- Fun can be harnessed to form positive behaviors by coupling less enjoyable tasks with enjoyable ones.
- Dopamine is associated with motivation, but consistent surges can lead to dopamine downregulation.
- Engaging in a variety of activities supports psychological flexibility and promotes sustainable enjoyment.
Pleasure is an enigmatic aspect of human experience—a motivational mechanism that drives a significant amount of our behavior. This is especially true if we find our fun in exciting and engaging ways. Unfortunately, the motivation from pleasure is a two-way street. Pleasure and, more broadly, fun can draw us toward betterment, but it also can lead us toward negative behaviors. At the extreme, the allure of pleasure can lead to addiction.
However, when deliberately and skillfully used, fun can be wielded as a transformative tool in creating a healthier, more vibrant life.
Fun as a Motivator
We are naturally predisposed to repeat activities we find enjoyable, providing a feedback loop that can be harnessed for beneficial outcomes. For instance, associating exercise with an enjoyable activity—like listening to a favorite podcast—can make us more likely to adhere to this health-promoting behavior.
In this example, the process of bundling activities is anchored in the psychological concept of temptation bundling, wherein we couple a task we should do but don't necessarily find pleasurable (e.g., exercise) with an activity we do find pleasurable (e.g., an enjoyable podcast). This strategy has proven fruitful in a variety of contexts, from enhancing gym attendance to boosting productivity.
Navigating the Lure of Fun and the Role of Dopamine
While high-arousal fun can be a vital ingredient of our well-being, it's important to acknowledge that consistently eliciting high dopamine levels—the neurotransmitter associated with anticipation and motivation—can be problematic. This can happen to those that only find enjoyment in high-arousal activities and, over time, can lead to unintended consequences.
Highly stimulating activities often trigger a dopamine surge. It's believed that this rise in dopamine is one of the mechanisms that motivate us to repeat behaviors. However, there is now an emerging understanding that maintaining consistently high dopamine levels can lead to a phenomenon known as dopamine downregulation, where our brain begins to reduce its sensitivity to dopamine. This reduced sensitivity can escalate into a cycle where we require more and more high-arousal activities to achieve the same level of enjoyment, posing a risk sometimes referred to as the "progressive narrowing of pleasure." When this narrowing occurs, our capacity to experience pleasure becomes increasingly constricted as our brain adapts to these frequent dopamine highs. Other rewarding low- to moderate-arousal activities we used to find fun begin to lose their appeal, leading to an overall diminishing enjoyment of life's varied pleasures.
The Value of Variable Hedonics
One way to counteract these risks is with balance and variety. Current science supports the assertion that engaging in a mixture of activities (activities that offer different levels of stimulation) is a sustainable way to avoid dopamine downregulation.
If you find that most of the things you find fun are high-arousal, you might try integrating in some lower-arousal activities like reading a good book, gardening, going for a leisurely walk, or something else of this nature that appeals to you. These low-intensity yet enjoyable activities can contribute significantly to our sense of contentment and complement our broader spectrum of options for fun. A healthy mix of activities also helps us exercise our psychological flexibility, supporting different arousal levels and balancing incoming stimulation.
Finding Equilibrium in Enjoyment
The intriguing interplay of pleasure and motivation forms a significant part of our life's narrative, dictating many of our actions and certainly influencing many of our choices. Yet, it's essential to approach this dance cautiously, as science suggests overindulgence in high-arousal fun risks leading us down a path of diminishing returns.
Instead, harnessing the motivational power of fun to foster healthier habits requires a skilled choreography that blends various fun activities, both high and low arousal, to compose a life of diversity and vibrancy. Taking this approach prevents the potential downregulation of dopamine, keeps the appeal of different fun activities alive, and ultimately safeguards our ability to experience joy in its many forms.
Remember, not all fun must be a rollercoaster ride of thrill and excitement. Sometimes, it's in the quiet moments that we can find restorative fun. Moreover, these more subdued activities can act as an equally rewarding source of enjoyment and, when mixed with more exhilarating experiences, can create a satisfying and sustainable mosaic of delight in our lives. Ultimately, it's about striking a balance in our pursuit of fun—one in which we embrace the pleasure of high-arousal activities without losing sight of the joy found in our quieter, more serene experiences.
Lembke, A. (2021). Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. Penguin.
Milkman, K. L., Minson, J. A., & Volpp, K. G. (2014). Holding the hunger games hostage at the gym: An evaluation of temptation bundling. Management Science, 60(2), 283–299.
Linden, D. J. (2012). The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. Penguin.
Custers, R., & Aarts, H. (2010). The unconscious will: How the pursuit of goals operates outside of conscious awareness. Science, 329(5987), 47–50.