The Gratitude Challenge’s nineteenth topic is “Fun”.
Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen (Business before pleasure)
Many of us are probably raised with this ideology in mind, where leisure needs to subordinate to work by any means. Shaped by Christian work ethics, I tend to feel guilty for having fun. If it’s fun, it implies that I’m not really working; if I’m not really working it means that I’m lazy. And lazy is bad.
The idea of “being productive” makes me feel good, I try to combine supposedly “worthless” activities with something “productive”: Doing something as lazy as watching a movie? Definitely only if it’s in a foreign language and while doing some physical exercise at the same time. I gradually became a bit more aware how “doing nothing” is anything but useless. Doing everything at once might give me a feeling of achievement, but it is actually less productive than doing one thing at a time: Going for a run wile listening to language learning podcasts was something I tried for a while in my eagerness to get things done, but I quickly realized how I neither remember what was said in the podcast, nor will the run be very pleasant.
I think that one prerequisite for having fun is to be present – something we cannot be when multitasking. Being present at the same time allows us to be productive, so maybe fun and productivity can go hand in hand after all?
What is “fun”?
Yesterday I met a friend for lunch. As we finished our meal, he asked me if I would like to join him to a boardgame café where he planned to solve a jigsaw puzzle together with two other friends. Maybe it would be a great exercise for me to be present and enjoy the process of doing something rather than only doing it for the result. Yet, as I’m not quite there yet, I declined the offer. It would feel like a waste of time, considering that the whole puzzle was already done and only because someone deliberately cut it into pieces I now would have to “waste” hours of my time to recover it. For my friend of course it was the opposite: Taking the hundreds of pieces as a challenge, enjoying the feeling of achievement when gradually seeing “the whole picture” and at the same time just enjoying the fact that as long as you invest enough time, it’s quite likely that you will solve the problem, because the task at such is not overwhelmingly complex.
So apparently “fun” can be very different, depending on the individual. I’ve met quite a few people who wanted to convince me – someone who does not drink – that something can only be “fun” if alcohol is involved. Thinking what kind of immense hardship or insecurities these people must feel that they can only let go and relax when intoxicated makes me feel quite sorry for them.
As a teenager I could not think like that of course – either you give in to peer pressure, or you’ll be ostracized. Many people wish themselves back to the worry-free times when they were teenagers, but for me adulthood is much more “fun”. Having the freedom and authority to do whatever I feel like. Not being forced into the same room with a bunch of immature bullies who are showing you everyday what they think about you being different and unwilling to follow their “rules”, receiving better grades, and not being scolded by the teachers.
For me, “fun” are activities that are not so simple that I can do them without thinking, but also not so difficult that it gets tiring quickly. It’s something where I feel in control and safe, but with the option to make it gradually more difficult, to reach the boundaries of my comfort zone or even push beyond it, but then also to quickly see “results” or improvements when doing so: What was once difficult becomes the new normal. Receiving praise from others is of course also a nice factor of validation, but I think it’s dangerous to do something only for the sake of being complimented by others.
I’m aware that my definition could also be applied for solving jigsaw puzzles, so maybe I’m missing a more personal aspect here, still. Anyhow, rather than solving jigsaw puzzles, one activity that for me personally combines all these “fun characteristics” is making music: You can do it alone or with others, you get validation from seeing how you improve. Others compliment you when you play. If you feel like doing something simple you can just jingle-jangle around, but you can also go beyond your comfort zone and try something new and difficult. If you do not happen to play on the roof of a skyscraper you usually are pretty safe and do not need to be afraid to die; playing in front of people still can give you a nice adrenaline rush.
Music is something that combines mind and heart. I see music as a movie that you can see with your eyes closed, a memory that you never experienced but that you can still immerse yourself in whenever you feel like.
Music also provides such richness in things to learn that you never reach “the end”. Even the seemingly most simple rhythms or melodies can always be improved – and often it’s extraordinarily challenging to master simplicity. People get impressed when you play fast and energetic, but it can be much more difficult to play something slowly, gentle, and still cleanly, in a steady pace and with beautiful dynamics in volume and harmony. It’s possible to cover up a lack of technique with tons of gadgets or busy playing. On the other hand, if you restrict yourself to the most basic, to something “naked” with nothing that could cover mediocrity, every single ingredient must be good.
It’s actually the case in many other areas, too. Cooking is one example. Japanese and Italian cuisine, as different as they might seem at first glance, share the characteristic to work with only a few ingredients in each dish. A dish with hundreds of ingredients might sound impressive, but it’s easy to cover low-quality ingredients with a ton of heavy sauce or loads of spices. On the other hand, if you have to work with only a few select ingredients, each of them needs to be outstanding while still harmonizing with the rest. There is no room for mediocrity. Each ingredient plays an important role, each can be savoured and experienced very clearly on its own.
The beauty of simplicity is also something we should remind ourselves of in our daily capitalistic lives. Advertisement constantly creates “needs” which are mostly just desires. We think that if we only get this additional gadget, this one new item then we could do so much better, be so much better, feel so much better. The truth of course is that having more and more things piling up just makes us feel heavier, burdened – and the desire for “just this one more thing” never goes away, never gets satisfied, because the underlying craving for being accepted, loved, and “being enough” does not get satiated, no matter what we buy.
I personally can just be happy watching the moon, the stars, and flowers. It never gets boring to me – as long as I allow myself to be in that moment and not think about what I have to do next. Every new sunrise, every sunset is beautiful and exciting to watch. But for many of us, the sunsets from our last holiday remain in our memory so much clearer and extraordinarily beautiful. Why is that? Most likely because we experienced them while being more present, with much more awareness and with less thoughts about the next item on our to-do list.
Our mind is so powerful in shaping our perception. Wouldn’t it be great to experience the beauty around us everyday, not only when we are on holiday? In my morning rush I sometimes get annoyed with how long it takes the water to finish dripping through the coffee powder so that I can finally enjoy my first cup in the morning. However, is there anything I can do to speed it up? And are the few seconds that it takes really too long?
I’m trying to be more present when brewing my coffee and bring up some curiosity as if it was the first time that I am doing this. And guess what – it actually became a somewhat special and enjoyable experience! Seeing how the coffee filter gradually changes colour and consistency as it comes into contact with water. How the coffee is turning from a rough and almost fluffy powder into a shiny solid surface. How the note and intensity of the scent changes the moment the hot water starts dripping. There are so many small details to discover in everything we usually tend to do absent-mindedly. I do not want to sound enlightened, I definitely still feel impatient, many times thinking “why does it take so long”. But having experienced how it can be different helps me to rediscover that state of mind.
As we become more aware, we notice interesting and memorable details, we notice the diversity in a seemingly repetitive experience. In our meditation practice we learn to experience every single breath as something unique and interesting. While bringing up the curiosity for something seemingly mundane, for me personally it really enriches my daily life. Sensing all the different components – flavour, texture, taste, temperature – can turn something as ordinary as an apple into a wonderful treat.
Many other “simple” things bring me great joy, too: Seeing something in exactly the tone of purple that I like so much; experiencing the beautiful scent of a rose that didn’t look as if it was that fragrant; walking through a warm evening and suddenly sensing the subtle sweetness of osmanthus; stepping over fruity autumn leaves or freshly cat grass; having the house gradually embraced by the sweet smell of a yeast bread that comes straight from the oven; lifting up the lid of an old piano and being greeted with a familiar smell of musty dampening felt and old piano wood. Writing with my favourite pen. Experiencing tastes that my taste buds never encountered when travelling to foreign countries. Running long enough to feel as if the legs are moving automatically and that no distance would be too far.
Of course, you might not be in the state of mind or even willing to bring up that much awareness for every single detail and I think that’s also ok – if we try too hard, it becomes stressful and tensed again. There are also small things we can do to help us being aware. For example, whenever I walk with my camera in hand, I tend to be much more conscious about my surroundings and tend to discover things which otherwise I might just have ignorantly passed.
Sometimes it’s also enough to just overcome such ignorance once in order to continuously realize from that point onward. For a long time, I did not care about a song’s lyrics – as long as rhythm and sound were good, I was happy. While I can still approach music like this, having learnt to appreciate the multitude of feelings that this additional component – the lyrics – can cause, brought to my attention a whole new range of songs which I can now enjoy much more than before. As I got more connected with my own feelings, I started to realize that for each of these feelings there’s a song that describes it quite accurately.
An example is the following song, where admittedly the lyrics are not particularly “deep”, but they resonated very well for some recent feelings. Even though the singer’s voice is pleasing, the song would not have caught my attention with its rather simple drumbeats and a beautiful yet unsurprising guitar. What makes the song really special is how the words resonate with my feelings:
I’m grateful for having the physical, mental, and economic capabilities to do whatever I enjoy, to experience so much “fun” in my current life and to learn new skills that give me more joy. I feel empowered to have an impact on the circumstances around me to shape my future in a way as I want it to be.