Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Create Your Fun Habit With Mike Rucker
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 398 of Live Happy Now. It’s a brand new year, and we’re all thinking about creating new habits. So why not make yours a fun one? I’m your host, Paula Felps. And this week, I’m talking with Mike Rucker, an esteemed organizational psychologist whose new book, The Fun Habit, looks at how the pursuit of joy and wonder can change your life. He’s here to talk about how we can learn to prioritize fun, and how that can make us both happier and more productive. And as you’ll learn, it can also improve the lives of those around us. Let’s have a listen.
[00:00:39] PF: Mike, thank you so much for coming on Live Happy Now.
[00:00:43] MR: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:00:44] PF: We’ve been talking about this for a while. We had to wait for your book to get out. Just talking before the show, there were so many delays because of COVID. So first of all, congratulations on release of The Fun Habit.
[00:00:57] MR: Thank you so much. Yeah. It’s been a long time coming, so I’m excited to be –
[00:01:00] PF: Yeah, it has. It has. I feel like we’ve been talking about it for a couple years, at least.
[00:01:04] MR: Yeah. The pub date’s gotten moved twice. Once, it was like a soft one. Then this last one, June to January, was a hard one. You know, like –
[00:01:13] PF: But we’re here now.
[00:01:15] MR: Yeah. That’s right.
[00:01:16] PF: What a great way to –
[00:01:16] MR: [inaudible 00:01:16] are, right?
[00:01:17] PF: Yeah. What a way to kick off the year. It’s so interesting because you have such a distinguished background, including being a charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association. So from the outside, we would expect that you’d have the whole happiness thing down. But as we learn in your book, that was not the case. So can you kick us off by talking about how you learned to recognize the distinction between happiness and having fun?
[00:01:43] MR: Yeah. I’m still a believer in happiness, right? So I’ll explain that. But the backstory is I was a charter member. Positive psych could have been something prior to that organization coming together. Csikszentmihalyi wrote Flow years before. 2009 is when that kind of came together. It was really Marty Cyclamen that kind of created the movement, him and Ed [inaudible 00:02:08]. I think authentic happiness had come out the year prior, and there was this need for it, right? The movement was doing something positive.
Up until that point, clinical psychology was really just to treat deficits, and there are some amazing tools for folks that are living a life well to create things to make it better. So those tools were certainly fairly useful to me during that time, up until 2016. I still benefit from gratitude journaling, I still keep a mindfulness practice, and I still value happiness. What had gone awry was I had become overly concerned with my own happiness.
So I’ll explain that distinction, and that is really when something goes wrong. In my case, it was the death of my younger brother quite suddenly and just having to process that all at once. Then these two aren’t related. But a couple months later, after years of being an endurance athlete, not professional or anything, but really just enjoying that and that way to mitigate, I’ve always had low level anxiety. I haven’t needed medication. I’ve used fitness to mitigate anxiety. I identified as a runner, for sure, and I was told I had advanced osteoarthritis, probably due to an injury. It wasn’t genetic. But it probably tore my labrum and just a 220-pound guy doing a couple Ironmans.
[00:03:38] PF: Right. That’ll start doing some [inaudible 00:03:39] there.
[00:03:40] MR: Yeah. But because it happened at such a young age, I was told I shouldn’t run again. So I lost my younger brother, found out that this identity I had as a runner was destroyed, and then this third thing happened. It wasn’t really misfortune, but I just finished my doctor [inaudible 00:03:56] and graduated. My wife, who had supported me through those six years of academic work, we had two children during that process, so you can only imagine.
[00:04:05] PF: Wow. That was home.
[00:04:07] MR: Yeah, right. Again, over optimizing for a lot of stuff. She got an amazing opportunity, and this amazing opportunity manifested and wanted to have her back. But I was still going through a lot of stuff, and that essentially moved us away from our support network of family and friends. So I wanted to figure out how to will myself to be happy, and the more I was doing that paradoxically, I was becoming really unhappy. Because I am a researcher, I identified fairly quickly that something wrong was happening, and I was getting close to probably low-level clinical depression. But I understood that there was some sort of awareness that I was doing it to myself, and I don’t know if I would call it serendipitous. It was just more happenstance and good timing.
Emerging research was coming out that you’re probably familiar with. A professor I liked a lot is Dr. Iris Mauss out of the University of California Berkeley. But her work has been replicated now that here in the Western world, folks like myself, how I found myself in 2016, that are kind of just always chasing happiness, have a pretty direct line to being pretty unhappy, paradoxically. So, wow, okay, so here’s sort of empirical evidence to suggest what’s happening to me. But if that’s the case, what can I do? Because I really want to get back to being happy.
Over time, it started to change my perception. Like, okay, life can suck sometimes, but I have more control over sort of shifting my life to the good side, rather than kind of wallowing in this act of rumination and introspection, which is essentially wasting energy, waiting for happiness to come, when I can kind of move in that direction and not necessarily chase it. Just live a joyful life that things that enrich me like pro-social behavior, hobbies that really connect me to things that I like, make me realize that it’s not just about myself. Again, just understand that I do have some autonomy over my time.
[00:06:09] PF: As adults, even though we all want to have fun, we don’t make it a priority. So what in your research did you find is keeping us from doing that?
[00:06:19] MR: A lot of it’s rooted in the Puritan work ethic that’s still pervasive here in the West. Quite literally, we think our self-worth comes from how we can contribute, right? What’s unfortunate is there’s been this kind of fast evolution from what Daniel Pink calls algorithmic work to heuristic work, whether – You could call that the knowledge economy, whatever you want.
Unfortunately, in this new paradigm of work, we don’t know where the goalposts are, right? Also, because of advances in technology, we’re always kind of connected to our workplace and that –
[00:06:54] PF: Yeah. Our workdays do not end, where like we just fall asleep.
[00:06:57] MR: Yeah. I mean, from the moment we wake up till our head hits the pillow, there are a lot of people that are always on their phone. If they get a notification, they feel like it’s a prime to have to answer it. Because of that, even when we think we’re in a state of leisure or a state of our domestic duties like enjoying time with our wife or our kids, half the time, it’s still an extension of work because if our phone buzzes, we pick it up.
What we know is that, subconsciously, that essentially just becomes an extension of work. We’ve never created this transition ritual from work to leisure. So the rub there is that the same way that we champion people that lived in a state of sleep deprivation in the ‘90s, like –
[00:07:44] PF: Oh, yeah. I remember that.
[00:07:46] MR: Yeah. I fell victim to it. I never took down the post because I didn’t want to be inauthentic. But if you search deep in my website, I think I was like, “Oh, Gary Vee is amazing.” And like, “Yeah.”
[00:07:57] PF: If I can do four hours of sleep a week.
[00:07:57] MR: That’s right. Yeah. So we now know that’s asinine, right? Like the research is in. If you’re not getting sleep, a year later, you’re not even going to be able to work, right, because that is a direct line to all sorts of physiological and psychological ills. We’re now finding that that is true. This is emerging research. So I like kind of being on the forefront of it. Emerging research is suggesting that when we’re not engaged in leisure, so whatever that means, if we’re really being honest, there’s two to five hours a day that we could potentially recapture, depending on where we are in life.
We’re not doing that. What we’re doing is essentially pacifying that time, a lot of times. If you don’t believe me, just look at the health meter on your iPhone or your Android and see how much time you’re on social media apps or some sort of mobile game. Ultimately, we know that those seem to be fun. But when we look back and ask ourselves, how did you spend that time? Tell me what you saw on social media between the hours of 4:00 and 6:00? Your phone says that you’re on that. There will just be a shoulder shrug because that essentially displaced boredom or discomfort, or it wasn’t something that really added to your betterment or attracted joy.
[00:09:14] PF: How do you build in little pieces of fun? Because it’s not like you have to take a vacation. It’s not like you even need to take 30 minutes. You can do something in five minutes to add a little fun to your day, and that’s going to really change your brain. Can you talk about how we work that in?
[00:09:31] MR: You need to start by creating space, and then we’re going to get into play model. So we’ll discuss how to do that. But I think, first, you need to look at activities that aren’t adding anything to your life, right? In the book, I call them the nothing, like this time that’s just contributing. Because I think where positivity kind of got off the rails, now we term it toxic positivity, is that everything needs to be additive, right?
So kind of falling back on my understanding of system design, it’s just so hard for us to remove things, right? Because that’s just – We inherently think that adding stuff on is always better. So we start by figuring out what are those moments that we can capture back. So a simple one could essentially just be your lunch hour, right? Like a lot of us will just kind of hang out. If we’re working in a workspace, we’ll just kind of hang out and let that hour pass. So I like this metal frame of like if you can’t go on holiday, maybe you can take a whole hour, kind of playing into your point, right?
[00:10:32] PF: That’s great.
[00:10:33] MR: So can you schedule a time with a friend, if you’re more of an introvert? Because fun doesn’t have to be a high arousal activity. Like I love [inaudible 00:10:40] in this area, right? Like it could just be enjoying a book, but recapturing something so that you can enjoy yourself in a pleasant way, rather than just kind of trying to get through the next hour. So you’re exactly right. Like, what are those opportunities, especially if you – A time for where you can add in elements.
Now, I will be careful on that. I talked about this in the book that task switching is definitely another way to become unhappy, right? We know that if you’re kind of just always moving around from task to task, even if they’re pleasurable, the cognitive load of that can just zap your energy. We don’t want to over optimize your life, but we do want to create the space so that you can exchange things that really aren’t adding anything to your betterment, and figure out how you can have more joy in those spaces.
[00:11:28] PF: Yeah. I think that could be a fun exercise in itself to kind of step back and say, “What is it that brings me fun? What are things that I want to do?” Because I think so many of us jump on this treadmill. If someone says, “What do you do for fun,” it’s deer in the headlights. They’re like, “I don’t know. I haven’t had fun for a while.” So I think too there’s that part, just that brainstorming of what brings me joy, what is fun for me.
[00:11:55] MR: Yeah, exactly. You’re spot on, and that’s like another one of those interesting headwinds that I mentioned, like the resistance to that, because it does seem super silly, right? Like so many of us, I know how to have fun. Yeah, you know. But you need to remind yourself.
[00:12:08] PF: But what do you do for it? Yeah.
[00:12:10] MR: Yeah, that’s right. So being premeditated and just making a simple list, one, it’s fun if you approach the activity with curiosity, right? Like not to stay and like, “Ah, I can’t believe I have to do this to have fun.” But like, “Hey, let me remind myself of what lights me up,” right? So that exercise of brainstorming can be fun in and of itself. Even if it’s not fun, it’s sort of a quick, necessary step because you want to remember. What are the things that really did bring you joy before you had all of this responsibility? Some might not suit you anymore. So you can get creative with this list and make it expansive. Then figure out what is it that you can incorporate and start figuring out, with the space that you created, what to do.
[00:12:53] PF: One thing you mentioned in your book, and this can really help people out, it’s like what’s your fun type. That’s great because you actually can go onto your website, and there’s an assessment quiz, and it’s very easy. It’s not like you have to study for it. Then you figure out like, okay, this is your fun type. So maybe these are the kinds of things that you should look for when you’re creating your little fun list.
[00:13:15] MR: Yeah. I think that one was – I did graduate in sciences. I think everyone is all for fun types. It just kind of points to where you seem to really enjoy yourself.
[00:13:25] PF: What’s your dominant?
[00:13:26] MR: Yeah. But to your point, you could use kind of whimsical tools like that. Or you could identify, in the chapter on fun and friends, who are your fun friends and see if you can create more opportunities with them. Because, generally, if you’ve identified them as fun friends, they can be great mentors in getting you to have more fun, right?
[00:13:46] PF: Absolutely.
[00:13:46] MR: What are they doing? Because I do believe it becomes problematic if you’re overly marketed things, or if you’re mindlessly scrolling social media, and just kind of going, “Oh, I wish I could do that. I wish I could do that.” Because that’s just incoming stimulus, right? It’s not really an inward like, “Oh, I really identify with that.” Some people are mindful. Like if you’re into crafting and you only follow crafters, like there’s always the exceptions to the rule, right?
But a lot of us are sort of – If we don’t do it with our own interests at heart, we’re sort of like, “Oh, they’re having so much fun.” Well, they are. But is that what you would find fun, like if you were really in their shoes? Do you really want to be on a yacht? Because the last time I remember, you would throw up every time you’re on a boat, right? So –
[00:14:33] PF: That is a trap of social media because you’re like, “Oh, that looks like so much fun.” But then, yes, when you break it down, it’s like do you want to do that? It’s like, “Oh, heck, no. No.”
[00:14:40] MR: Well, and it’s curated, right? Like these are post photos of people that are trying to gain your attention. It’s called the attention economy for a reason. But, ultimately, if you fall victim to that, and you think that that’s real life, that can become problematic because, again, it goes back to what I fell victim to like, “Oh, my gosh. Happiness is here on Instagram, and I’m way back here in reality.”
All of a sudden, that gap between normal reality and this fictional reality becomes like – You start to identify like, “Well, I’m not where I want to be,” and that can slowly become identifying as an unhappy person, which isn’t necessarily true. It’s the subjective reality you’ve created, and it’s clear from the evidence that it’s kind of reverse cognitive behavioral therapy. You now have these negative scripts that you’re not even necessarily consciously aware of. They’re leading you to believe that you’re unhappy, when that’s not necessarily true.
[00:15:38] PF: That’s why your play model is so fantastic. It’s a great way to assess how we’re spending our days. Can you talk about that? Explain what it is and how we can use it, so we can incorporate more fun into our lives.
[00:15:50] MR: It’s essentially a sorting mechanism. So it helps you identify like things that really have gone off the rails, right? So play stands for pleasing, living, agonizing, and yielding. Pleasing activities are activities that are really easy to do, right? Like walking your dog, taking a nature walk, engaging in pro-social behavior with the friends that you enjoy.
The living quadrant takes some energy, but ultimately leads to really engaging activities. So that can be mastering a new skill. That can be a vigorous hike, like if connecting to nature is your thing. That can be a spiritual practice because mindfulness becomes hard if you – So etc., etc. But things that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to do all the time because they do take some energy, people are now classifying that as type two fun. I think that’s a playful term for it.
[00:16:40] PF: That’s great.
[00:16:42] MR: Agonizing are the things that we have to do. So, again, in the book, I make it clear that we can’t engineer all of those out of our life. There are things that we need to do as humans that are hard.
[00:16:52] PF: Like our taxes?
[00:16:53] MR: Exactly, yeah. I mean, that’s a common one, right? But a lot of times, when people look at like things that are really agonizing that happen week after week, there’s generally ways to improve them. So looking at those critically and thinking what is it? If you get creative, things that kind of suck for you, you could potentially change them, either by changing the activity or outsourcing, if you’re in a place that you could do that.
The last one we’ve already kind of talked about, but it’s the most nefarious, is the yielding, and that is things that don’t bring us joy. But because they don’t take much energy, we kind of do them mindlessly. Oftentimes, especially in this modern life we live, they’re engineered to make us believe we’re enjoying our time, but they really don’t. So social media is an obvious culprit.
Again, I don’t villainize watching TV. There are shows that I certainly like that are fun to watch because I’m watching them either with my kids or my partner. But what is a common routine for people is they’re so burnt out from work. They plop down on the couch and just turn on whatever is there. If I were to ask you the next week like, “Hey, I know you watched TV Wednesday from 7:00 to 9:00. What did you watch?” They’re like, “Ah, I don’t know.”
[00:18:06] PF: Then you’re frustrated. When you’re done watching television, you look back, and it’s like, “I wasted this time. I could have done something.” Yet we haven’t identified what we would have done. So we just keep doing. That’s why we need our fun. We need to like figure out what we do for fun because we would have done something differently.
[00:18:22] MR: That’s exactly right, and that identifies another headwind. That is in those moments, it is hard for you to believe that you could go out and do something, right? So what I’ve seen, and this has to happen with multiple people that I’ve worked with, is that there’s two things going on. One, for a lot of adults, for whatever reason, there’s this notion that you can’t do things on a school night. We’ve just been programmed to believe that we can’t go out and have fun Monday through Thursday. That’s fundamentally not true, right?
[00:18:52] PF: Right.
[00:18:54] MR: Then the second headwind is, I’m just so tired. Like let’s say dancing because, surprisingly, but in a fun way, like dancing seems to be one of those really fun activities that a clear majority like. I would say like 60 or 70 percent. We just don’t do anymore, right? So, okay, try taking a dance class during that time, right? For the folks that really do want to reconnect with dancing. The first couple of weeks suck because you’re still tired. You’re still in that state like, “Oh, plopping down on the couch would be more comfortable.” Not necessarily more fun but it’s more comfortable.
By the third week, it’s such an invigorating activity that they realize, okay, now they’re looking forward to it. And, two, they’re a better person when they show up for work. Then three, oftentimes, once you get a taste for that, like, “Wait a second. I am a better version of myself. I’m also more productive,” then it turns into this upward spiral, and you start to figure out what are those boundaries. I was good at work. I’m going to stop now and go take time off the table for me. Now, it’s not just a dance class. It’s a comedy club with a friend and it’s – Again, all the things start to fall into place. It’s just that initial nudge, like how can you break the inertia of this kind of habituated life that we lead.
[00:20:13] PF: You bring up a really good point about our productivity at work. A lot of times, when we think of having fun, we don’t think of it improving our productivity. If anything, we think, well, it’s going to cut into my time, and I’m not going to be as productive. So how does it actually make us more productive?
[00:20:30] MR: So the first is I always explain this with a simple math equation because I think it really highlights it, and it’s easy for people to understand. When we’re living the best version of our self – And this is clear, you can go to Google Scholar, and there’s plenty of studies that back me up on this. When we’re living with vitality and vigor, then we produce more, right? So think that if you’re living a life where you’re actually capitalizing on your leisure and feeling like you’re fulfilled in all areas of your life, that you can produce two units of output per hour.
So you’re working a simple 40-hour work week, but you’re – For each one of those, whatever you’re doing, creating widgets, or making websites, or writing manuscripts, whatever it is, you’re creating two units of that output. People that are working 60 hours a week, so they think they’re working hard, but they’re really just busy and aren’t taking time to recharge their batteries, are working a lot longer. So that might feel good, but each one of those hours are only producing one unit of output.
So the person in scenario A is producing 80 units of output and living a really fun life and just kind of happy with how everything is going. The person in scenario B is creating 60 units of output, thinks they’re a hard worker, but isn’t having fun at all, and is on a fast track to burnout. Again, that’s not just an assertion. That’s been backed up. So that’s why I think, again, leisure and fun are going to – We’re going to start to understand that making sure we protect that is as important as protecting sleep. Again, no one now is telling you not to sleep, right? Like even the most staunch supporters of healthy culture, right?
[00:22:13] PF: So absolutely.
[00:22:15] MR: The second is their amazing research coming out of social science, the person I really liked in this area, her name’s Caitlin Woolley, is that when you make activities more fun at work, one, you just do more. Two, obviously, you enjoy going to work a lot more. So there’s all sorts of creative ways to do that, and it can be as simple as if you really enjoy the people that you’re with during that meeting that needs to take place, just taking it outside of the office, and doing it as a walking meeting to creating like gamified aspects of your work so that you enjoy it more.
It’s really going to be specific to how you engage in work, but there’s all sorts of really neat ways to make your work more fun. So figuring out what that means to you, so you don’t dread it that you’re actually like, “Oh, my gosh. I can’t wait to do this activity because I’ve figured out a way.” Another great method is exploring it as an anthropologist like, “Wait, I’ve done this work the same way for five years. It’s so habituated and boring. That’s probably why it’s not fun. Could I do it in a totally different way?” Whatever that means to you. A lot of times, just that curiosity of approaching your work in a new fashion can be enough to make it fun.
[00:23:26] PF: That’s excellent. Mike, this book is so engaging. It gives us so many entry points to rediscovering fun in our lives. We’re going to tell our listeners where they can find it, where they can find some of the great quizzes, so they can identify their fun type and learn more about themselves and having fun. But before we let you go tell us, why is it so important for us to get back to having fun and not put this off anymore?
[00:23:49] MR: One, for our own wellbeing, right? There’s a clear path to psychological and physiological benefits, especially as we start to age. Not only that, but we know from Bronnie Ware and others that when we index joyful memories throughout our life, we tend to really enjoy our later years because we have so much to look back on, and we generally have better social nets too, right? Because we’ve made friends through this amazing thing.
We also know through social contagion theory that when we’re fun, we make everyone around us have more fun and live more joyful lives. So we’re not just doing it for ourselves, but we’re doing it for the ones that we love. So even if we live this dutiful life, where I want to be selfless because that’s not necessarily a poor trait, you could do it for the ones around you because when you’re more joyful, you just spread that, right? So it’s similar to kindness. Having fun is going to affect all those around you.
Once you really master it as a method, you can start to contribute to the greater good as well. It’s not just about you, but it’s really about the world at large and making the world a better place.
[00:24:53] PF: I love that. That is a great place to wrap this up. Thank you so much for coming on the show, explaining it to us, and for writing such a wonderful, insightful, and necessary book.
[00:25:05] MR: Thank you for those kind words, and thank you for having me.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:25:14] PF: That was Mike Rucker, talking about his new book, The Fun Habit: How the Pursuit of Joy and Wonder Can Change Your Life. If you’d like to learn more about Mike and his book or follow him on social media, visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast link.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.