Monday, June 23, 2014

The Great Fun Crisis Of The Twenty First Century

Mary Cassatt, Woman Reading in a Garden, via Wikimedia Commons

This post is about the great fun crisis of the twenty-first century. You may be asking yourself, how is it possible that a culture that features binge-watching, cupcakes, professional wrestling and craft beer could possibly be a culture suffering from a crisis of fun? Well, I'll tell you.

The great twenty-first century fun crisis isn't quantitative. It's not a like a fun shortage, where you have to line up for fun in the style of the old 1970s gas lines. It's more like a crisis about the nature of fun. Fun and its friends are caught up in a special dilemma of our time, one rooted in creepy theories about preferences and the point of doing things.

One one horn of the dilemma is GOALS. I'm so sick of hearing about goals. You're not allowed to do anything any more without goals. I went to look into taking dance classes a while ago and there was a form for new students and it asked "What made you want to take our classes?" And there were answers for getting in shape, learning to dance for a wedding, hoping to make friends, yada yada yada. You know what was missing? Fun. I had to write it in.

God forbid you get interested in some physical activity without some goal in mind. Fitness people like trainers don't even want to talk to you unless you have goals. About a year ago I was mindlessly musing about how it might be cool to learn to swim in open water -- you know, for fun. I googled around for how to learn, and quickly found that nobody seems to swims in open water for fun. If you're swimming in open water, you're probably training for a triathlon or something. Not that triathlons can't be fun. But you know what I mean. If you're open water swimming to to train for a triathlon, you're not doing it just for fun. You have a goal.

Goals are fine as far as they go. But what we have is goal imperialism. The prevalence of goal oriented amusement means you can't even explain to people why you might be reading a book or going for a walk without some backstory about how your activity fits in to some life plan like "reading the classics in hardcover" or "trying to lose weight." It's ridiculous.

UNLESS, that is, you're willing to commit to something completely pointless.

The other horn of the modern fun dilemma is hedonistic pointlessness. The one loophole in the Rule Of Goals is that you get to do things that you do purely for pleasure, with no point whatsoever, just because the activity is hedonically perfect -- but only if the activity is hedonically perfect.

The Get-Of-Of-Goals-Free card can be played for anything you're willing to do as a pure pleasure. Binge-watch Game of Thrones, eat a pan of brownies, and no one asks you what your goals are. They get it: Girls Just Want To Have Fun.

But increasingly the loophole only works for things that are super double extra secret pleasurable. Why would you do something sort of mildly pleasant, engaging, constructive and healthy when you could be doing something ridiculous and Xtreme?

If you don't have the goal backstory for the pleasures of the reading or the walk, you get that quizzical look where people are like "Oh, so that's your very favorite thing that you like to do? That's cute, I guess." As if choosing to do these mild activities -- just for fun -- makes you some kind of culture snob or Puritan.

The more I thought about this, the more I noticed how its embedded in our whole way of talking and thinking about what we do and why. We use the language of preferences, costs, and trade-offs. What do you want to do? What are you willing to pay? What are you willing to do to get there? Work hard play hard! There's no room in there for just nice activities that are sort of pleasant and good things to do.

I don't know how the causal arrows go, but it's striking that our contemporary formal theory of what it makes sense to do -- rational choice theory -- takes as axiomatic that there are things you want, and there are costs to getting them, and the whole question is how much you're willing to "pay" to get your preference satisfied. So the problem is officially built in.

There's something about separating your life's activities into these categories that encourages the crisis of fun. If you're paying a cost to get something, you want to pay as little as possible. If you're getting a preference satisfied, you want as much satisfaction as possible.

So, for instance, if you're thinking about learning how to open water swim, or taking a dance class, you have to ask yourself either What Is My Ultimate Goal Here -- and am I pursuing it in the most efficient way possible? OR you have to ask yourself Is This The Most Hedonically Perfect Way To Spend My Acquired Preference Capital?

It's an odd fit for many of life's activities, and it's a terrible crisis for fun. I'm thinking this is why, in the end, I have a problem with a pleasant day.


Molly said...

Hi Patricia, Great Post. And just yesterday I heard this on radio. Play, leisure, fun, boredom. All necessary for a truly fulfilling life! Link to radio show:

Jim Tigwell said...

Your point is well-taken. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about goals, and I think there's a certain sense of guilt that comes along with spending time on things that don't contribute in some way to those goals. I think the guilt is entirely unreasonable, but I definitely feel it when I spend half a day playing Sleeping Dogs when I could have been shooting, editing, practicing, etc.

Most of my genuine daily fun for fun is reading on the bus, because I'm utterly isolated from all the other things I could be doing. It's guilt free, or rather, without cost.

Daniel said...

I totally agree. It's actually become difficult in a weird way for me to just have fun! It sucks.