happiness, we’re in a constant state of evaluation, which doesn’t benefit us in the long run. “As soon as we train our brains into accepting the agency and autonomy we have over ourselves, joy and overall happiness will slowly but surely automatically increase,” Dr. Rucker says.

How to focus on having more fun over happiness

Dr. Rucker highly recommends doing an audit of how you spend your time and eliminating or delegating anything that isn't enjoyable wherever possible. “Depending on how many external responsibilities you have, we generally can take control and take back two to five hours a day,” he says.

You can start by looking at your calendar and removing activities or tasks that are no longer enjoyable but habitual. “It’s not about adding to your schedule, but swapping things out that don’t bring you joy,” he explains. “This is why a lot of workplace wellness initiatives don’t work—they’re additive.”

But the real change will come when you notice how great you feel after reclaiming some time for fun. “It’s not selfish," Dr. Rucker says. "It allows you to show up as the best version of yourself." If you need more convincing to get over any guilt you may feel, Dr. Rucker has some parting words of wisdom: "Remember, it’s not just for you, but also everyone around you.”

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