What is Fun? The Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D) defines fun as “amusement, especially lively or playful.” As an adjective, the word is described as “amusing, entertaining, enjoyable.” “For fun” or “for the fun of it” means “not for a serious purpose.”
The standard definition of fun suggests some overlap with the concept of play. In fact, these two words are often mentioned together (e.g. fun and games). However, play often appears to be the overarching term, where fun is more specific to experiencing enjoyment. For example, when defining play, play researcher Scott Eberle, Ph.D., writes that fun is one of the basic elements of play. He also observes that we play because the act of play promises fun. If there were no fun in play, we would likely not play (Eberle, 2014). This suggests a relationship between the concepts of fun and play, a possible causality perhaps: fun is a natural byproduct of play — fun is intrinsic to play. Eberle also argues that although there are many ways to develop knowledge, self-assurance and vigor, none of them are as fun as play.
Another academic concept that is used when discussing fun is “flow.” When Gayle Privette of the University of West Florida attempted to distinguish between peak experience, peak performance and flow, she defined peak experience as mystic and transpersonal, peak performance as transactive and flow as having fun (Privette, 1983).
Casual and Academic References to Fun
Definitions of fun are generally discussed as a result of an act and/or engaging in activity. Some authors focus on the fun side of things/activities and talk about the hedonic aspects of certain activities. As such, in academic writing, fun is often equated with hedonism. For instance, Barry Babin, William Darden, and Mitch Griffin (1994) took the hedonistic value of shopping (e.g. shopping for fun) and contrasted it with shopping’s utilitarian value, which is more concerned with usefulness and task completion. Utilitarian shopping can almost be regarded as work. Shopping for fun, on the other hand, is personal, subjective to the shopper and often entails playfulness. The participant values the experience itself because the endeavor is entertaining. In short, many activities can be analyzed for their ability to induce fun — emphasizing entertainment and enjoyment of the process rather than its practical value.
When activity is done for fun, it often involves increased arousal, perceived freedom, fantasy fulfillment and escapism (Hirscham, 1983). The saying “time flies when you’re having fun” indicates that the concept is also connected with our perceptions of temporality and can influence the subjective component of time. This popular anecdote is a cultural artifact that further alludes that flow and fun are related social constructs.
People sometimes also talk about “short-term fun” and contrast it with “long-term gains,” suggesting that fun could obliterate the lasting success of an individual. Fun and play often get negative press, especially when adults engage in fun activities excessively. It sometimes gets implied that people’s efficiency and productivity could decline if they overtly prioritized fun. Modern research, however, does not support that negative proposition of fun (e.g. R. Fluegge-Woolf, 2014).
Can Fun Be Universally Defined?
Although fun is often connected with play, few would argue play is the only time we have fun. For instance, for many, work can be fun as well. A task like gardening can be perceived as monotonous to one person while being perceived as fun by another. But, does work cease to be work if we have fun? Actually, fun in the workplace is increasingly being researched. Researchers are exploring strategies that help make our work lives more fun. For instance, there are evolving applications of gamification. Gamifying work involves creating strategic tactics in an attempt to make arduous tasks more fun. New studies have confirmed that a fun work environment creates more productive and creative employees, therefore showing that both parts of the “work hard, play hard” phrase can actually coexist (R. Fluegge-Woolf, 2014).
Your perception of whether something is fun depends on your mindset, ability and skills, the environment as well as those around you (your relationships). For example, taking public transportation can be a tedious, mind-numbing activity. If you’re headed to a concert with a group of friends, though, it can be the ride of a lifetime: spending time together, chatting while excitedly anticipating the show — in laymen terms, “a ton of fun.”
What is clear is that fun is a subjective construct. What seems fun to one person might be perceived differently by somebody else. Therefore, perhaps the most relevant question is: How do you define fun? What is fun to you?
OK, to all you non-parents out there … I am going to go out on a limb here and share a secret held by us on the other side — misery loves company, so when one of us tells you, “My children are the best thing that has ever happened to me,” or some similar thinly veiled ploy to have you come join us in Suckville — don’t you believe it! The reality is we likely miss you dearly, yet there is no reasonable escape from the trap of our new reality, and our only hope is to trick you to come along. Like someone drowning — clinging on for dear life — we are ready to take you down with us. Therefore, it should be no surprise that a recent study out of the Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis by Leslie Ashburn-Nardo suggests child-free adults consistently face moral outrage by their childbearing counterparts. The hard truth is, many of us dream about our prior lives sans kids. Often kids aren’t fun and many of us long for pieces from our previous autonomous lives.
Joking aside, I love my kids. There are moments when it is really fun being a parent. My kids bring me occasional joy; they most certainly give my life a sense of meaning and purpose that was not there before. Like many other parents, I do my best to juggle priorities and sacrifice my own needs for theirs. Being a psychology geek, I truly enjoy watching them develop and thrive. Parenthood gives me a sense of accomplishment; there is no question I love my kids. Surely, I must be happier with two little bundles of joy in my life. Right? Right?!?
The Parenting Happiness Gap
Not according to science; research studies from different parts of the developed world have been suggesting for some time now that people with kids are less happy than their non-parent counterparts. So if you have been struggling with the self-actualization that your new life parenting is not as fun as you thought it would be … don’t stress, you are in good company. Those who have read Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness or All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior are probably already familiar with some of the previous science. Important to note, this does not mean that parents are (necessarily) unhappy. It just verifies that there is a happiness gap between the two groups. To put it more bluntly, when your ex-drinking buddy tells you, “My kids make me so happy,” they’re probably full of shit. This is especially true here in the United States. More than other countries in the world, there appears to be a strong link between parenthood and lower emotional well-being in the United States.
I’m not trying to be a polemicist. As I previously suggested, there is an abundance of research to support this claim (see Glass, Simon, & Andersson, 2016 for a comprehensive list of studies). For example, research published in 2005 in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior suggests that having children is associated with decreased mental health. This work also suggests parents reporting significantly higher levels of depression than their childfree counterparts.
There is a gender bias to these statistics due to hormonal issues associated with postpartum phenomena. However, these effects are observed in both men and women (Evenson & Simon, 2005). Cohabiting with dependent children is a period of parenthood that has been associated with the highest degree of stress levels (this goes for both genders); of this group, parents with minor children are the ones who usually experience the highest time and energy demands (Evenson & Simon, 2005).
“Don’t Worry, it Gets Better” Might Be a Lie, Too
According to Ranae Evenson of Vanderbilt University and Robin Simon of Florida State University, even empty-nesters have trouble reaching the levels of happiness experienced by non-parents. This is unfortunate interesting since many people believe that once their children are all grown, parenthood is more enjoyable. A meta-analytic review published in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests that, after having children, couples actually report being less satisfied with their marital relationship compared with non-parents (Twenge, Campbell, & Foster, 2003). Twenge, Campbell and Foster conclude that lower marital satisfaction might be due to new role conflicts from the change in family dynamics, as well as the increased autonomy that comes with the empty nest. In other words, you wake up from Suckville and realize you still want to go to Burning Man, only to discover your partner would now rather watch “The Good Wife” reruns.
In a nutshell, science shows us (once again) what we already know but for some reason decided to kid ourselves about: being a parent is hard fucking work. While fantasizing about the birth of a child, we usually look forward to personal gratification, meaning and purpose, but these positive emotions are fleeting and ultimately get eclipsed by the vast variety of stressors associated with childcare. These underestimated stressors can often lead to a poorer sense of well-being (Umberson & Gove, 1998).
United States + Kids = Suck
From all over the globe, those who romanticize parenthood still acknowledge the stressors connected with parenting, but it seems like parenting is especially hard here in the United States. I have dug into the research, and stress theory has failed to explain why American parents feel worse than their counterparts in other countries (Glass, Simon, & Andersson, 2016). Many experts agree that the reason American parents report less happiness than parents in other countries is a lack of parenting support (when compared to collectivist cultures) and the lack of support offered by governmental programs (e.g. family leave, significant tax breaks, etc.). While in some developed countries, childbearing brings a number of social and financial benefits — well, let’s face it, the United States simply fails miserably here.
A group of researchers looked into resources provided to parents in different countries and examined whether the happiness gap between parents and non-parents was smaller in countries that provided more family assistance. They confirmed that the (distal) source of parenting stress generally originated in the respective countries’ social, economic and policy constraints. They referred to this as the macro-level cause for parental negative emotions. Their analysis showed that out of 22 OECD countries, the greatest happiness gap between parents and non-parents was experienced in the United States.
In fact, us American parents report being 12 percent less happy than those without children. In contrast, countries that provided more resources and social support for parents (paid work leave, work flexibility, subsidized childcare) generally had a smaller disparity in happiness between parents and non-parents. Truth be told, in some countries (e.g. Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Russia), parents actually reported being as happy (even slightly happier sometimes) as their non-parent counterparts (Glass, Simon, & Andersson, 2016).
Another factor is parenting does not have the social value and esteem attached to it that it did 50 years ago. We can now decide for ourselves when to have children. That is why some social scientists argue that when we compare people with children to non-parents, we are in fact comparing two groups of people who made different choices and have different attributes and preferences. Admittedly, the science here is as messy. It might, therefore, be more relevant to compare people’s happiness before and after they have had kids.
Professor Andrew Clark of the Paris School of Economics and his team are currently working on the book The Origins of Happiness, which is looking at the determinants of well-being in four countries: the United States, Germany, Australia and the U.K. They presented some of their findings at the Wellbeing Conference 2016 which was held last December and was organized by the OECD and the London School of Economics (LSE). After four years of following new parents, their preliminary findings reaffirm that parenthood does not improve subjective well-being in the long run. The positive effects only last for the first 12 months after the baby is born. Unfortunately, after that, the well-being score of parents starts to decline.
Is Being a Happy Parent Possible?
OK, so parenting can suck … but here we are … and we love our kids … so WTF should we do? The good news is parenthood does offer many opportunities for some of the most worthwhile moments of your life. We lose a lot of autonomy as parents, but we can choose to bring more joy into our lives through our children. A study led by Katherine Nelson, a psychologist from the University of California, Riverside, shows us again what we already intuitively know — that the relationship between parenthood and well-being is very complex. It is influenced by so many factors, including: parenting style, emotional bonds between the parents, the child’s temperament and age…
When evaluating parental happiness, we should look at the whole context; it is important to observe why and how we, as parents, become more or less happy. If we have “bought in,” we can experience positive emotions through our enhanced social roles (Nelson, Kushlev, & Lyubomirsky, 2014).
Moreover, to counter the somewhat negative research on parenthood, Nelson and her colleagues demonstrated (in three studies) that parents (especially fathers — go dads!) can be happier and experience more meaning in life compared to non-parents (Nelson, Kushlev, English, Dunn & Lyubomirsky, 2013). So, being a happy parent is in the cards, if you are ready to work.
Let’s explore how:
Allow Time for Unstructured Play
Play is a source of happiness for kids, as well as adults. It is baffling to me that kids seem like they’re continually being deprived of free play. We’ve become too dystopian. Some of the silliest fights I have with my wife are about my kids going outside because they might get dirty. “Yeah, no shit, that is part of the fun of going outside.”
Statistics show American children (as well as children in other developed nations) have less and less free time to engage in free play activities. Our kids’ lives are increasingly highly structured and controlled. There are reasons for this, sure, but I want you to think about some of your favorite childhood memories for a moment … they probably involve at least some images of unstructured play, shenanigans with friends, moments of a carefree existence … moments when you were not directed, because you were a kid!
How does this make me happier? If we are always helicoptering over our kids (more on that later), we have less autonomy. Autonomy makes us happy. Furthermore, Professor Peter Gray argues that the decline of free play importantly contributes to an increase in different psychopathologies among young people, including: anxiety, depression, narcissism and difficulty focusing (Gray, 2011). In his writing, Gray (2014) suggests that children need to be allowed time to play freely, with other children, and away from adults. So when we eliminate the autonomy out of our lives, and the lives of our children, we create a perpetual death spiral. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but your parenting style might be part of the problem.
We need to give children some space to express their personality, learn, develop their skills and build social interactions. In his book, Free to Learn, Gray further explores these concepts and looks for ways to improve children’s happiness and the potential to learn.
The first rule of being happy (and raising a happy person) appears to be giving your kid some space. Let them play freely and get absorbed in some self-directed activity that has not been organized for them. It is good to have fun with your kids, but if one or both of you are not having fun anymore, it is counterproductive. Letting your kid free play also helps you recharge and have more fun during the time you do share experiences.
Don’t Make Play Your Duty
When you do play with your kids, avoid engaging in it as a sense of obligation. Play should be fun for everyone involved. Otherwise, it is not play. Hey … I get it, singing “Frozen” karaoke for the nth time isn’t your idea of fun.
Our interests, energy, humor are different than our children … you don’t need a Ph.D. behind your name to observe that. This makes it difficult to bridge the age gap in parent-child play, but you can get creative if you try. Gray (2014) suggests finding ways that fit the abilities and interests of the parent and the child. This strategy is going to be specific to your family. For me, I have gotten my 5-year-old into rock climbing and running. Do what works for yours.
Consider the Implications of Helicopter Parenting on Well-Being
Terri LeMoyne and Tom Buchanan of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga explored the style of “helicopter parenting” on a sample of college students. They found that helicopter parenting can have a negative effect on children; lowering their levels of well-being and making them feel more negative about themselves. Children of helicopter parents are also more likely to take medications for anxiety and/or depression (LeMoyne & Buchanan, 2011). Ill effects of over-parenting were also shown in other studies. For instance, one led by Chris Segrin of the University of Arizona, Tucson, highlighted that helicopter parenting can lead to child having difficulty in relating to others (Segrin et al., 2014). Science shows us that although a caring and genuine relationship is essential for our children’s well-being, they (and we) will probably be happier if we give them less direction. Again, make sure your parenting style is not the culprit. When the time is right to play with your kids, let them guide you and generally only intervene for reasons of safety and security.
Don’t Take Life Too Seriously, No One Gets Out Alive Anyways
If you constantly strive to be a flawless parent, then my guess is you are probably not having much fun anyway. Having parental standards is important, but try your best not to turn this into perfectionism. There are rewards for being a flexible parent. Studies show that authoritarian parents who are high on demands and low on responsiveness tend to have children who have low self-esteem and are overly worried about making mistakes (Hibbard & Walton, 2014). Nicholas Affrunti and Janet Woodruff-Borden from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville also suggest that parental perfectionism and over-control can be risk factors for the development of child anxiety (Affrunti & Woodruff-Borden, 2015). So embrace your silly side.
Deploy a little healthy code-switching and become a kid yourself during play. The practice can be healthy for all involved. There is inherent fun in getting silly and laughing with someone. You both release oxytocin, which in turn creates strong bonds with each other, which in turn makes you feel good — plus a host of other benefits that contribute to the well-being of both parent and child.
Create Fun Rituals
This is one I have borrowed from my best friend Micah and his family. I am trying to get better at this one, but it the spirit of authenticity I must admit I have failed a bit here. The recognition that routine “family time” is important for family relations and well-being is well-established. Weekends play an important and beneficial role in the lives of many families in this regard — they give us more time to do things together. Rosalina Pisco Costa, a sociologist working at the University of Évora in Portugal, writes about the creation of “special time and space” and family rituals. Family rituals can center around different things (celebrations, greetings, trips) and involve the stages of anticipation, experience as well as conclusion (Costa, 2014). Costa also cites the work of Imber-Black and Roberts (1998) who suggested that “rituals give us places to be playful, to explore the meaning of our lives, and to rework and rebuild family relationship” (p.4). Fun rituals are something we can consider including in our family life to experience the emotional benefits they bring. Circling back to Micah and his family, they invested in a boat knowing that the significant cost would ensure that maritime activities, such as weekly sleepovers on the new boat, would become the norm and create endearing memories for all.
I am not suggesting you go out and buy a boat. I am suggesting you make family time a habit by engaging in a family ritual the whole family enjoys.
Invest in Experience, not Things
I feel like this has been covered well recently by others (see: Buy Experiences, Not Things or The Science Behind Why You Should Spend Money on Family Holidays Instead of Toys) and is almost a cliché topic now, but it is still worth a mention. Investing in experience over things builds memories that all parties can relish. Furthermore, since you likely have some control of your family’s resources, choosing an experience over buying another toy interjects some autonomy back in your life. We know the benefits from experience last longer than the gratification derived from most tangible things. Moreover, you don’t have to succumb to the pressure of going to a child-centered destination like Disneyland for your family vacation. What is an experience that would create an enjoyable, lasting memory for all involved? If you plan your vacations accordingly, you can mitigate the ill-conceived adage: children make a family, but destroy the marriage. Pick a location where the tips from 1-5 (above) are baked in. For instance, you could choose an all-inclusive resort that has a kid’s club so there are opportunities for family fun, as well as intimate time with your partner while your kid is at play. Fun for all!
The Days Are Long, But The Years Are Short
If you are lucky enough to find unwavering fun in being a parent … I am happy to hear that unicorns exist … something for me to strive for. For the rest of us, we tell our friends, “Don’t worry, it gets better,” because it can … especially if we are able to parent mindfully. Life is about moments, and as parents we have committed to a lot of those moments being with our kids. Either by choice or lack of family planning, these moments are not just ours anymore; however, we still hold a few cards and we can influence our environment and our family time to maximize our ability to have fun and be happy (along with our kids).
Parenthood can easily become a shitshow at times, but we have more control over that than we think. The days are long, but the years are short — we might as well stack the deck in our favor, so in our final days we have a lifetime of fun memories and we can relish in a family life lived happily.
I live on the island of Alameda, California — here on the island there is a place that has begun to wear on me. It’s called Pump It Up, a favorite among local parents for children’s birthday parties, and there is nothing inherently bad about this place. I suppose selfishly I do not like it because I have not connected with many people in the parent circle of my kids … and this type of event is solely for our kids. It is boring and no longer novel (because of the amount of times we’ve all been there), and I find myself questioning my existence every time it is my turn on the rotation to take one (or both) of my children to one of these parties. (I wonder if my parents had a similar disdain for Chuck E. Cheese?)
Since I am a psychology geek, I do take solace that these parties provide fertile ground to ponder the value of friendships. One, because it is a fascinating place to watch the storming, norming, forming marvels of childhood. Two, since my children are preoccupied, the experience gives me the space to mindfully explore my own loneliness and my lack of sensibilities in building rapport with strangers (i.e. the other care givers that somehow pulled the short straw that day). The recent resurgence and virality of Harvard’s Grant and Glueck study (which, in part, indicates that men with happier childhoods likely have stronger relationships in old age) has had me recently pondering these subjects more deeply than usual.
Please do not get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t want to be friends with the parents of my kid’s friends. On the contrary, science backs up the notion that good friends can be one of life’s greatest gifts. Alas, I suspect at least half of you reading this are better at building and preserving close relationships than me. If one’s ability to acquire friends has a standard distribution, I am for certain on the losing end of the bell curve. I have always been an odd ball. My psyche is staffed by Tim Burton characters — witty, funny, yet flawed and weird looking. These characters don’t stay in the cage long during cocktail conversations, and they get apathetic easily — they’re looking for wit and humor on the other end, not another conversation about child rearing and my day job. I do have a script for the latter, but it is long and boring. Once this script is triggered, I have literally had parents simply walk away as I meekly fade out my dialogue, embarrassed that I have killed yet another one.
At the risk of doing that to you here, let me get on with it. I know I have to try harder. In her book Friendships Don’t Just Happen, Shasta Nelson points out that making, keeping and changing friends is perhaps one of our most important skills. In reality, I think there are a lot of people like me that feel “developing” friends can be a messy proposition. I, for one, remember reading the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and then putting it down feeling almost as dirty as I did when completing The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. Authenticity is a personal value of mine, so I don’t want to boil down making friends to a “system” — so at these parties I have stopped trying and instead navel gaze while watching the kids play…
Parents have a significant influence on who our kids will be friends with
Different aspects of a child’s personality can be assessed simply by observation (e.g. self-control, self-esteem, mood, relationships with others and self-reliance). I personally look for self-reliance in my kids since it correlates with success. Self-reliance has been defined by Diana Baumrind, a researcher of human development from the University of California, Berkeley, as ‘the ability of the child to handle his[/her] affairs in an independent fashion relative to other children his [or her] age.’ Things to foster in kids in this regard are: ease of separation from you, willingness to be alone at times, leadership interest and ability, as well as pleasure in learning new tasks. Research by Baumrind (1967) shows that the parenting style that resulted in well-developed self-reliance includes being firm, loving, demanding and understanding. I think my wife and I are doing the best we can here, and building this self-reliance will hopefully lead our kids to more secure friendships.
Less is known about the influence friends and peers have on our child’s development
We know as our kids move through developmental stages, they become increasingly dependent on peer relationships and peer communication. There is little doubt we also influence this. Salient connections have been found between the relationship we have with our kids when compared to their later relationships with friends, as well as with their future romantic partners (Farley & Kim-Spoon, 2014). For instance, one longitudinal study found that adolescents who were insecurely attached to their fathers were more likely to develop an insecure attachment to their best friends. Similarly, insecure attachment to mothers led to more insecure attachments to romantic partners later in life (Doyle, Lawford, & Markiewicz, 2009). Clearly, building strong bonds with our kids is important, because ultimately they get the final decision who they keep as friends.
Why does friendship matter for our kids?
How our children evolve getting along with their peers can be an important predictor of their academic success. North American studies show that children who have a better relationship with their classmates perform better in school, and peer acceptance and attachment have been linked to academic achievement (Kingery, Erdley, & Marshall, 2011). Kids with a bigger social network have more opportunities for engagement, encouragement and support. An extensive literature review by Burack and colleagues showed that children with more positive peer relations also show more prosocial behavior, self-esteem and perceived support, and are less likely to develop depression, aggression and anxiety (Burack et al., 2013). Close relationships with peers have been found to provide children with a safe base from which he or she can explore and develop (Laible, Carlo, & Raffaelli, 2000).
Why does friendship matter for us?
I am in my 40s now. Unfortunately, a simple truth is that once parenthood hits it gets more difficult to connect with others. There is a really good 2012 New York Times article by Alex Williams where he examines the topic of making friends as an adult. Williams points out to make close friends three conditions need to be fulfilled: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages interactions that can be confidential. Unfortunately, these conditions are often difficult to fulfill once we have a job, a partner and/or a family.
Do I work too hard to have friends?
Some authors wonder if becoming successful results in having less contact with family and friends, which could create a sense of loneliness – ‘the top is not a crowded place’ (Reinking, & Bell, 1991). However, various scientific studies contradict the notion it is lonely at the top. Those who hustle actually have reported less loneliness compared to those that work fewer hours in comparison (Bell et al., 1990), and another study from the 1990s looked at people’s position in organizational hierarchy (which was interpreted as a level of success) and their corresponding loneliness. The findings support the premise that employees working at higher levels of an organizational hierarchy are not lonelier when compared to those working at lower levels (Reinking, & Bell, 1991). This is further supported by a recent Harvard Business Review article currently making the rounds: Does Work Make You Happy? Evidence from the World Happiness Report.
Conclusion: True friendships are invaluable
The final act of a Pump It Up party is the cutting of the cake. It is at this point I generally find myself pinching my leg until it is time to leave. The uneasiness reminds me I miss adult parties with my own friends; but the truth is this is self-inflicted misery — merely a by-product of not prioritizing pre-existing relationships accordingly. I can do better. Kid’s parties, whether I like them or not, are also important for developing good social habits in my children. The influence I yield about viewpoints on friendship influences my children’s behaviors and characteristics. It will develop how they relate to their peers. Science tells me children with more secure attachments, develop more secure friendships. My children’s ability to connect with their peers will likely influence their academic achievement since being accepted by your peers is correlated with academic success. I also know that the simple truth I am mindful of all of this means no matter how bad I fuck up (and I will), they’ll probably turn out okay.
As we grow older, for many (myself included) it is simply difficult to meet new people who become close friends, so we revere early relationships which provide us the positive support and encouragement we need to continue to develop and grow. Those that get my newsletter know my little brother recently passed away. If it was not for the support of my best friend from college, Micah, I don’t think I would have made it. If you are familiar with Dunbar’s work, then you already know science says we can only have five close friends anyway; if true, I’m truly a lucky man Micah is one of them.
We need the bonds of friendship to flourish. The presumption that people who work more become detached from their family and friends has not been supported by science, so this cannot be used as an excuse. We can, however, do a better job staying connected to old friends no matter what the distance and circumstances. As the findings from the Grant and Glueck study suggest, it might be one of the best things we can do for our well-being.
So … maybe it’s time to get the gang back together, tap a keg, and rent a bounce house suitable for adults? We won’t let the kids in, they can sit outside, bored; let them talk about how silly and annoying we are for a change.
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):
Identification of specific target behavior
Continuous and valid measurements
A baseline period (data is gathered before the intervention is applied)
Stability of the specific target behavior (target behavior changes only when the intervention is applied)
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.
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.