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We Had Fun!

After a sailboat race, it is common for crews from different boats to ask each other, “How did you do?” If the crew being questioned did well, they might say, “We came in second!” or “We were first in our division!” On the other hand, if they did poorly, a common response is “We had fun.” The expression, “We had fun” has become a euphemism for “We did crappy!” While it might not be as good as winning, it at least shows a healthy attitude and an attempt to make the best of the situation.

I have coached many sailing teams, and a question I often ask is “Are you here to win, or are you here to have fun?” With a few exceptions, (maybe 5%) the answer has been overwhelmingly to win. But guess what, winning is fun, and it is usually the most fun. What is it about winning that makes it fun? I share two ideas below about what makes things fun.

The first idea is that things are fun when they reinforce our ego. Winning a race, building the tallest Jenga tower, mastering a new chord on the guitar, or socializing with friends are all fun because they reinforce our sense of competence or self-worth. Ego-reinforcing experiences can be both social and non-social. The creative introvert can have fun working alone for hours on a painting that no one else will see. It’s fun because the effort gives them a sense of agency and competence. Meanwhile, the winner at a poker game is having fun through their own form of self-validation. In this case it is winning through competition that gives them pleasure.

As a young athlete, it was first about having fun; then it was about winning. —Dan O'Brien, American Decathlete

The second idea is that we have fun through activities of discovery. These activities can include surprises, like those found in humor or a magic show, exploration of new places and things, sensory discoveries like sky diving, or when we are very young, a game of peek-a-boo. It is likely that evolutionarily we enjoy discovery activities because they encourage us to learn, become better adapted to our world, and find useful resources. This second category of fun may even collapse into the first, insofar as our ego is reinforced through the accumulation of knowledge and experience. Not sure? Consider the know-it-all who pegs their worthiness on their recitation of facts.

Returning to the racing example, there is a reframing of friendly competition that many people find useful. In this framing, the goal is not to better the other team, but to better your own previous performance, using your competition to challenge you. This approach can lead to a healthier, more cooperative, and less insecure competitive environment, and is the ethos portrayed by the Pacific Cup’s billing when it calls itself The Fun Race to Hawaii.

In summary, it’s fun to have fun, and having fun helps us to grow and improve. As we mature, we can increase the sophistication of our activities, but that’s no reason to stop having fun!


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