Catherine Price & Freedom Matters: The Power of Fun
The author of How To Break Up With Your Phone fills us in on the many benefits of fun
This week, we welcome back Catherine Price, founder of Screen / Life Balance and author of How to Break Up With Your Phone and The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again.
In this light-hearted episode, we explore what exactly ‘fun’ is and talk about how to make space for more of it in our lives!
- Why you may well feel dead inside, and how fun can make you feel alive
- How technology can get in the way of fun
- What Catherine defines as ‘fun’
- The enormous health and productivity benefits of fun
- How to structure your life to encourage fun magnets
- How to have more fun this holiday season!
For more, you can also visit How To Have Fun, where you can access:
- What’s Your Fun Personality Type? quiz
- Are We Fun Compatible? quiz
- Bookclub and Discussion Guide
- A global #Funtervention challenge in January and February taking place via Catherine’s newsletter and social media feeds (30 days of helping people create better screen/life balance and have more fun)
You can also follow Catherine on Twitter and Instagram.
Host and Producer: Georgie Powell Sentient Digital
Music and audio production: Toccare Philip Amalong
Catherine: Because I’m looking at the camera so that it looks like I’m looking at you, but I’m not really looking at you because I can’t, because then it’ll look like I’m not looking at you. Like the fact that we are constantly doing those calculations in our brains is just exhausting.
Georgie: That’s probably why you didn’t react them when my 4-year-old just walked into the room.
Catherine: Didn’t even see it. It’s like that gorilla experiment. Nope, didn’t.
Georgie: Strict instructions of my husband that I was recording from 6:00 until 7:00 and I should have absolutely no interruptions. And there she was standing next to me by my desk.
Catherine: See, that like makes me sad that I didn’t… so, you know what, Georgie? I’m going to look here, and just know that I’m actually looking at you.
Georgie: I was like, “You are so calm.”
Catherine: That is so funny. No, no, this… oh, man, I think this… yeah, this is making me just sad about the internet. I’m going to… so, I’m looking at you, but it’s not going to look like I’m looking at you.
Georgie: That’s fine, because I’m doing the same.
Welcome to Freedom Matters where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each episode, we’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. We’ll be sharing their experiences on how to take back control of technology. We hope you leave feeling inspired. So, let’s get to it.
This week, we’re in conversation with Catherine Price. She joins us back on Freedom Matters, this time to talk about her new book, ‘The Power of Fun’. Author of best-selling ‘How to Break Up with Your Phone’, Catherine has her technology habits in check. But large breaks from her phone initially left her feeling vacuous. Instead of being the interesting person that she thought she was, she’d become so accustomed to filling her day scrolling, that when she took that away, she felt lost. So, she went on a journey to rediscover fun. And today, we get to learn all about it.
Catherine, welcome back to Freedom Matters. Again, we’re so excited to have you back on the show. You’re one of our first guests. And today, it’s nearly Christmas, and we are going to talk all about fun. We’ve been getting quite deep recently. I don’t if you’ve had a chance to listen to any of the episodes, but it’s been pretty heavy. We just talked with Oliver Burkeman about ‘Four Thousand Weeks’. We’ve talked to Adam Alter about addicted technology, Nir Eyal, and Anna Lembke about just the neurology of addiction. So, it’s been very much kind of like, how much control do we have over technology? And I thought, “We need a break from this. We need to just lighten it up a bit. Like, let’s have some fun.”
But before we get into the really light-hearted stuff, it’s kind of sad, isn’t it, that we live in a world where we have to read a book about the need to have fun. I mean, how did we get to this point? And why did you think it was really important to write that book?
Catherine: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is, if you think it’s sad that you have to read a book about fun, consider how sad that would mean it would be that you have to write a book about fun. But no, more seriously, I think there’s a number of reasons that we now need to start to treat fun more seriously, for lack of a better adverb.
Catherine: And one is that we’ve just become so overwhelmed by distraction and busyness that we’ve forgotten what fun is, or what it feels like, if we really knew that to begin with. I think we’re all so busy and overwhelmed and distracted that we feel like we don’t have time really to think about our own pleasure or enjoyment or getting back to actually living.
Catherine: And so, I think it’s great that people are open to reading a book about fun. And my hope is that this won’t just be an academic exercise. I don’t just want to freak them out and tell them, “Oh, you feel dead inside because you’re not having enough fun.” I actually want them to be able to go forward and do something about it.
Georgie: Amazing. And it’s great. I know you started with, as you say, that really important question of, what actually is fun? And then you came to your own definition of fun as being connected, playful flow. But it must have taken you quite a while to get there. So, can you tell me a little bit about how you came to that definition, and kind of what was the journey that you went on to try and work out what fun really was?
Catherine: Sure. I was actually fascinated by the fact that, despite the fact that we use the word ‘fun’ in all sorts of different contexts, if you try to find a definition of it, it’s really hard to pin down. If you look at the dictionary definition of ‘fun’, the closest definition I found was, “Lighthearted pleasure,” that fun is lighthearted pleasure. But if you ask people to describe experiences that they consider truly having been fun, they give you these experiences that are not just lighthearted pleasure. They’re joyful, but they also have this profundity to them.
When I read through people’s experiences of past fun, I often tear up. There’s something really deep about it. So, when I started to write this book, I realized very quickly that I was going to have to go come up with my own definition of fun because there wasn’t a good one. And as a result, there’s not very much research on fun.
So, I have a background in mindfulness, and I also have done a lot of writing about positive psychology, which is the study of human well-being. And so, I was familiar with the concepts of playfulness and connection and flow. And when I started to try to pin down a definition that would describe all the experiences people were sharing with me, and also that I was noticing in my own life, playful, connected flow seemed like it actually described all those experiences. Just to clarify what I mean by that definition.
Catherine: Because I’ve been writing about it, so it seems obvious to me. But when we have fun, we have a very playful spirit. And that doesn’t mean playing a game necessarily or playing in a childlike way. But it means having a lighthearted attitude and not caring too much about the outcome, not being goal driven in the way that we so often are in our adult lives.
Catherine: When I talk about connection, I mean, a sense of connection that actually normally is with another human being, which is fascinating. Even introverts reported that their most fun experiences often involve someone else. It also could be a sense of connection with an animal, or even with an experience. I think there are situations in which we can feel so connected with our physical bodies, or with our environment that that can count. But in the vast majority of cases, that connection is with a human being.
And then flow is the psychological state of being so wrapped up in your present experience, so actively engaged that you lose track of the passage of time. So, you can think of an athlete in the midst of a game or a musician in the midst of playing a piece of music. Each of those states, playfulness, connection, and flow, is really beneficial on its own. But I believe that when you have all 3 together, the result is what I call true fun.
Georgie: Yeah. And a lot of your criticism in the book is kind of how technology has been the antithesis to fun. Surely, there are other social issues as well, but you really focus on the impact of technology is having. How come?
Catherine: Part of the reason I focus so much on technology is, obviously, that’s where I’m coming from, having written ‘How to Break Up with Your Phone’.
Catherine: So, I would be the first to say that, yes, there are many other impediments to fun that are standing in our way, including this obsession with productivity in our capitalistic culture. I would say also the misperception that in order to have fun, you need to have a lot of money or have a lot of physical possessions, which in turn requires you to work ever more hours to make the money to buy those things. So, there’s all sorts of other things going on.
But in terms of the connection with technology, a couple of thoughts. One is that the 2 books are directly related. Right? I broke up with my phone and that was the first step. And then I suddenly realized, “Oh, my goodness, I have all this free time.” And despite thinking of myself as an interesting and interested person, I had this horrible realization that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my time.
Catherine: I had allowed my time to be filled by whatever was on my screen. And then when I took that away, I was left with this kind of existential void. And that’s what led me to explore the concept of fun and to write a book about it.
Catherine: And I’ve come to the conclusion that if we choose fun, we will end up happier and healthier and more creative and more productive as a result, that fun really is the antidote to many of the negative effects of screentime. But I think the challenge is that the fact that we don’t have an agreed upon definition of fun means that we are very vulnerable to any marketer who wants to sell us their products by saying that they’re fun.
Catherine: When in fact, if we actually thought about it more consciously, we’d realize that what they’re selling to us is the antithesis of playful, connected flow. And as you know because you’ve seen the book, I’ve got a whole chapter called ‘Why You Feel Dead Inside’.
Georgie: Yeah, yeah.
Catherine: Which I believe is because of the lack of fun. But one of the primary culprits in stealing that feeling of being alive, I believe, is things like social media. That if you actually ask people, nearly everyone will say that, unless there’s a business purpose for them, it doesn’t make them feel good and it’s not a good use of time. But we’re getting sucked into it, because it’s marketed to us as fun. And I call that fake fun. And I think the better we are equipped to call it out as fake fun, the better equipped we’ll be to recognize true fun, and to prioritize true fun in real life.
Catherine: Or through screens in some cases, as opposed to this fake fun. That is just a waste of time. I think also, there’s so much pressure to be perfect on social media. No one’s posting…
Catherine: And hopefully, you’re not doing a video of our interview, but I definitely didn’t brush my hair this morning. I did not have a chance. I would not be posting pictures of myself in my current state on the internet for people to judge. But I think that that’s what we’re presented with every time we log on to one of these platforms.
When we see other people’s feeds, it’s not their authentic selves, it’s their perfected selves. And if you look at YouTube videos, no one’s putting a video of their first try at something. So, I think that we start to feel pressure to present our perfection. And also, even though we know in our heart of hearts that other people are putting out fake versions of themselves, we’re still affected by it. So, we get…
Catherine: … start feeling inferior. And I think that there’s also the critical nature of the internet, and that you really have to be careful about what you say, because you can get criticized or canceled or what have you. So, I think there’s all these things that are… and in some cases, that’s good. You shouldn’t say those things.
Georgie: Yeah. But there is still… yeah.
Catherine: We’re holding ourselves back in a lot of ways. Instead of saying, “I just want to experience life, and…”
Catherine: “… (I mean, ideally, in a kind way) and be myself, and not be afraid of trying new things, and not being afraid of being vulnerable, and not being afraid of not being perfect, and of showing my humanity.”
Catherine: And I think that’s really tragic, honestly, because I think that that is what would connect us with other people and would solve some of our current problems with polarization and tribalism, because we would actually be embracing our shared humanity by showing some of that vulnerability. And fun can help us do that.
Georgie: Being able to identify fake fun requires a level of self-awareness that we have to nurture, a connection with ourselves. How does Catherine think we can find connection in this way?
Catherine: Yeah, I think that there’s real value in thinking harder about, what does connection mean for each of us?
Catherine: For some people, they might find it through something that you do online. I have friends who do a lot of internet gaming where they’re actually talking with people that they never meet in person. For them, that connection really does mean something. For a lot of other people, I think that we don’t really find it through the internet. And I think the pandemic has really highlighted that.
Catherine: I think we’re all hugely grateful for the fact that we can do things like Zoom calls with each other. Right? But at the same time, I also know for sure that, even though I’m enjoying our conversation now, I would be enjoying it even more if you were actually sitting across the table from me right now.
Catherine: Like a live Georgie would be so much more nourishing to me.
Catherine: Than right now, I’m not looking at your face on the screen, because I’m looking at the camera so that it looks like I’m looking at you, but I’m not really looking at you, because I can’t, because then it’ll look like I’m not looking at you. Like the fact that we are constantly doing those calculations in our brains is just exhausting.
Georgie: They should fix that. That’s a technology problem, isn’t it?
Georgie: Because we all get that. Okay, so tell me about all the good stuff that playfulness, connection, and flow do. Because I was astounded by the depth of evidence in all those areas about how good they are for our well-being, but also for our productivity.
Catherine: I have been astounded by the benefits of fun and how many there are and how we don’t acknowledge them. The thesis of the book is that, far from being frivolous, fun is actually essential for our happiness and health.
Catherine: I myself was surprised by everything I learned about these benefits. And they really came to light when I started thinking about fun as the confluence of playfulness, connection, and flow. So, to back up, just as there was no agreed-upon definition of fun when I was researching this book, there also wasn’t research about fun, because there’s no definition of fun. So, how can you actually study something for which there’s no definition? That’s crazy. Because happiness is in there, joy is in there, not fun.
So, that was at first a roadblock for me. But then I realized, “Wait a second. Okay. So, there’s not research about fun. But if you think about fun as a confluence of playfulness, connection, and flow, there’s actually a ton of research on those 3 states.”
So, just one that comes to mind is the effect that fun has on our stress levels. Playfulness, connection, and flow all reduce our stress levels. Anything that reduces our stress levels will also reduce the amount of cortisol in our bodies. And that’s a stress hormone that’s enormously important if you’re trying to respond to or survive a physical threat, like run away from a predator.
But it’s well established that anything that raises our cortisol levels over time and keeps them chronically elevated is very bad for us and increases our risks of health conditions, ranging from heart attack and heart disease and stroke to Alzheimer’s and even cancer.
And what I realized is that, since playfulness, connection, and flow all reduce stress levels, that means they also reduce our cortisol levels. And that therefore, it makes total sense to think that prioritizing fun may actually have impacts on our long-term health because of this reduction in stress.
And I think that’s mind blowing. Because I’ve never heard anyone talk about fun as a health intervention. But when you think about all the ways that playfulness, connection, and flow benefit us, it actually makes a lot of sense to think about fun as a health intervention.
And even better, it’s a health intervention that feels good in the moment, and that doesn’t require any kind of willpower self-control. Because the whole point of the intervention is to find more ways for yourself to experience playfulness, connection, and flow.
Georgie: So, before we get into how to make more fun, can you share some of the cool examples that came through from your fun score? Because I think the variety in itself is fun just to hear.
Catherine: It was an amazing variety of experiences that people shared with me. And I included some of them in the book. Some of them were extremely simple. There was one example of someone who her memory of fun was just squishing mud through her toes. And she had this whole thing about how mud was more fun than sand, maybe because it’s messier. And I believe she had something about how her particular sense memory of this moment of mud facilitated fun was with her friend, Margaret. So, it’s interesting, even in that moment of squishing mud through your toes, this person brought up the friend that she was with.
Another person talked about redecorating her room when she was a kid with her mother into this pink Parisian oasis, I believe it’s how she described it. And then she and her mom stayed up late, basically talking in funny accents and just playing in her room. But there were also examples that happened as recently as the day before the people filled out the survey. There was one about playing fetch with an exuberant dog, which I thought was interesting, because I do think it’s possible to feel that sense of connection with other living creatures.
Catherine: And dogs are probably the most common example of that. But yeah, there was a real variety of experiences. They happen at all ages of people’s lives. Sometimes they involve more exotic locations. Someone told me about an evening spent dancing in a Croatian castle. Okay, fair enough. That sounds fun.
And then somethings were just really everyday. A recent example that someone shared with me that I love was that he spent he said 2 hours sitting on a bench with his nephew trying to catch leaves as they fell from a tree. And what I absolutely loved about that particular anecdote is one of my main points in the book is that we actually have opportunities for fun floating in the air around us all the time.
Catherine: I use that as a metaphor, that playfulness, connection, and flow, they’re in the air around us. We just have to notice them and pay attention to them and seek them out. And then this guy tells me the story about how he had so much fun catching leaves that were floating through the air. And I had a little freakout moment where I was like, “You just made my metaphor literal.”
So, anyway, those are just some examples. But yeah, all sorts of different people were involved, different settings, different activities, which goes to the point that there’s no one recipe for fun. There’s no one activity that is always guaranteed to have fun for everyone, or even for the same person in every instance. But we can find out there’s specific activities and settings and people that are more likely to generate fun for us. And we can increase the likelihood that we’ll have fun by prioritizing those things.
Georgie: Amazing. So, yeah, as you say, fun in your eyes is something that we do have to think about quite consciously. And we have to not engineer it so much, but make space, as you say in your book, for it. So, can you talk through the steps in the book that you recommend, so that people can have more fun on a daily basis?
Catherine: The first thing I would suggest is just try to open your eyes to moments of playfulness and connection and flow that already exist, and to label them as such. I actually recommend that if you’re the journaling type, keep a journal that you just jot some notes in before bed, just moments when you experience 1 of those 3 states. I don’t know, like the other day, I encountered a very cute Golden Retriever puppy, and we totally had a playful moment.
Catherine: Or connection, like yesterday, I had to go to the doctors for a checkup, and I took a ride share there and I had a nice chat with the driver. There was like a moment of connection. Or flow, like right now, I’m in flow because I’m totally present in what we’re doing. So, if I noticed those things, I start to appreciate them more and actually feel their benefits in a way that doesn’t happen when you don’t actually label them.
And I think that’s especially important right now, because we have so many anxieties and so many things we ruminate about. And our minds are naturally going to gravitate towards the negative. Then we’re also getting served up negative content on the news and social media, what have you. So, noticing moments of playfulness and connection and flow is really simple, but it’s a very powerful way to fight back against that.
And when you notice them, just take note of any time they happen together. Because one thing I think is beautiful about the practice of prioritizing fun is that it doesn’t have to be full on true fun to feel the benefits. You don’t have to have all 3 of those states happen at once. Any redirection towards playfulness, connection, or flow is going to be good for you and feel good.
Catherine: But when you do experience all 3 of them, then you had true fun. And I think what’s beautiful about that is you’ll start to notice that you might have true fun in these little teensy moments in your day that you didn’t notice. I don’t know that the guy would have identified the leaf catching as fun if he hadn’t been primed to think about it that way.
Catherine: But now that he has, it becomes categorized in his brain as a moment of true fun that he can then reflect back on and that can continue to nourish him even after it passed.
Georgie: And then once you’ve done that, how do you create more space? How do you get more fun into your life?
Catherine: Well, the next step, I would say, is to start to think about what the people and activities and settings are that most often generate fun for you. And the way to do that is to think back on your life and call to mind a few experiences that you would consider or describe as having been truly fun. So, when you do that, just think like, what are 3 experiences where the primary descriptor that comes to mind would be fun, not joy, or awe, or anything profound like that, just fun, so fun? And jot down the details. What were you doing? Who were you with? Where were you? Were there any objects or devices involved?
And once you come up with a collection of these past experiences, you can look at them and start to mine them for themes. So, what emerges? Are there particular people with whom you always seem to have fun, no matter what you’re doing? Right? Are there particular settings that are really conducive to fun for you? Are there particular activities that very frequently generate fun for you?
And by the way, I call these things fun magnets. And I love the concept of fun magnets, because it takes fun from this abstract, nebulous concept into something that you actually have much more control over. So, for example, I couldn’t say, “Hey, Georgie, from 8:00 to 10:00 PM on Saturday, I’m going to have fun.”
Catherine: Because that would be ridiculous. And that would just stress me out if I put on my calendar, “Have fun.” Okay, great. I’m setting myself up for failure. But if I know that one of my fun magnets is playing music with friends, I can put that on my calendar. And in fact, I have that on my calendar for Saturday.
Now, is that guaranteed to produce a rapturous experience of true fun for me? Well, no. It might vary in intensity. But I can tell you, it’s much more likely to generate true fun for me than sitting and looking at eBay on my phone.
Catherine: So, if you know what your fun magnets are, you’ve given yourself this really practical tool to build more fun into your life simply by making space for those fun magnets on your schedule.
Georgie: Can you overdo it though? Because I’m thinking about our best friends and other family, we get together, whenever we get together, we have adventures, we have a total blast. But I’m pretty sure, if we saw each other every weekend, the novelty would perhaps go away. I don’t know, maybe we’d get on each other’s nerves a bit. I don’t know, maybe we wouldn’t. Maybe we should live together. But when does the fun stop?
Catherine: I think that’s a personal question. I think that that is a question we should ask ourselves like a long time from now. Because right now, your priority should be expose yourself to opportunities for fun anytime you can, and then notice what a difference it makes in your happiness, in your mood.
Catherine: And if you reach a point of fun overload, that is so great. I would love to meet that person who’s like, “You know what? Too much. No more fun.”
Georgie: But it’s more that like the novelty wears off. And well, I think the novelty element can also create fun.
Catherine: Novelty is often involved in fun, and in 2 ways. Like, trying new things can expose you to new things that you find fun.
Catherine: The novelty itself can also be fun. And so, yes, there could be a situation where something is fun at first because it’s new, and then that novelty wears off, and then it’s no longer as fun. And I think that that’s fine. No one’s saying that if something is fun for you right now or in this particular dose that it should be fun forever or at a higher dose. My point is just that you should start to experiment with it, and just cultivate the self-awareness to recognize when something that you used to find fun no longer feels fun.
I think a lot of people right now are not experiencing the true potential power of fun, because they’re still in the same rut of doing things that they identified as fun at some point in their lives that either, A, never were fun to begin with, or B, aren’t fun for them anymore. And unless I kind of think about fun as playful, connected flow and pay attention to how these things are making me feel, there’s a chance I might just continue to repeat them on autopilot, even though they’re not fun.
Catherine: And I bet there’s a lot of people who have people in their lives in particular who you still see, because at some point in your life, you connected. But if you actually reflected on it, it actually isn’t that nourishing and it isn’t that fun.
Catherine: And in fact, it’s draining and toxic. And so, I think the pursuit of fun can be really helpful in that sense as well to give us a way to scan our current lives and weed out some things that maybe no longer should fit.
Georgie: Okay. So, the holidays are coming. It’s a time where it’s really easy to get caught in the whirl of busyness and consumerism and all the things that you have very rightly pointed out do not lead to things that are necessarily so fun. So, what’s your advice as you go into the festive period? How are you thinking about approaching it with your family to really make it a fun time?
Catherine: A couple of thoughts on that. One is that if you are getting gifts for people in your life, I would focus on experiences rather than just objects. Because experiences are where we have fun together.
Catherine: And if you’re going to focus on objects, try to focus on possessions that can facilitate fun. So, instead of like a flat screen television or something, or something where it’s just going to be consumption, focus on something that you actually can do that supports a new hobby or an interest or a passion. Because hobbies, interests, and passions facilitate playfulness, connection, and flow. So, I’d reframe the way you’re approaching your gift giving.
And then I would also say to reframe the way that you’re thinking about gatherings. Because I think we’re really in a position here where, for many of us around the world, this is the first time we’ll be gathering people in person for a long time, or it certainly will be different from how it was last year.
Catherine: And that we run the risk, if we just go into autopilot mode, of going through the motions, but not actually really feeling connected with each other. And potentially, even worse, we’re so used to numbing ourselves with screens now that I think it’s quite possible that we’ll go through the work of gathering in person, feel awkward, and then as soon as the meal is over, everyone’s just literally left to their own devices, doing exactly what they’ve been doing for the past 18 months, which is just so sad.
And in that case, I think there’s a couple things we can do to avoid that. And one of them is to give people some boundaries with technology. So, just as, obviously, freedom gives you boundaries within apps themselves, we can actually talk to our guests ahead of time about like, “Hey, we’re actually going to be setting our phones aside for the meal and for our afternoon together, because we truly want to connect. And we’ll be putting hours away. We ask that you do the same.” Put out a basket, like warn them ahead of time. It’ll be super awkward, but I promise you, it will actually be worth it.
But then you’ve got to help your guests then not feel awkward. So, how do you do that? Because we use our devices as security blankets and self-soothing mechanisms. 2 ideas for that are to give people things to talk about. So, actually, on my site screenlifebalance.com, if people sign up for the newsletter, I’m sending out these conversation prompts you can actually cut out and then put under people’s plates as a way to start conversation at the table that doesn’t have to do with the pandemic and doesn’t have to do with politics that can get people to interact in new ways.
And then another idea is just to leave out activities for your guests to do so. It sounds cheesy, but leave out some games, leave out a puzzle. Create a craft station with a simple a holiday craft project that kids and adults can do together. It doesn’t actually need to be very much, but if you provide people with something to do, it alleviates a bit of their social anxiety and will allow them to interact in new ways that are more conducive to fun.
Georgie: Catherine, literally, I could talk to you all night. But alas, we have to say thank you so much for joining us today again on Freedom Matters. We absolutely loved it. It was a delight. I’m still delight pinging since our first episode. But thank you so much for joining us today.
Catherine: Thank you so much for having me.
Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.