Are We Having Fun Yet? 

Americans worship at the altar of recreation, but are downright clueless about leisure.

You know what the terrorists really hate about us? They hate our fun. They may be fundamentalists, but we Americans are fun-damentalists. Blue states, red states, it doesn't matter. Despite our regional, religious, and political differences, we all worship at the altar of fun and we all love a good time. The terrorists don't think anyone should be having so much fun, at least not in this lifetime. When they attacked the Twin Towers four years ago, they succeeded for a while in killing our national sense of fun. Thankfully, this country had George W. Bush -- the fun president who partied till he was forty -- to talk us out of our national malaise. Fresh from a monthlong vacation at his ranch, the frat boy turned leader of the free world told us, basically, to go out and have fun. Because if we can't have fun, and we can't spend the money required, then the terrorists have won.

You know where I'm going, Osama? That's right -- Disneyland.

If there's one thing Americans are dead serious about, it's fun. You may ask: If we love fun so much, why do we spend so much time at work? Yes, according to leisure academics -- they really exist! -- Americans are working more hours now than at any time since World War II. But we're also extending our fun years by getting married and having kids later in life.

And working a lot doesn't mean we're not having fun. It's just that we have fun in a distinctively American way: We work really hard at playing, we fill our weekends with scheduled activities, we bike, we hike, we see a movie, a play, a concert. Doing nothing or vegging out isn't an option -- at least not one that sounds good when you get back into work Monday and someone asks, "Did you do anything fun this weekend?"

Yep, Americans know plenty about having fun. It's leisure that they're clueless about. In this writer's mind, the difference between "fun" and "leisure" breaks down like this: Fun isn't relaxing; it's playtime with a price. It means going somewhere and doing something, and paying the price of admission and/or purchasing the gear (skis, for instance) that enables the fun. Leisure means taking it easy, relaxing, just chillin'. As others have put it, leisure is the freedom to do nothing. And it's a lot cheaper than fun.

Bill Michaelis, a professor of leisure studies at San Francisco State University, likes to give his students an easy-sounding assignment: Go somewhere, take off your watch, turn off your cellphone, and do nothing. Students are supposed to sit there alone with their thoughts for one hour without distractions. Michaelis estimates that about one-third of them can't last more than ten minutes without looking at their watches. "People say, 'When I started to do it, all the checklists in my mind were just going off and I couldn't stop,'" he says. "Because we're valued by being efficient and we're valued by crossing things off the list. We are producers. ... What are you producing by sitting there and actually minimizing purposeful activity?"

Free time for Americans is still measured time. Call it the Puritan fun ethic: It's as if we've imposed our workaholism onto our time off. Academics have a word for this -- spillover. "Spillover happens a lot for people because they get to a place where they are being so efficient in their work life that it spills over into their leisure," Michaelis says. "Then people do the very damaging 'Let's do Europe in two weeks.' And then we'll need three weeks to recover from that. Or, 'I've done fifteen leisure activities this month, aren't I great?' As opposed to having done just one or two activities and maybe having been a little more present."

It's not the same for Europeans, who get more vacation time every year and spend less time stuck in traffic than the typical United States citizen. I remember doing a story a few years ago on high-tech workers from Ireland working in Silicon Valley. In Ireland, vegging out is a national pastime. A couple of the Irish transplants recalled how it was a major culture shock for them to adjust to the way we spend our free time. "When you have leisure time here, you actually do something," an accountant named Mairtini said at the time. "You'd feel guilty if you sat home and did nothing here." After getting used to the American way of life, she went home for Christmas and one day asked her brother, who was lounging around, what he was doing. "What do you mean, 'What am I doing?'" he replied. "I'm doing it."

As America views fun, merely doing it doesn't suffice. Jim Murphy, another SF State leisure studies prof, notes that people also have to get all the gear and stuff that makes them look cool while doing it, and that costs money. Murphy makes this point with his classes by asking his students how many kinds of sneakers they have? In the '50s, one pair of sneakers worked for everything. Now there are jogging shoes, tennis shoes, basketball shoes, hiking shoes, cross-trainers, walking shoes. (Full disclosure: This writer's closet hosts separate shoes for walking, hiking, tennis, and basketball, plus knockoff Tevas for those rare beach or rafting trips.) Fun fuels the consumer society and drives up our credit card debts. And therein lies the paradox. "Most of us have to work harder and longer to purchase these things," Murphy says. But, he asks, are these people happier in the end?

Of course, fun can fuel the spirit, too. There's an increasing amount of research being done on what Robert Stebbins, a sociologist at the University of Calgary, has oxymoronically dubbed "serious leisure." That's different from, say, watching TV or going to an occasional rock concert. Baseball-card collectors (i.e. hobbyists), amateur musicians, avid rock climbers, mountain bikers, or snowboarders -- these folks are engaging in serious leisure. They not only invest a lot of time in a particular activity; it's a major part of their personal identity. He's a surfer who happens to do computer programming for a living. It's a twist on the more typical notion that people are defined by their careers. And, hey, if your job sucks, why not call yourself a musician?

Three years ago, Ruth Russell, a professor in the Indiana University School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, began looking into serious leisure by interviewing marathoners, golfers, amateur chefs, gardeners, and sky divers. "We usually think of leisure as a respite from work, but my research focus is just the opposite," Russell said in a 2002 statement describing her work. "I am interviewing people who make their leisure pursuit a life priority. For them it is not a rejuvenation from work. It is a central force in who they feel they are."

In the past two decades, a peculiar pursuit of fun has grown in popularity: High-risk recreation. Consider the explosion of so-called extreme sports, or the freaks into "base jumping" (where parachutists jump from buildings, bridges, or cliffs), or even more accepted "outdoor" activities such as rock climbing. All involve serious risks to health, even death. Why would anyone risk their lives just to have fun? Dr. Ernest Noble, a researcher at UCLA, believes genes explain why some people become thrill-seekers.

For many years, Noble and his colleagues sought a genetic basis for alcoholism and in the process stumbled across the party gene. In the '90s, Noble found that alcoholics are born with fewer dopamine receptors -- that is, pleasure receptors -- in their brains. To compensate, these people drink booze to feel good. Later, Noble and his team decided to study children with the alcoholic genetic trait to see how they behaved since, presumably, they weren't boozing or drugging yet to get pleasure. "We found that they were great novelty seekers," he says. One boy, aged ten or so, boasted that he regularly went bungee-jumping. The point, Noble says, is that people low on pleasure genes can get their dopamine rush by engaging in dangerous activities as well as by boozing. "This is what the basis of our studies have been, that there is a gene that has to do with pleasure and reward," he says. "When you're doing these activities, bungee jumping or drinking alcohol, you are putting out dopamine and getting pleasure. But when you're not, life isn't that exciting for you."

It's vacation season, of course, and as it happens I have some vacation time coming up. Know what I plan to do? As little as possible. There will be no trips longer than a two-hour drive -- no airports, no passports, no more than one piece of luggage. There will be drinking, but definitely no bungee jumping. Napping, definitely. My perfect day will proceed as follows: Wake up at 10 a.m. Walk to the cafe. Read the newspaper and do the crossword over a mocha. Maybe run a few household errands. If there's time, I'll play in that pickup basketball game where all the guys have schedules that somehow allow them to begin hooping at 3:30 p.m. Afterward, I'll shower and eat dinner, watch a video, and crawl back in bed with my old lady.

Will it be fun?

Who cares? It'll be leisurely.

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