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Can You Really be Addicted to Fun?

Hello, my name is Mike Rucker, and I am a fun addict.

This should not surprise anyone. I pretty much have been my whole life. Admittedly, this passion has gotten me into trouble from time to time. For me, channeling this obsession by creating better user experiences (UX) grounds my passion with a purpose. I want people to enjoy what they are doing. I want people to have more fun.

Can You Really be Addicted to Fun?

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for things that are initially described as “fun” to turn into addictions — and, at extremes, pathological obsessions. For instance, neuroscience has shown us that the brain structure changes in people who obsessively play video games (but who are not yet considered addicted). In these individuals, the volume of the player’s gray matter increases in their left ventral striatum — an area of our brain associated with both reward/pleasure and addiction (Kuhn et al., 2011). This region of our brain is also known for being rich in dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter) and is connected with the pursuit of desired experiences. It should be no surprise that dopamine has been playfully described as the sex, drugs and rock and roll neurotransmitter, as all three of these activities affect dopamine in the brain — so does sugar and gambling (Avena, Rada, & Hoebel, 2008).

Considering the role dopamine plays in experiencing pleasure, it is not that difficult to understand how addictive behaviors (that release dopamine) can evolve out of initially pleasurable and fun experiences. Having fun in a healthy manner is a rewarding endeavor. Moreover, the allure of fun can motivate us, at least at the onset, to dare big and pursue worthy goals.

Too Much of a Good Thing

“Behavioral” addictions have now been widely recognized as non-substance addictions (that can also develop with or without substance addictions). Neuroimaging techniques and recent research show that it is not only alcohol and recreational drugs that are addictive. Behavioral addictions trigger the same fundamental responses in the body as, for example, cocaine (Grant et al., 2010).

A lot of common activities have the potential to become addictive, though the topic of what behaviors can be considered behavioral addictions is still open for (popular and scientific) debate (Grant et al., 2010). The word addiction has a Latin origin that translates as “bound to” or “enslaved by.” In general terms: I have been addicted to running; I am a recovering addict to travel; I would like to think I am addicted to trying to be a good father and friend.

There is perhaps a fine line between something being an enjoyable activity that brings us fulfillment and an activity that we become dependent on and/or use as a technique for escapism — a distraction that can stand in the way of dealing with real-life situations and feelings. Like Airbnb and Everlast executive Chip Conley recently discussed with me about those that get trapped roaming from one festival to the next looking for fun, “… if you just constantly go to festivals because you cannot live your normal life, or live in real life and/or you are searching for a utopian experience … festivals always come to an end. If you are going to festivals as a way to vacate in some manner, I think you need to ask yourself, ‘What could I do in my ‘normal’ life to make it better?’”

In this context, you can interchange festival attendance with whatever you do for fun. I think Chip’s wisdom applies to all of us in a broader context.

Escapism is a well-known phenomenon in psychology that is often described in conjunction with addictive behaviors. In my youth, especially during my years in high school, I levitated to mood-altering experiences to avoid my boredom and loneliness. I certainly was not alone in this pursuit. Unfortunately, many often continue down this path even when they are aware they’re not getting to the crux of their problem (Reid et al., 2011). And like many, I am still not out of the woods. I traded counterproductive vices for more productive ones … entrepreneurship, Ironmans, this neurotic writing habit. Long distance running or a 2-hour session at the gym can be paradoxically both healthy and unhealthy — just because an activity is marketed to you as healthy does not mean it is being put to use for its intended purpose. Psychologists believe that escapism can become harmful when you start splitting your world into two versions: the real version and the version that is connected with the activity you frivolously pursue (Ohno, 2016). Jesse Israel’s post on his wellness hangover does a great job highlighting this phenomenon.

Furthermore, as modern life becomes more and more stressful and demanding, there is a whole new level of “mind-programming” going on (facilitated by the media and society) that tells us we need to constantly have fun just to make life bearable. A new generation of pleasure seekers has emerged, and they are not necessarily having fun — they are redlining their psyche as they battle cry, “turn down for what.”

In their recent book Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal estimate that we spend over 4 trillion (yes, with a ‘t’) dollars on various types of escapism. As such, questioning the reasons and motives for us having fun is, therefore, a relevant pursuit. A lot of my livelihood, especially as it pertains to UX design, is providing fertile ground for people like yourself to have fun experiences. Maximizing fun is a personal passion, but it needs to coexist with my personal value of not causing harm.

Hedonism vs. Ego Depletion — an Evolutionary Perspective

In my interview with Chip, Chip juxtaposes pleasurable experiences that are guided by hedonistic self-interest with experiences that give you a sense of being a part of something greater than yourself (and that move you beyond your own selfish needs) — collective effervescence. Both types of experience can be a source of fun. However, while the first takes you to your basic instincts, the latter has the ability to enable you to transcend your ego.

Hedonism and hedonistic activities have traditionally been considered a special variety of egoism. Philosophers talk of psychological hedonism. This refers to engaging in certain activities because we believe that they will lead to the fulfillment of a desire that will promote our pleasure, or, alternatively, will help us avoid pain (Garson, 2016). This type of fun has instant gratification, but it also has its faults.

Of important note, from an evolutionary standpoint, a strong argument has been made against hedonism. Philosopher Elliot Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson, the authors of Unto Others, argue that hedonists are likely not good at child-rearing and that such behavior can be energetically costly — hence evolution has probably prioritized altruists (Sober & Wilson, 1998). Natural selection has promoted behaviors that are reliable, available through genetic mutations, and energetically efficient.

Those in the constant pursuit of fun through hedonists’ means might not fare that well in the long run if they constantly run around seeking their own pleasure (without considering others, especially their offspring). When we blend psychology, biology, anthropology and philosophy — care for others and selfless behavior somewhat surprisingly emerge as important features of human nature that, according to Sober and Wilson, have developed through natural selection.

In Defense of Hedonism

Associate professor Justin Garson, a philosopher of biology from Hunter College, explains another form of hedonism, which he refers to as “reinforcement hedonism” or R-hedonism (as opposed to inferential hedonism or I-hedonism, which is the more egoistic type described above). In this type of psychological hedonism, we have fun from just thinking about the satisfaction of a desire. In Garson’s view, hedonism does not need to be linked only to your own hedonistic desires; it can expand to the welfare of others as well (Garson, 2016). For instance, you can derive great pleasure thinking about the possibility of world peace — which is a very non-egoistic desire that could be considered closer to altruism. Dr. Raj Raghunathan, professor at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas, Austin, also suggests that having fun can bring you closer to being more altruistic, happy, healthy, productive and creative. In his view, it is important to have fun, in a way that specifically works for you (for more on that, see my discussion with Raj).

Can you really have too much fun or be addicted to fun?

There is a body of evidence that too much of anything can be harmful, and any addiction has the potential to psychologically enslave you in some way. A hard truth is that our time on this rock is finite — so you probably do not need this perspective from a psychologist to intuitively know that if we overly commit to one pursuit, we will likely live an unbalanced life.

A strong indication that “fun” of any sort has become a problem is if you start having diminished control over your behavior and experience undesirable consequences, as these are common characteristics of addiction (Grant et al., 2010). Also, the distinction between fun and escapism is not always clear-cut and requires some deep reflection on your part. It is up to you to decide if the pursuit of fun has become counterproductive. Make no mistake, fun is an important ingredient of a meaningful and happy life. However, since I am advocating a life full of fun, I have felt compelled to provide an important service announcement: a dose of mindfulness might be required if/when fun gets in the way of you living. In fact, it might be one of only a handful of ways an ecstatic life can truly be reached.

Sources & further reading:

Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20–39. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019

Garson, J. (2016). Two types of psychological hedonism. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, 567-14. doi:10.1016/j.shpsc.2015.10.011

Grant, J. E., Potenza, M. N., Weinstein, A., & Gorelick, D. A. (2010). Introduction to Behavioral Addictions. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 36(5), 233–241.

Kuhn, S., Romanowski, A., Schilling, C., Lorenz, R., Morsen, C., Seiferth, N., & … Gallinat, J. (2011). The neural basis of video gaming. Translational Psychiatry, 1. doi:10.1038/tp.2011.53

Ohno, S. (2016). Internet escapism and addiction among Japanese senior high school students. International Journal of Culture & Mental Health, 9(4), 399. doi:10.1080/17542863.2016.1226911

Reid, R. C., Li, D. S., Lopez, J., Collard, M., Parhami, I., Karim, R., & Fong, T. (2011). Exploring Facets of Personality and Escapism in Pathological Gamblers. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 11(1), 60-74. doi:10.1080/1533256X.2011.547071

Sober, E., & Wilson, D. S. (1998). Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.