Still not having fun yet?

August 27, 2006|By Hoyt Hilsman and Dennis Palumbo

Frank and Marie, parents of two active preteens, are exhausted. They've just spent eight grueling hours (and about $250) at Disneyland, and have nothing to show for it but short tempers, squabbling kids and a vague feeling of being exploited. Not exactly the experience they were hoping for when they booked the plane tickets, hotel reservations and kennel for the family dog.

Although this family is fictional, the scenario is quite real. Like most Americans, the dual demands of careers and parenting turn Frank and Marie's average week into a blur of deadlines, responsibilities and almost continual stress. But this week was supposed to be different. This carefully planned, pricey vacation was supposed to be their reward. This week was supposed to be, well, fun.

Instead, it's been anything but. What's going on?

Let's face it: The quest for fun is practically an American birthright. "Work hard and play hard" is our motto, and the world marvels at both our productivity and our myriad entertainments.

But there's a paradox: We're a society that seems to have everything - everything, that is, except the capacity to enjoy it. No doubt, we're the world's biggest spenders, obsessed with the newest, most expensive toys and addicted to escapism, from gambling to drugs to travel to sex. We're determined - nay, entitled - to have fun. But is anyone actually having any?

We could certainly use a break. The average middle-class American is slogging through nearly 50-hour workweeks, balancing career and family, burdened by concerns about the economy, crime and terrorism. Who wouldn't be desperate for some well-earned relief?

So we dutifully climb aboard the fun train - whether it's a week at Disney World or a river-rafting trip in Colorado, or a weekend in Vegas. Or buying the latest techno-gizmo or high-status car. And yet, before we've even installed the new entertainment system, driven our new sedan, or hopped the plane to Vegas, a familiar, deflating feeling creeps in. Is this it? Are we having fun yet?

Maybe the problem is that we don't take fun seriously enough. With all the self-help books about the search for happiness, maybe fun is getting ignored.

There is a difference. On the playing field of life, fun is the silly cousin of happiness. While happiness is a mellower, more considered state of being, fun is a mindless, joyful dance of pleasure. Fun wears a silly hat and goofs around, while happiness sips tea and sighs contentedly.

We work toward happiness, while fun happens. Fun is, by definition, unself-conscious. It's the joyful, creative expression of self, without purpose or meaning. And, for that reason, it's been misunderstood and undervalued in a society where the emphasis is on pragmatic benefit. Maybe because you can't just buy it.

We've all seen couples like Frank and Marie, hell-bent on having fun, only to be disappointed by the frantic, desperate quest for pleasure. Or others, spending their hard-earned money on "fantasy" vacations or luxury toys, only to find that the fantasy is just that.

In frustration, and goaded by media that sell that fantasy, we may yearn for the glittering lives of the rich and famous. Think again. Even as you're reading this, there's a Fortune 500 billionaire sailing with his supermodel girlfriend on his 200-foot yacht off the coast of his private Mediterranean island. And he's miserable. Just ask his Park Avenue shrink.

Meanwhile, 12,000 miles away, on the back porch of a ranch house in Dayton, Ohio, a retired mill worker living on a pension bends over his crossword puzzle with a feeling of pleasure, even giddiness, that can only be described as blissful. Is it possible he's ... having fun?

If so, why? In the face of today's sobering headlines and the stresses and demands of modern life, is fun still - as the pundits say - viable?

We think so. We believe the experience of fun, of sublime enjoyment, is as possible in today's complicated, technological world as it was in the supposedly simpler worlds of generations past. Moreover, it is in this complex, unsettling post-Sept. 11 world that the balm of pleasure, the intoxicating and liberating feeling of delight, is needed more than ever. It is the capacity for joy, for abandonment to the gifts of play and exuberance, that helps define our humanity.

True pleasure derives from absorption, whether you're dancing, making love or solving equations, rather than distraction (the frantic pursuit of the next fun thing) to escape real life. Fun is derived from being in "the flow" of the activity, whatever it may be - for its own sake.

Where does that leave Frank and Marie? As they trudge through their doorway, laden with baggage and souvenirs, home at last, perhaps Frank spots the half-finished chess game on the dining room table, Marie the half-read catalog on interior design courses at the local community college. And the kids just seem happy to kick off their shoes and wrestle the dog.

Hmmm. Sounds like fun.

Hoyt Hilsman is an award-winning writer and critic who was recently a candidate for Congress in California. Dennis Palumbo is a psychotherapist and former screenwriter. They are writing a book about the pursuit of fun in America. E-mail: and

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