For the Sheer Fun of It

Author: Andrew Santella

The undisputed star of the mega-blizzard that belted the East Coast in January was a panda named Tian Tian. A resident of Washington’s National Zoo, Tian Tian was caught on video doing what pandas are wont to do in the middle of a blizzard. There was Tian Tian bodysurfing down an icy slope, there was Tian Tian scooping snow onto his head, there was Tian Tian, it appeared, trying to eat his own snowy feet. You likely have seen the video clip yourself, because the Internet loves sharing videos of animals having fun, and Tian Tian sure seemed to be having a gas.

illustration: Santiago Uceda

But was Tian Tian really having fun? A lot of people who study animal behavior would stop short of saying so. The preferred way to explain any animal behavior is to show how it is rational — that is, how it maximizes self-interest in some way, say, finding food or ensuring reproductive prowess. Not much room there for pointless panda fun.

And yet to look at a giant panda partying in the snow, or river otters belly-flopping in mud, or a crow surfing down a roof slope on the lid of a jar (check it out, it’s on YouTube!) is to feel awe, if not outright envy, at animal genius for having a good time. But can I really assume that my idea of a good time matches a river otter’s? Am I falling into what an ethologist would call the anthropomorphic trap, wherein I am fooled by the display of animal jollity I see on YouTube into thinking that I share some experience with a crow or a panda or a river otter? Or maybe even a cephalopod? Consider that cuttlefish have been known to use their siphons to spray their keepers with water. Why? Who knows? To me, it sounds like fun, in a prankish, Bart Simpsonish sort of way. But then I can’t really claim enough expertise in the emotional life of cuttlefish to say for sure.

It’s hard to spend very long around certain species without concluding that they’re just a lot better at having fun than we are. I walk through a park near my home every morning, which gives me a chance to see the neighborhood dogs at play, surrounded by a ragged circle of their owners. On the whole, the dogs seem to be a much sunnier bunch. They chase each other, sniff each other, chase each other some more. If things are going really well, one of them might roll over and pedal four paws in the air, apparently just for the sheer joy of it. The owners mostly stand around looking grim, clutching their little plastic bags of dog crap.

But fun can be a tricky thing to judge.

Elizabeth Archie, a Notre Dame associate professor of biological sciences, goes to Kenya a few times a year to trail wild baboons, looking for clues about how their social lives affect their health. She regularly sees young baboons pick up any stray bit of trash left behind by sloppy humans and take off with it across the landscape like a linebacker scooping up a running back’s fumble. Trailing immediately behind will be any number of other baboons, hoping to make the precious bit of trash theirs for a while. Other accounts have told of baboons’ preference for teasing fenced-in cattle by pulling their tails and taunting them from the safe side of the fence.

There are said to be evolutionary benefits to such play — socialization, or practice for certain survival skills needed in adulthood, for example. And, as Archie says, fun’s role might be to give us an inducement to get up and play. Think of it, to invoke the eminent behaviorist Mary Poppins, as the spoonful of sugar that makes our medicine go down. “The sense of excitement and happiness that we call fun is our incentive to get play’s benefits,” Archie suggests.

But, as the baboon reaching through a fence to yank on the tail of an unoffending cow reminds us, not all behavior is neatly explained. The interior life of other animals remains a mystery.

Or, as Archie says, “Evolution doesn’t explain everything.”

It’s easy to sound like an elitist buzzkill if you bemoan this trend. But is there not something patronizing and infantilizing about the belief that free snacks and corporate karaoke could alter our deepest feelings about our life’s work?

Last year, in a special issue of the journal Current Biology devoted to animal fun, Nathan J. Emery and Nicola S. Clayton suggested that birds may play just for the fun of it, because “it produces a pleasurable experience — releasing endogenous opioids.” The University of Colorado’s Marc Bekoff noted that fun may have an anxiolytic, stress-relieving effect that makes it part of some species’ recipe for reproductive fitness. And the University of Tennessee’s Gordon Burghardt noted that, although we associate fun and play with the smartest, warm-blooded animals (think “horsing around”), even fish, lizards and so-called lower vertebrates may like to play, too. Burghardt developed what he calls surplus resource theory, which posits that animals need stores of surplus time and safety to have fun, or to engage in “behavior that may not be immediately advantageous.”

But forget “not immediately advantageous,” fun can be outright hazardous. If we’re not careful, it will kill us. (I’m looking at you, skateboarders on Fifth Avenue.) And that’s to say nothing of the social costs of having the wrong fun at the wrong time with the wrong person. So how do we square the putative benefits of fun with its many costs?

For that matter, is fun really as beneficial as it is made out to be? Most of us know people for whom there is no progress without crisis, and for whom fun is a dulling opiate. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who would throw students out of his seminar if they weren’t cantankerous enough, said, “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”

So one of the problems with trying to make too much sense of fun is that it, well, takes all the fun out of fun. It’s not just that thinking about such a fuzzy concept can be hard mental work and a bit of a drag. It’s that to attach too much utility to fun is to fundamentally misunderstand fun. True fun always has an element of nonfunctionality to it. That is, the most real fun is fun because there’s no good reason to do it. So much of the fun I’ve had has happened when I wasn’t supposed to be having any fun at all. If you’ve ever suppressed laughter in the middle of a professor’s sober lecture or giggled through a consultant’s inane power-point presentation with a sympathetic coworker, you know that some fun happens when you’re supposed to be at your most serious.

I call these things fun, but they might not sound so much like fun to you. That’s typical. Other people always seem to have a funny idea of fun. This is because fun itself is a loaded word, squishy and hard to define. None of fun’s synonyms quite do the job.

Enjoyment, amusement, pleasure all come close, but none is exactly fun. For one thing, fun is an experience, not a feeling. “Fun, like sex, must be had,” writes John Beckman in American Fun. No passive pleasure, it requires an exercise of the will and a readiness to transgress. If it’s what you’re supposed to be doing, it probably isn’t all that much fun.

Also, our definition of fun keeps changing. Fun’s etymological roots are in mockery and trickery. Fun, the noun, was once a verb that in the 17th century meant “to cheat” or “to hoax,” according to the Oxford American College Dictionary, and was probably derived from the Middle English fonnen, “befool.” This older sense still comes through in phrases like “make fun of.” Fun, then, can be deceiving, a bit of a con job, a way of putting something over on the unsuspecting.

So the first rule of fun is that anything that advertises itself as fun is likely no fun at all. Think about fun facts, or fun runs, or fun for the entire family.

Or think about the kind of fun your boss makes you have.

Employer-mandated fun — imposed, workplace-based, putatively morale-building activities — have become a staple of American work life. Employer-mandated fun is supposed to promote teamwork, camaraderie and creativity, but for the stressed-out employees who have to endure these activities, it can be seriously unfun. Not long ago, at the behest of her boss, a friend of mine put on a fat suit and participated in an intra-office mock sumo wrestling tournament. The whole thing sounded a little humiliating to me, and not just because my friend lost in the first round.

Foosball games and nap rooms and Ping-Pong table conference rooms have become clichés of the “creative” workspace. Red Bull’s headquarters in London’s West End features a slide. Zappos encourages hard-working employees to wear silly hats.

It’s easy to sound like an elitist buzzkill if you bemoan this trend. But is there not something patronizing and infantilizing about the belief that free snacks and corporate karaoke could alter our deepest feelings about our life’s work? This is fun-as-con, fun in the less good-humored, 17th century sense. Johan Huizinga, the Dutch cultural theorist who wrote about “the play element in culture,” asserted that play’s defining feature is that it must be voluntary. “Play to order is no longer play,” he declared. “It could at best be a forcible imitation of it.”

Employer-mandated fun makes fun a chore.

The mistake here, as in the conventional view of animal fun, is in the urge to attach utility to fun. But fun is pointless. And when we try to make it useful, to give it a purpose, it ceases to be fun.

When I asked Jasmine Hu, an assistant professor in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business who writes on teamwork in business, to tell me what she thought of employer-mandated fun, she told me about the Marshmallow Challenge.

A teamwork training exercise that spread by way of a TED Talk presentation (of course), the Marshmallow Challenge gives teams 18 minutes to build the tallest-possible freestanding structure out of 20 strands of spaghetti, one yard of tape and one yard of string. The tower must be crowned by a marshmallow.

Hu said exercises such as the Marshmallow Challenge can deliver insights about collaboration, innovation and problem-solving. But what I like best about the Marshmallow Challenge is that kindergarten kids given the challenge have routinely outperformed recent business-school graduates. The challenge website is frank in its assessment of the B-school crowd: “They fight. They cheat. They produce lame structures.”

Maybe the kids succeed by simply playing, where the business-school grads mess up the process with their competitive agendas.

“The purpose of training exercises like these is to enhance creativity and motivation, but ultimately the motivation has to come from the work itself,” Hu said. No amount of fun imposed from higher up the chain of command will redeem a soul-crushing job. “Managers must recognize that fun is subjective. What I think is fun might not be fun at all to you.”

The American nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic has always coexisted with a jazzy entrepreneurial flair, and each has helped define our way of work. The Marshmallow Challenge and exercises of its kind can be thought of as attempts to marry those seemingly opposite philosophies to produce desired corporate ends. Fun in this scheme is simply good business.

But then, a fraught relationship with fun is part of my inheritance as an American. The argument over who gets to decide what is good, clean American fun is older than America itself. In 1626, fed up with the prudes and Puritans of Plymouth, some hard-partying erstwhile bondservants, led by a reform-minded lawyer named Thomas Morton, set up their own rival settlement a few miles up the road. They called it Merrymount. At Merrymount, you could find “revels, and merriment . . . [and] a barrell of excellent beer,” in Morton’s own words. (He was later called “America’s first rascal.”) He sought good relations, in every sense of the word, with the local natives. In fact his downfall was the 80-foot maypole he, well, erected in the center of the settlement as part of a May Day get-together to attract native wives for his libidinous bachelors.

When the killjoys back at Plymouth heard about it, they sent a militia force to chop down the maypole and chase Morton back to England.

The beef between Morton and the Puritans, though, wasn’t just about prudishness and licentiousness. What really worried Plymouth was that Morton’s new settlement was doing big business trading with the natives. Plymouth, on the other hand, wasn’t. (I’m not surprised. I’d rather do business with someone I could party with a little, too.) Morton knew his settlement’s brand of fun might give Merrymount, to borrow a term from biology, a reproductive advantage. The people back at Plymouth thought so, too, and knew that this advantage would spell the ruin of Plymouth.

Which is why Morton’s maypole had to come down.

To Plymouth, it must have looked like Merrymount was funning them, in the 17th century sense: putting one over on them.

Maybe this is why I so badly want to believe that other animals have fun not for any evolutionary advantage but just for the fun of it. I want to see in Tian Tian a purity of motive I can’t quite see in the middle manager on Funny Hat Day. I want there to be at least some species for whom fun is not a matter of profit motive, not a factor of hallucinatory capitalism, not a technique by which the fittest may survive. I want fun not to have to justify itself.

Sarah Zylinski in the journal Current Biology noted recent research that showed that fruit flies of the species Drosophila increased their ethanol intake when they were sexually deprived. That study led to news stories with such headlines as, “Male fruit flies get drunk to ease pain of sexual rejection.”

This is a species I can admire. Even when they’re not having a good time, they’re having a good time.

Andrew Santella has written for GQ and The New York Times Book Review. He is at work on a cultural history of procrastination to be published by Dey Street Books. Eventually.