“Work is More Fun than Fun”

This quotation, whose owner I’ve seen cited repeatedly as Noel Coward, strikes me as largely true. Not completely, always, and unequivocally, but certainly for the right type of work it can be in a way we tend to underestimate.

When your wife, friend, or boss commands you “to go have some fun,” they obviously don’t mean spend time entering data into spreadsheets, even that’s your favorite thing in the whole world.

Before you go telling me that I clearly don’t know fun, I should be clear about that part too. It’s tautologically true that nothing can be more fun than fun, but it’s undeniable that we mean a rather specific subset of things when we typically say “fun.” When your wife, friend, or boss commands you “to go have some fun,” they obviously don’t mean spend time entering data into spreadsheets, even that’s your favorite thing in the whole world. Things that the culture at large considers fun are generally hedonic pleasures that fall into the general categories of social activities and light amusements. TV is fun, video games are fun, watching and playing sports is fun, “partying” is fun, gossiping is fun, (social) eating is fun.

Programming, writing, editing, compiling, even cooking, these things are all generally considered to be outside the category of fun. But they can be. These tasks, which we generally categorize as “work” can be deeply immensely satisfying in a way that almost no activity considered above in the category “fun” are. When you think your work matters, or even if you just regard it as a worthy thing to spend time on, the sense of satisfaction that’s available in accomplishing your work in a way you regard as “well” is a supreme pleasure.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s seminal work on “flow” is essentially about this very point. The Wikipedia article on the topic has this to say about flow:

It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.

It is not “work” per se, as the generalized category, that constitutes the type that is “more fun than fun”. Your dull and disappointing job which neither challenges nor can challenge you is probably never going to give you the sense of egoless immersion and accomplishment that really leaves one feeling deeply satisfied and contented with the activity they have just completed. But it’s also undeniable that because work gives you access to the achievement of things far beyond yourself, the possibility for a sense of lasting accomplishment is far greater than even the most successful and flowing “fun” activity.

I don’t believe that work-is-fun flow state is a state itself worthy of pursuit, but I fervently believe that it can be a useful tool in getting done work you care about. That is, unlike deep meditative awareness, I don’t regard flow states as inherently beneficial outside of themselves, but I think they clearly constitute a useful tool if you’re pursuing ends you know to be good and valuable. (See my thoughts on Flow Traps, for why I’m pressing so hard on that.)

The reason to share and explain this rather popular quotation is simply this: too frequently people just ignore the very real possibility it explains. We go around living our lives for the weekends, the whistle, the bell, the time when we’re free to have fun. But doing that is itself to confine yourself to prison during your working hours. You don’t need to be doing activities we define as “fun” to enjoy the way you’re spending your time. If you do your work well, achieve a degree of both mastery and learning, you can make every moment of your life, even the dullest ones, “more fun than fun.”

One response to ““Work is More Fun than Fun””

  1. Good post and I agree mostly (you kind of lost me when you started talking about flow-states haha). What’s so interesting to me is that we seem to go along with what we define as work and play to the extent we find them tedious or fun respectively, regardless of the real differences in the activity.