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Live Life Love | Volume Thirty-Eight

Hi Everyone,

Last quarter I mentioned I wanted to start exploring fun and play more deeply. Certainly I have mastered the art of work, but somehow I have found fun increasingly elusive. Being the nerd I am, simply observing the benefits of fun from my daughter’s delightful play was not enough. I had to dig into the science. As such, I wrote the post: Why You Need More Fun in Your Life, According to Science. It was a self-serving assignment — something to work on, because heaven forbid I spend the time having more fun. I discovered I am not alone in experiencing the elusiveness of fun, because it was my first post to truly go viral with 100s of likes and shares. Since then I have been digging into fun, and … well … it’s been fun. There is a lot to unpack: fun; play; happiness; autonomy; flow — science reveals to us these are not tangible puzzle pieces that each have their respective place. Instead, for each of us, they are unique parts of a complex quilt that when aptly patched together making our lives more fulfilling and helping us build resilience against the bad stuff.

The truth is, sometimes life is not fun. I was thrown another curve-ball recently. I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis and had to have corrective hip surgery. I was told until science catches up with my condition, I am no longer a runner. Even just typing that out — I am no longer a runner — creates internal cognitive dissonance (i.e. it’s sucky). I can choose to let this identity change get me down, or I can adjust to new forms of fun and play. To know if change is beneficial, it is important to understand how to make personal assessments and gauge whether new adaptations are working for you (or not). This quarter, I reached out to two thought leaders in the space of self-evaluation: one a best-selling author, the other one of the leading psychological researchers at Harvard.

Business, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: The interview this quarter is with Cathy Presland about tracking progress. Cathy is considered an expert on leadership, drawing her knowledge from over 20 years of experience working with governments and international organizations. She is also an international bestseller and runs the World-Changers’ Circle program from her office in the UK. My interview with Cathy Presland is available here.

Health and Wellness: This quarter’s interview is with Matthew Nock, Ph.D., about assessing an intervention using only a single individual (i.e. n=1, self-experimentation). Matthew is a leading expert in single-case experimental design. He received the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 2011 and is currently a psychology professor at Harvard University, where he also runs the Nock Lab. My interview with Dr. Matthew Nock is available here.

Life Experience: This quarter, I traveled to Houston for Super Bowl LI. I also had hip surgery, which I alluded to earlier. Both significant life experiences — however, Houston was notably more fun than surgery, so it gets the photographic evidence.

Super Bowl LI | Houston, Texas
Super Bowl LI | Houston, Texas

Contribution: This quarter, I made donations to Tour de Cure again, as well as Little Kids Rock. More importantly, I made time to share the gift of contribution with my daughter. Sloane and I spend an afternoon at Crab Cove in Alameda, California, helping to clean up the beach there with a host of other local volunteers.

Crab Cove | Alameda, California
Crab Cove | Alameda, California

Lastly, this quarter Charlie Hoehn, author of the book “Play It Away,” found my website. When we were able to connect, it made my day. I am a fan of Charlie’s work so I wanted to finish this newsletter paying it forward and plugging a new book he is working on: Play for a Living. I am hopeful I will be able to coax him into an interview sometime in the future.

Until next time, wishing you all the fun you can handle!

In health,
Dr. Rucker

Interview with Matthew Nock about N-of-1 Experiments

Matthew Nock, Ph.D. is one of the leading experts on n-of-1 experiments and single-case experimental designs. Matthew became MacArthur Fellow in 2011 receiving the MacArthur “Genius” Award. He studied at Yale and now is a professor at Harvard where he also runs the Nock Lab. In addition to his research interests, Dr. Nock has been counsel to the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Survey Initiative, the National Institutes of Health, the American Psychological Association, as well as other prestigious health organizations.


1) Assuming I have captured the basic methods of single-case experimental design (SCED):

  1. Identification of specific target behavior
  2. Continuous and valid measurements
  3. A baseline period (data is gathered before the intervention is applied)
  4. Stability of the specific target behavior (target behavior changes only when the intervention is applied)
  5. Systematic application of intervention

What are the considerations, risks and advantages for someone partaking in self-experimentation — someone who wants to use these methods to help determine the efficacy of a new habit or practice (e.g. determining the effect of meditation on mood)?

These are the basic methods, but it is important to note there are some variations in how you would apply different types of single-case experiments. Once the intervention is applied, then something else is going to happen next, right? For instance, there is “AB-AB design” also known as “withdrawal design.” In this application, you apply the intervention, you then remove the intervention and examine whether the behavior/condition reverts to the baseline level. You then reapply the intervention — so the A state stays as baseline, the B state stays as an intervention — so you do AB, AB and measure the change.

For instance, if you wanted to see if a reward program for not smoking cigarettes worked for you. You start with cigarette smoking as your baseline. Let’s say you smoke two packs a day. Now you apply the reward (intervention). After the reward you now smoke half a pack a day. You then remove the reward (intervention), going back to baseline (smoking without a reward for not smoking), and you see if you go back to two packs a day. You then reapply the intervention (in this case the reward) in an attempt to determine that it is when, and only when, the intervention is applied that your behavior changes. This method helps you rule out alternative explanations. For instance, in this hypothetical example you rule out that you stopped smoking because of some historical event, or your wife told you she’s going to leave you if you don’t stop smoking at the exact time you started the intervention.

What you are trying to accomplish is identifying the result from the experiment is from the intervention and nothing else. You can do an AB-AB design as described, or, if you have access to other participants, you can do a multiple baseline design. In this example, the first person, they would have a one-week baseline and then you apply the intervention; the second person would have a two-week baseline, then you apply the intervention; for the third person, a three-week baseline then you apply the intervention. Again, if you can show when, and only when, you apply the intervention something has changed, you have evidence that your intervention causes change in people.

A single person can also use a multiple-baseline approach across behaviors. For instance, I am trying to change my smoking and drinking and eating. I could apply the intervention to my smoking, then apply it to my eating, and then apply it to my drinking. If I see that when, and only when, I apply the intervention my target behavior changes, it provides evidence that my intervention is effective. You can apply the multiple baseline approach across people or across behaviors.

If someone is self-experimenting, they will want to do their best to collect their own data objectively. Using these methods on yourself, you run the risk of tricking yourself into seeing something that is not there or failing to see something that is there. When it is a clinician or a researcher observing you, they are going to be, with their own objective eyes, carefully measuring some behavior of interest. If you are not carefully measuring objectively what it is you want to change, again, you might see change that is not there or fail to see change that is there. It is important to do your best to objectively measure.

The benefit of this approach is you are the one following the data. You have a real-world answer to whether or not your intervention is working. It can be just a little bit of extra work to do something like this, to quantitatively, objectively measure your own behavior. However, in my opinion, that is also a benefit: knowing what’s effective; knowing what can change your behavior at a fairly minimal cost.

2) For many, “lifestyle design” is about optimization. For example, using meditation as the hypothetical again, it appears that many find benefit from only minimal exposure (Creswell, Pacilio, Lindsay, & Brown, 2014), but one could posit the effective duration is unique to the individual. Since interventions generally come with an opportunity cost, reducing this cost has a benefit. What are some good strategies for expediting the determination of the minimum effective dose (MED) of any given intervention?

In my mind, there are two philosophies about this. One is start small, and measure carefully the effects of the small dose/intervention, and then increase, increase, increase, until you see maximum benefit(s) and then you might know how much is needed. The other is the opposite; start with the maximum dose and then work down from there. Each has pros and cons, right? It certainly depends on what it is you’re using as an intervention. If there is any toxicity associated with the intervention — drugs are an obvious example — if there are toxic side effects to an experimental drug, you would want to start very small and work up to see what is the needed dose to cause change. The benefit here is you are not exposing the subject to toxicity; the downside is it could take longer for an effect and the person could be engaging their harmful behavior, or suffer from disease, for longer intervals of time than giving them more from the onset. On the flip side, if you start with the maximum dose, you generally will know right away whether it has an effect and then you can work down from the initial amount. The downside is you are now exposing the subject to any toxic side effects from potential overdose. If you are certain the intervention does not have any toxicity and/or limited risk, I think the best thing to do is start with the maximum amount and then work down from there to see how much is needed to maintain the effect.

3) Technology is making the recording and analysis of self-experimentation more accessible. There are an abundance of consumer and condition-specific wearables for collecting data, ecological momentary assessment (EMA) protocols are accessible to anyone with a smartphone, the statistical package R is free to use — enabling anyone willing to take on the learning curve the ability to crunch their own numbers. What technology and innovation excites you in this area? And, is there anything that is currently helping democratize one’s ability to run these types of experiments?

There are a lot of tools at the ready now with smartphones and other wearable devices, so people can collect and analyze their own data quite easily. The big bridge is people often are not going to want to learn something like an open-source statistical program. Learning a statistical program like R, even though it is free, is not a minor endeavor. People want ready-made solutions to problems, so they want an app that is turnkey and ready to go. Technology that is going to monitor their behavior, apply the intervention, whatever it is … to the extent that we can create applications that bridge that gap for people, that are easy to use, people will likely use them.

So yes, there is some great open-source stuff out there, but getting someone to figure out how to collect their own data effectively, then create and apply their own intervention, learn statistics (even if it is free to do), analyze their data; wow, this basically requires an intervention in and of itself to get someone to do that.

The thing that excites me most right now is using wearable devices and smartphones to collect data about people and apply interventions that are beyond their own awareness. There are apps available now that allow us to collect data from people’s smartphones passively. We can monitor their GPS, we can monitor their sleep, we can monitor their activity level, who they’re calling, who they’re texting, who’s calling them, who’s texting them, and we may pick up information that can predict future behavior that people are not aware of themselves.

For instance, if a person’s activity level is decreasing, they have outgoing calls and texts and none are getting returned, and their sleep becomes more irregular, we might predict this person is becoming more depressed. So a condition a person may not even realize they have themselves — we can use information from their phone to help identify potential problems and deploy an intervention remotely before the condition can cause any negative effects. We now have e-interventions, smartphone interventions, where people can engage in a little quick, game-like app that they can play to try and change their behavior. The old model of going to a doctor, the doctor does an assessment and tells me I have a problem, then gives me some kind of treatment — this model is changing. We can now go out and find people who are in need of help before they know they need it, and send interventions out to them that they can use and apply themselves. We can deploy this on demand, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whenever it works for the individual.

4) You are a Harvard psychologist. You are also one of the leading experts on destructive behavior. There seems to be a resurgence of William James’ ideas lately, specifically that if we master our free will and make ourselves 100 percent accountable for our actions, this process will increase our chance of positive outcomes. Do you believe in the validity of this assertion? And, given your expertise working with people where this process might pose difficulties, what are some strategies to assist one to increase their ability to be accountable in this area?

My department resides in a building called William James Hall, so the spirit of William James is still present. The idea of holding ourselves 100 percent accountable, as it pertains to the way I am interpreting your question, comes down to the rewards and the costs of a behavior. If we want to change our own behavior, we need to accurately understand to what extent the behavior in which we are engaging is rewarding or beneficial. We also want to accurately understand what the costs involved are. We have to seriously evaluate both the rewards and cost. For instance, if I am smoking cigarettes, I probably feel good after I smoke. In this case, what are the rewards and costs of smoking? It means realizing there are benefits, but there are also significant costs engaging in the behavior. I need to weigh both, but to do so I need to accurately consider present and future elements of the behavior.

So for me, holding ourselves accountable means realistically realizing the cost and benefits of our behavior and weighing those carefully. If the costs are going to ultimately outweigh the benefits, then I think we have a chance of decreasing risky behavior. If the benefits are perceived as outweighing the costs, it is much tougher to change someone’s behavior. For instance, take a self-destructive behavior like cutting oneself or burning oneself, why would someone do that? It turns out that cutting yourself or burning yourself, for many people, removes aversive thoughts and feelings. This behavior has a benefit for them. For these people, the reward of removing these thoughts appear to outweigh the costs of seeing tissue damage, and so they engage in the behavior. Getting people to stop engaging in this behavior is a lot about figuring out other ways to get the existing benefit for alternative behaviors that do not carry such a heavy cost.

I think the same is true with smoking, drinking and overeating — as well as other problematic behaviors. These behaviors have associated rewards, but they also can come with significant costs. To make good choices, we need people to understand and appropriately weight the costs and the benefits. An important part of the process of behavior chance is to figure out ways to have people find similar benefits that do not carry the same costs of the behavior one hopes to change. The challenge is how to get yourself to feel good and/or distract yourself from aversive psychological states, without doing harm to your mind and/or body. If the spirit of your question is, “How do we increase our chance of positive outcomes?” then you can look at it as benefit-cost=outcome. To do this, you need accurate information about the behavior’s costs so you are not discounting and/or ignoring these. Then look at the behavior’s benefits and find suitable alternatives that offer comparable benefits without the associated costs of the behavior you are trying to change.

5) A young student has walked into your office and proclaimed they want to become the leading expert on self-experimentation. What are three rabbit holes you suggest they explore (i.e. ideas, concepts, models)?

Three rabbit holes they should explore …

1) Read up on the decades of research that people have done on single-case experiments and N of 1 designs. There are a lot of well-worked out-methods and approaches to measuring behavior and carefully, systematically applying an intervention to change behavior, as well as observing the effect of the intervention. When you really understand these validated methods, then you are aware when you are truly doing experimentation. We have existing study designs where one can carefully observe the outcome of self-experimentation in an empirical manner — opposed to reinventing the wheel, there are decades of existing work that one can build on, so mastering the current available literature in this area is a big one.

2) Mastering new technology. As we discussed earlier, there have been significant, recent advances in technology available to people interested in experimentation in the form of smartphones, wearable devices, the Internet and free access to educational information. We have easy access to data at our fingertips now. Through technology we can easily measure our real-world behaviors. Mastering new technology will allow a person to tap into a huge new source of objective data on our behavior.

3) Once you master experimental design and you master the latest technology, the last rabbit hole I’d suggest is how to engage and measurement your experiments. You need to figure out how you can use advances in technology to develop new interventions based on what we already know works. Questions like, “Are we effectively using carrots and/or sticks? Are there ways that we can use computers, the Internet, smartphones, wearable devices, to try and apply new interventions?” The new frontier regarding behavior change is to master the way that we try and modify people’s behavior (or modify our own behavior?). With the right creativity — coupled with an existing mastery of the first and second rabbit holes — there is a lot that can be done using the new tools that we have at our disposal. We now have the ability to apply personalized behavior-change interventions, in real-time, at scale.

There is a downside to this third rabbit hole, too, though, especially if you are building tools that help others self-experiment. There are now thousands of thousands of apps out there that are purported to improve health and well-being. However, by my reading, there is very little data to support that most of these apps are actually effective in any meaningful way. Moreover, there is little evidence to suggest that most of these apps will actually change anyone’s behavior. Worse, there is a financial incentive to create apps and to market to people, “This app will make you healthier and happier.” In my opinion, there is not a good public understanding of how to evaluate scientific evidence. That makes it difficult for most to evaluate claims about effective treatment and/or interventions. It’s the Wild, Wild West out there.

Before scientific medicine, people just created their own methods. They could sell snake oil. They could put anything in a bag or box and sell it to us as effective. Some were and some weren’t, and many times the ones that were effective, weren’t effective for the reasons that people thought. Luckily, now we have a much better infrastructure where, if you are going to sell some kind of FDA-approved medication, you have to know what is in it and show that it is effective in randomized clinical trials. It’s on you, you’ve got to have experimental data. I think of the app world as similar to the Wild, Wild West. People are now deploying things that they say are treatments and there is not a good, systematic infrastructure in place to know which ones are experimentally sound and which ones are not. Similar to the thoughts expressed in the previous question, there needs to be a clear benefit to making experimentally sound apps. This benefit could be a special designation, like FDA approval or FDA approval equivalent. Something that ensures it has been tested, with evidence showing that it works. If the app does not have that, then some kind of repercussion for the makers. Until we have that system in place, I think you will continue to see a market full of snake oil.

Interview with Cathy Presland about Tracking Progress

Cathy Presland, a former economist, runs the program World-Changers’ Circle that takes five action-takers on a 6-month journey of transformation. She is an expert on leadership, both personal and professional, and inspires people to look beyond themselves when they make their life and business decisions. Cathy draws her knowledge from over twenty years of experience working with governments and international organizations on different public policies, programs and regulations. Cathy is a respected motivational speaker, teacher, mentor, facilitator and an author. Her book, Write! Stop Waiting, Start Writing. A Step-by-step Guide to Turn What You Know into a Book, is an international bestseller and is just one of the ways Cathy is supporting people who feel they have an idea that they want to share with the world.


1) If someone is looking to create a system to track their process towards some sort of desired change and/or personal improvement, how would you coach them through building this architecture so they can successfully develop a measuring protocol that assists them with meaningful metrics that assist with experimentation and continual improvement?

I think that at the core of any kind of monitoring is the question: is the process serving the end goal? Sometimes this is just a feeling, and sometimes, it is some kind of a quantified measuring protocol. I’m not so interested in numbers; I’m interested in where we are trying to get — How can we make the process more joyful, therefore, making it easier to get to the goal, regardless of the number? In my experience, if we put a measurement around a goal too early, the number becomes more important than the result we’re aiming for and there is no scope for creativity. We’re then quick to jump to self-criticism about not hitting some made-up target which sets off a cycle of demotivation. Measurements are especially not helpful in the early stages when we are just setting up doing something. Sometimes, you first need to do something to test your theory without having to deal with the danger of negative feedback that can come from creating your own metrics. If you want quantification, do a two-week experiment and see how you feel. You can put some measurement around it later if you feel you want to move it forward. So, very rarely would I rush into measurement from the outset.

I’ve got a client at the moment, for example, who’s applied for a number of jobs, and she’s not getting the results she wants. So, we had a conversation about what else could she be spending that time doing? It transpired that it wasn’t working for her because she wasn’t really inspired by the jobs she was applying for. This was the start of an honest conversation. I’m interested in what is going on in our minds that is creating good or bad feelings. When my client has an insight, and she realizes that she wants to be doing something differently, she should just be able to go off and do it. She doesn’t necessarily need to monitor things. Too much measurement can strain your results I think. It may be just about how honest we’re being with ourselves about the things we are doing, whether the things that we’re doing are going to give us the results that we want.

2) When someone is faced with assessing a life change where the present state/status quo is comfortable and satisfactory, and the future state being evaluated is high risk but high reward (i.e. the change requires deviating from an existing desirable state) — what effective strategies, processes and/or frameworks have you found useful for individuals to use to increase the likelihood of making a successful decision?

Life is never a low-risk, high-risk situation in my experience. The future is always unknown. None of us literally knows what we’re going to be hit with personally, professionally, so to me, that is never what it’s about. The actual situation is less important. The only thing that really matters is how we’re thinking about the current situation and what moves we’re making.

I don’t have a framework I could prescribe. What I do have is a philosophy. I do think there is a place that we can come from, because, as individuals, we’re so tiny and meaningless. And, the less consideration I give to me, the more contribution I’ve got to make to one person, to my children, to my family. I try to have a discussion around what is important to the person in that coaching conversation. What is it that they feel in this moment is the right thing for them to do? It’s about removing your personality and your ego as much as possible, so you can analyze your decision in terms of these questions:

  • Am I doing this because I think I’m going to be happier in some way, which is a red flag because our feelings don’t come from our circumstances?
  • What is the greater good in this situation? What feels ‘right’?

And, at the same time, I also think that the right thing is something that we create in our imaginations. So, I don’t see that as a fixed thing; I see that as a drive, a movement, an action at this point in time.

3) In contrast to the previous question, it is my opinion (given the immense amount of advice currently available about improving performance) that people often get stuck consumed by integrating seemingly endless methods (e.g. life hacks, productivity approaches, etc.) that either act as distractions and/or worse — impede progress towards what really is desired. What is your opinion on this assertion and do you have a process with your clients on making strategic decisions on what not to do? Lastly, in this regard are there commonalities that lend themselves to general advice that would benefit most people about what not to do?

I certainly see life hacks as distractions. And, I think that they can impede progress when people give them an importance that they don’t deserve. A lot of life hacks, especially in the personal development world, are designed to try to create some kind of space. Meditation, or anything in that zone, is designed to try to create some space so we can get some clarity. But, the process often becomes an end in itself, like, “I’ve got to meditate”. And we forget that we have access to that space in our heads at any moment. Some people have found life hacks helpful, but the reality is that we don’t need them.

We’re very good at making up things that we think we want and then trying to think our way there.  We go into this cycle of over-thinking, whereas, if we actually just gave ourselves mental space, we’d probably already know what it is that we want to do. But, we just don’t accept it, or we don’t see it, or we don’t think this is it; we kind of don’t know what it looks like. So we spend a lot of time chasing things that we don’t really want to do, or things that other people have, which are completely pointless wastes of time.

People that have enough perspective to know that something is not real or is going to pass, do better in life. We need to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t. Generally, there are some things that look more real than others to people. Money is a typical example here. Many of us think money will create a feeling of security but the security comes from within us, not from something external. Similarly, doing something because it’s going to lead to something else taking an action or a path “so that…” or because there is an ulterior motive beyond the immediate is generally a wrong decision, too, and you are fooling yourselves if you are taking intermediate steps to something. If there’s something that you want to create, there’s always a more direct way to do it. For instance, “If I make lots of money, then I can create a foundation to do good in the world.” It’s like, why not just do good in the world now?

The other kind of big general thing that I will comment on is that people seem to think there is somewhere to get to. However, there’s no forward motion. It’s a real trap to believe that there is forward motion because then we’re always trying to get somewhere that we’re never going to get to. It’s just motion, in all sorts of directions and, often, that can be hard for people to conceptualize because we are so conditioned that there is a timeline in life, a journey from A to B. That’s a myth, there is only where we are now.

4) What are good indicators that it might be time to give up on a big idea/plan/goal? Using my own goal as the example, the Boston Marathon has always been a stretch goal, albeit an achievable pursuit — until recently where I was advised never to run long distances again. The Web is cluttered with advice to never give up on your dream, but science suggests this “inspirational” messaging has had some significant negative consequences. What is a suitable gauge and process for determining a goal has realistically fallen out of reach?

For me, this comes down to removing the ego from the decisions that we make. It is about heading in a certain direction and making the most of the opportunities we have rather than regretting those that are not open to us right now. It’s kind of direction versus outcome. And what is important for me is the direction and coming from a higher self … it can be difficult for us to create that separation between what we feel and what we actually decide to do. So, the higher the perspective we get on this, the easier it is to take those clear decisions. That’s where I would work with somebody. We feel what we feel; it’s not for me to tell somebody that what they’re feeling isn’t valid, because that’s what’s coming up for them. But, I will work with them in a way to show them that this isn’t meaningful in the way that they think it might be.

When a big goal falls out of reach, it doesn’t take away from you that direction that you’re heading in. For you, for example, it’s not in the cards to do the Boston Marathon anymore. Or, maybe it is. Or, maybe you can explore something else and get another route for experimentation and/or exploration. But, if you stay attached to the Boston Marathon, you’re going to lose the creativity to try out lots of different things on route to getting there. The reality is that we have very little control over what happens. We don’t know what’s around the corner; we don’t know who we’re going to meet. And, the more open and positive we are to the possibilities that are in front of us, the more fantastic things happen.

5) You run a program called World-Changers Circle. Although daring big might not be for everyone, what are some of the undervalued intangible rewards you have witnessed from those that succeed at big things?

I think that it is human nature to want to do something that goes beyond ourselves. People come to me because they want to do something meaningful, and this doesn’t have to be grandiose. Amazing things can happen when we get our egos out of the way, and these things happen faster than we expect when we do this too. You take bigger actions and make bigger asks when you’re not coming from a place of ego. There are a lot of benefits from taking a different perspective and looking differently at the world: you get calmer, have better relationships. You realize that it is actually more about how you’re looking at things rather than anything that other people have done. You realize that the world is driven internally more than externally.

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.