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You’ve most likely heard how the old proverb goes: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The exact origins aren’t known, but the saying first appeared in James Howell’s “Proverbs in English, Italian, French and Spanish” in 1659. Flash forward over 350 years and the saying still rings true. If human beings can realize the importance that fun has on your mental and physical wellbeing, the levels of unhappiness and burnout could have the potential to decrease. MenLiving’s Patrick McKenna got to speak with Dr. Mike Rucker, an author, behavioral scientist, and entrepreneur so interested in the science behind fun that he’s written a book titled “The Fun Habit” out the beginning of 2023. The conversation ranged from discussing having the agency to seek out fun activities, learning about fun and play from other renowned behavioral scientists and the things that matter most in life.

Patrick:
I’m curious about the trajectory of your career. I know you’re a writer, a behavioral scientist, student of positive psychology and more, so I was wondering if you could take me briefly through the Mike Rucker professional origin story.

Mike Rucker:
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, so the first opportunity that I had to start a business I took it with a couple co-founders, and it went well. It was a marketing company. It’s pivoted, but it still exists today. It’s called Zugara, they’re in augmented reality now but when we were doing it together, we were more focused on Flash marketing, when Flash was still a big deal.

I successfully exited that company and took the money that I had from that exit and tried to start another company, which was a taco stand on the beach in Manhattan Beach, California. I was fairly arrogant from that first win. Sometimes there is a survivorship bias, where you kind of feel like you can’t fail, so that second endeavor ultimately went sideways and there was a lot to unpack mentally. I had built my ego up way higher than it should have been and got knocked down to size pretty hard, and it hurt. At the time, I was in the process of getting married, so losing my savings from this failed endeavor had an extra layer of angst.

I reached out for help and went looking for a psychologist. Through a lot of serendipity, I was paired with someone who’s actually gotten quite famous in his own right, but I got him when I believe he was still wrapping up his needed practicum hours to get licensure in California. His name is Dr. Michael Gervais. Now he has a really successful podcast called Finding Mastery. I was an early underling, and why that’s important is he kind of led me towards peak psychology and positive psychology.

Patrick:

Interesting.

Mike Rucker:
At the same time because I was on the road to becoming a practitioner myself, I got the opportunity to be a charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association. Up until 2016, all the tools of positive psychology worked fairly well for me. I was living a really good life. Things like gratitude, journaling, and meditation and all these tools that generally have a positive effect on your wellbeing were working for me.

In hindsight, I had an overt concern about happiness, but it suited me then. I was slowly but surely succumbing to toxic positivity, and like all of us on the Oregon trail of life, I got walloped. I had a trifecta of unfortunate events, the biggest one being my younger brother passing away from a pulmonary embolism. That happened quite suddenly. Also, I was an endurance athlete up to that point and used exercise to mitigate my own anxiety. I found out, again quite suddenly, that I had advanced osteoarthritis. By the time I had a chance to get an MRI, my femoral head was sitting on my pelvis. There was no soft tissue left, and it was quite painful. So, I went from running the fastest half marathon I had ever run to being told I could never run again.

Patrick:

Wow. Yeah, those are brutal breaks. I’m sorry to hear about your brother.

Mike:
Then, this wasn’t necessarily negative, but my wife got a really good opportunity in North Carolina, which meant that we were going to leave California where all our friends and family were. I was in this state of melancholy, but because my identity was so like, “You’ve got to be happy and you can get yourself out of this and figure out how to use these tools,” I just kept pressing it, right? Like, “I know I can will myself to be happy.” The more I was trying, the more miserable I was, and it was happening quite quickly.

Everything was crumbling, and I didn’t understand why, but these tools were failing me. Because toxic positivity has now been well studied, we know that when positivity is over prescribed or applied to the wrong context, it can be quite harmful. Luckily, I was in the Bay Area at the time, and I found the work of a researcher by the name of Dr. Iris Maussout of Berkeley. Her work’s been replicated quite a bit, but I found out that there’s this idea about Western culture that folks are overly concerned about their own happiness. The distinction is you can value your happiness all you want, but if you’re overly concerned about being happy – especially always thinking about it – then paradoxically you become unhappy. In fact, there’s a converse correlation with folks that are concerned about happiness being some of the most unhappy people. So that’s great knowledge, but how does that information help somebody this second?

I started digging into the research and found from what I was learning that if you own that you have the agency and autonomy to improve your outcome, your emotional state doesn’t necessarily matter. You don’t have to be happy to make the decision to go out and have a good time. If you can invite in delight and joy, then what happens is over time as you realize you do have that agency to change your circumstance. Then life becomes an upward spiral.

You’re not necessarily too concerned about how you feel, especially in retrospect, but you start indexing these things that are signals to you that life is okay. Eventually you’re able to pull yourself out of that melancholy or malaise if you don’t have a biological predisposition to depression. It’s always important to note. CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) can mitigate some of those things without pharmaceutical intervention, but if you have treatment resistant depression, I just want to make it clear that you can’t will your way out of that.

Patrick:
No, I appreciate you saying that. Yeah. I’m bipolar and have experienced it. I could go on about the downsides of the toxic positivity when you are in a depressive episode.

Mike Rucker:
Yeah. I have a lot of empathy for that.

Patrick:

Absolutely.

Mike Rucker:
The nice thing about fun is that once you do get yourself back on the rails, it’s there as a really restorative tool to sort of accelerate your healing in that regard.

Patrick:
When did studying fun and the science behind it become a big focus that led you to working on your upcoming book, The Fun Habit?

Mike Rucker:
It was like how a lot of things start, in that it was pretty self-serving. As I started to dig into the research I was like, “Okay, so what is possible?” I already liked self-experimentation. I was probably over quantifying things, but I was able to take some of these studies and start to play with how they would work in my life, with the primary mechanism being experimentation.

One of the things that I now help other folks do is take a time audit. I was looking at how I was spending my time during that period and what were the opportunities where I could, in a healthy way, change out an activity (e.g., overly mourning), to doing something fun with a friend. This is probably really in line with some of the things that you guys know work—that connection. A lot of it was making sure that I was taking time to connect with my best friend because it was really therapeutic, and he was willing. A lot of times we weren’t even talking about the situation; we were just spending time together. It reminded me that there was something bigger than myself out there that was good.

Patrick:
Yeah, making that time is so beneficial.

Mike:
I’d just gotten done with my dissertation, so I had a writing habit. I was also writing for Verywell Health at the time, but it was primarily focused on digital health, and I found the construct of fun (as an aspect of social psychology) a lot more compelling. It was sort of this transition of writing and keeping myself sharp in the health technology sector, but at the same time swimming in this lake of really cool ideas. A lot of professors in this realm weren’t getting solicited yet, so they were quite accessible. I think there are a lot of areas, like behavior change and positive psychology, when if you try and chase down someone like Martin Seligman now, these are going to be folks that are harder to have access to nowadays. I got lucky with timing.

Patrick:
Definitely.

Mike:
Here were all these amazing people – Cassie Holmes from UCLA, Jordan Etkin from Duke, Kaitlin Woolley from Cornell – that were helping me, similar to what I’m doing with you now, spending two hours with me just giving me these rich insights from stuff that they’ve studied for years. It’s my opportunity to be a Daniel Pink or, dare I say, Malcolm Gladwell. So, it’s just neat cause no one else was doing it.

Then, like a lot of us content creators do, you just kind of throw it up on the web to see how it sticks. I was following in footsteps that had already been there. One of the folks that has been quite kind to me and has had similar success is Charlie Hoehn, who’s written a book called “Play it Away.”  There were folks before me that had used the same mechanisms to help themselves. I was just taking a slightly different approach. Play certainly is an activity type, but fun is more of a loose construct.

That’s made it interesting too because fun is as unique as the individual.  A lot of times people will get hung up on like, “Okay, well what can you prescribe for me?” It’s like, “Okay, well let’s dig into what really lights you up.” There are a lot of different components about how we perceive pleasure. My wife loves low arousal activities. She loves to read, and she loves days at the spa. Fun for her is a good, yet moderate, amount of champagne with friends on Sunday. For me, it’s hanging out with my friends at a Rage Against the Machine show.

Patrick:
Yeah, yeah. There you go. Definitely same over here, concerts are a big one for me. Different than say someone who loves parasailing, but it just depends on what the person likes.

Mike:
Yeah, exactly.

Patrick:

I don’t know how much you’ve studied specifically this, but what do you think adults could learn from children when it comes to embracing fun or thinking of it as something that’s just important as work?

Mike:
Yeah. Serendipitously, because I haven’t done a lot of original research, that’s why I name dropped Daniel Pink. But this is one area where I have, so I’m glad that you asked this question. For the book, I spent some time doing observational studies in children’s museums and found out that this same research has been replicated. It’s always neat when you’ve done something, and other researchers have the same findings.

What adults can learn is that children go into play free thinking. What I witnessed when I went into these children’s museums is that children would come in with their caregiver, and the kids would immediately go and start having fun. They’d light up, immediately their imagination would kick in, and parents would slowly work themselves to the walls and sort of be paralyzed, wondering what this was all about or waiting for instructions. What I found in doing follow up for the study is that it’s not our fault necessarily. As adults, because we have so much incoming information being thrown at us, we must create bumper rails. We must start thinking linearly. A bill comes in the mail, and that bill needs to get paid because if it doesn’t the lights are going to get turned off. We have millions and millions of those scripts in our head that limit our ability in those types of situations where we’re meant to have fun.

Once you’re able to practice playing in that type of environment, then you start to be able to think non-linearly again. You can start to think in abstract ways and coalesce ideas that might not necessarily go together. So many of our solutions as adults are really piecing together things that are close together, but some of the most creative and profound solutions come from our ability to pull ideas from things that normally should not be connected because that’s when you build something new.

Patrick:
Right. Wow, that’s so cool and powerful.

Mike:
That’s the big benefit, and it’s really neat. For the parents out there, because I know this is skewed for fathers, there’s an added benefit for the children. I learned this as well, it wasn’t my own research, but it comes from the science of transactional analysis. Psychologists that have prescribed to this belief say that we operate in three modes: a child state, an adult state, and a parent state. It’s the child state that allows us to be creative and non-linear. We’re not confound by rules, it’s really exploratory, and it’s when we invite moments of awe and wonder in. Everything’s new and cool. When we apply the parent state to our kids play and say something like, “Hey, no, you shouldn’t be building the blocks like this. Let’s build a house, and this is how you build a house.” You suck the fun out from the kid too, because kids are like, “Oh this is meant to be school. This isn’t play. This is my parent trying to teach me how to do something.”

So, you’ll see them retract. You’ll see their smile start to go down. It’s not necessarily bad, because as parents we’ll need to teach too and be good mentor … but at a children’s museum? I feel like if you’re mindful of that, you’ll see yourself doing that in all sorts of contexts where you’ll catch yourself and be like, “Wow. My kid wanted to have fun and I just turned this into homework.”

Patrick:
That’s really fascinating. If you just let them do their own thing and create something without learning something monumental, it doesn’t matter that much. How can a focus on actively pursuing fun things – whether it’s hobbies, meaningful relationships, or even just media that makes you laugh – mitigate things like burnout?

Mike:
That’s my whole thesis now, and it’s backed by science. There are different studies that back up this assertion of mine. The study that I cite quite often is from Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. They followed around 28,000 people and basically checked in on them. In a lot of these behavioral studies, they’ll use a pager or a phone app and ask something like, “Hey, what are you doing this second and how do you feel?” In this particular study, the idea was to see if when folks are going through a tough time, do they look for ways to escape? Do they find opportunities to cope with their particular situation? Sure enough, as you would assume they do.

If you’re going through a tough spot and things just aren’t that great, you’ll tend to find forms, oftentimes negative forms, of escaping. What was more spectacular, and again when I realized I’m onto something here, is that when people have what Cassie Holmes has now called “Goldilocks Spot,” which is about one to two hours a day where one takes time off the table for themselves. It doesn’t necessarily need to be for themselves, but it’s things where they’re actively engaging in pleasurable activities that’s meaningful to them. These people end up doing the harder stuff. They’re more resilient, and it gives them the fortitude to go out and seek harder challenges, and their productivity goes up.

Patrick:

That makes sense.

Mike:
So that last point, it’s simple math. If you’re burnt out and you look at productivity as a function of units of output and you’re only giving a unit of one for every hour you work because you’re just so exhausted … taking time off the table and going to work with a sense of vigor because you’re enjoying yourself ups that up to two. So now for 30 hours of work (because you are enjoying time outside of work) you’re actually creating 60 units of productivity, versus those 50 hours where your life is soul sucking, and you have no joy and you’re actually contributing less. It becomes simple when you lay it out. There are a lot of folks that are like, “Ah, I get it. Fun’s important but…”

Patrick:
“I can’t make the time for it.”

Mike:
Exactly. I see slowly but surely this reckoning of the importance of finding joy in life like what we had to do in the 90s with sleep. Remember when everyone was wearing sleep deficits as a badge of honor, until like every doctor on the planet was like, “Okay, well you’re killing yourself.”

Patrick:
I wanted to ask about the Live Life Love Project, which I know has been a project of yours for some time. I’m just curious about what it is and what were some of the bigger motivators that pushed you into wanting to do the project in the first place.

Mike:
In 2007, after that restaurant failure I had to go back to work because I had lost my savings, but I still wanted to be connected to entrepreneurship and wellbeing communities, while also improving my own wellbeing. I also wanted to give back because that’s always been an aspect that is important to me, and I love to live life experientially. I was like, “What is a pretty low barrier that I know that I can do, but that will keep me moving forward so that time is not passing me by?” The project was simple. I basically said, “Every three months, I’m going to make sure that I reach out to two people smarter than me. I’m going to make sure that I contribute some time and money, with my ultimate goal at the end of 25 years is that contribution should be equivalent to one year’s salary for both time and money. And then, I will experience something really exceptional once every quarter.”

I’ve been doing it since 2007, and now I have over a hundred thought leader interviews and have done over a hundred cool things from world parties like Oktoberfest, to marathons, and different places and things of that nature. I’ve contributed a lot, and that’s allowed me to make connections and feel like it’s not so self-centric and that I’m connected to something bigger than myself. If someone is feeling kind of stuck, just figure out what you can do, what’s important to you, and then how can you turn that into a habitual routine that’s not going to overwhelm you. For me, I felt a check-in four times a year was really manageable, and I guess the only really remarkable thing is making a 25-year commitment and sticking with it.

Patrick:
Yeah, you’re here living. You’re here, so might as well do something where the time isn’t just passing. This might be skewed because of the last two years, but what were some of the most fun things that you’ve done because of this project recently?

Mike:
Getting to connect with folks. I got to meet a lot of my heroes through the project, which is neat. Then making sure I commit to something fun every quarter, it’s a big topic in the book. Because I did that, I was able to…you’re going to get me to tear up, I haven’t teared up in a while…but it allowed me to connect with my brother right before he passed. We went and rode the Kingda Ka in New Jersey because it’s the tallest roller coaster in the world. So, it’s always “What can you do best with your time?”

Patrick:

That’s really, genuinely beautiful. What a special thing to share with him.

Mike:
It doesn’t have to be contrived, a lot of times it’s just something that I want to do with my kids. It doesn’t have to be spectacular or dripping in privilege, and a lot of times if you are in a place where you don’t have resources you can get really creative.

Lastly, it’s really connecting with folks that are smart because that lights me up, and then these opportunities to contribute. I’ve met some really cool people or been reintroduced to people through service. I got to reconnect with an old friend from a previous job because I contributed. She’s creating play spaces in dilapidated places from Katrina in Louisiana. Just everything about the project is kind of cool.

Patrick:
Yeah. Repping a group where our mission is all about connecting with other people, it’s cool to hear just the level of connecting you’ve done because it falls by the wayside for some people as they age, and then you miss these special moments. The moment that you just mentioned about your brother, that doesn’t get more special than that.

Mike
Yeah, I keep a picture of us waiting in line right here on my desk.

Patrick:
Oh man, that’s amazing. That’s really beautiful. Do you have any parting words that you could give from your experiences about the importance of seeking out these people, places, or things that bring you joy?

Mike:
I think the main takeaway is that if you’re not doing what you enjoy, if you are not prioritizing fun, you’re doing yourself a disservice in multiple ways. One, you may be living a joyless life, which is unfortunate. For most of us that has become the norm because of the pandemic, so it’s prime time for sort of a reframe and a reshuffle. The good news is a lot of people really have been playing with their priorities because of the pandemic because we lost so much time. It’s such fertile ground to be mindful of how you’re spending your time.

Two, it doesn’t just help yourself, though. Loneliness is such a big issue right now, and if you believe the science, loneliness is worse for us than sitting and smoking. Having fun with others is one of the best ways to mitigate that, and so now it’s not just fun for yourself. It goes from a ‘me’ proposition to a ‘we’ proposition, and it really creates this upward spiral for you and those you love. So, you’re not just helping yourself, but you’re being your best self for the ones that you care about too.

To learn more about Dr. Mike Rucker, click here. To preorder “The Fun Habit,” click here.

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