If Our Job Is Work, and Marriage is Work, And Recreation is Work, When Do We Have Fun?

We do what we do because, from an evolutionary perspective, it works. In nature, children play, breeding adults work, and non-breeding adults do a bit of both. In raven communities, for example, each flock has a breeding pair and a bunch of singles who help protect the breeding pair’s young, search for food, connect with other flocks, and otherwise spend their time doing barrel-rolls on roofs, mid-air cartwheels with their talons entwined with each other, mimicking sounds (brilliantly), and, when they’re alone, singing to themselves. Likewise, geese will fight over the breeding area, but if they lose the fight, they will head off to the subarctic summer grazing area with the rest of the non-breeders and party all summer until it’s time to head south for the winter.Parenting is a privilege, and its price is full-time work. For the rest, young and old, what keeps them getting up in the morning is principally having the prospect of having fun. If life for a species becomes tedious rather than joyous, it is likely that Darwin’s rules would have that unhappy species underperform at the survival game, and yield to some other species that has more reason for living than just survival.There is growing anthropological evidence that early human societies were also largely leisurely, with perhaps an hour a day, or a day a week, needed to gather or catch the community’s food, and the rest of the time given over to art, exploration, play, and just living in the moment. This is how life works in a world of abundance.

But today we live in a world of ever-growing scarcity. While a smaller percentage of humans are destitute than was the case in civilization’s earlier centuries, those brief gains have come at the cost of the desolation of the Earth, and the theft of irreplaceable resources from our children and the other species who co-habit our planet, soaring debts that are unsustainable. Today in much of the world we keep work longer and harder just to make ends meet. Instead of having children every five years or so, as they did in ‘prehistoric’ times, many women in recent millennia and even now have children every year, because the only asset they have to offer up to those who can keep them from destitution is the labour of many children. Prior to civilization and permanent settlement, having more than one child each five years was impossible, since the unweaned needed to be carried everywhere the nomadic tribe went until they were old enough to keep up on their own two feet. Nature enabled this by sharply reducing fertility during breastfeeding. It worked, so by evolution’s rules this was the way we lived. Lots of walking, but lots of fun, too. Not so for modern humans.

For civilized humans, parenting is not a privilege with a five-year respite but an expectation and responsibility for every adult (reinforced by social mores, religious dogma and, in much of the world, brutal economic necessity). More children means more work to raise and provide for them. So now marriage, which we have somehow come to believe is an integral part of parenting, has become another job (This is one of the theses of Laura Kipnis’ wonderful book Against Love). And in civilized society, we all have to be interdependent (self-sufficiency is a naturally effective way to live, but a terribly inefficient one), so we must also have a job in service of others (so that we can afford to have them serve us in return, without which we would live, as Derrick Jensen puts it, in constant fear of not having enough).

So we grow up, most of us, working at a job in service of others, working to keep a marriage and home together, and working at raising children. So when do we have fun? Sex is now often work within a marriage, almost always forbidden outside a marriage, depressingly monetized, and fraught with danger — and the self-service alternative is stigmatized. No fun there. How about sports? Well, it’s an industry now. Work hard, use the right drugs, bribe the right judges, and you can be ‘successful’ at sports — it’s become work too. If you don’t like working that hard, you can be an observer of sports and arts: That’s an industry, too — the entertainment business. The ‘players’ are the people on the field or on the stage, and they’re working very hard. No play there. And we in the bleachers and in the loges are mere spectators — that’s not play either.

When we’re children, as I wrote before, we are addicted to play — we don’t want to do anything else. This is a natural addiction — it’s how nature makes learning fun. We know better than to confuse this with the torture that takes place in classrooms — learning that’s no fun. But we never really lose the addiction — we’re meant to love playing all our lives, whenever the opportunity arises. We are not supposed to stop learning. If we haven’t learned enough from play by the time we become parents — enough to be good parents — well, then Darwin will take care to remove our lineage from the gene pool so that the error is not repeated.

What has happened to play, though, in recent years? Play is no longer open-ended, physically rough-and-tumble, mostly outdoors, social, and unstructured. Our children are kept indoors for their health and/or safety (indeed, it is now sometimes hard to get them to even go outside). Their toys and games are closed-ended: Specific rules, limited options. They are physically unchallenging. They are asocial or even anti-social, interacting with objects instead of people. They are highly structured. What kind of fun is this? Instead of being addicted to tag they are addicted to a video game. This is a different kind of addiction — one driven by adrenaline instead of endorphins. It increases stress levels instead of lowering them. Winning becomes important instead of learning. Mental exhaustion replaces physical exhaustion. Reflex replaces creativity. Watch children playing video games, and listen: How much laughter do you hear?

So then they get older, and the games change. They are invited to ‘create’ new realities, but these new games are still governed by intricate rules and limited options. Whereas ‘real’ play is socially engaging, these games are social escapism. What little you learn is of value only in the hermetically sealed artificial world. Adult organized games like golf and poker (at least when you play the same poker variant over and over) may offer a little more social

The essence of fun and play is imagination — and that is not the same thing as creativity. I think we live in a world of enormous imaginative poverty, not because we’re incapable of imagination, but because we’re badly out of practice. The words play and work are antonyms, a dichotomy of all human activity. They are their own root words, so their meaning is clearly fundamental to all human experience. They are impossible to define well using other words — we just know what they mean. The word fun is inextricably associated with play. The significant differentiator between work and play is that work has a predetermined objective while play does not. So if the objective of an activity is to win, then it is work, not play.

The idea of doing something without any predetermined objective is now foreign to us. To us, such ‘idleness’ smacks of thoughtlessness, even rogue behaviour: Aren’t graffiti and vandalism the consequences of ‘doing something without a predetermined objective’? Maybe that’s why we want people to work all the time — we don’t trust people to play. If we can’t imagine, we can do anything.

If we want to relearn how to play, to have real fun — the kind that is delightful and not merely exhilarating — we first need to relearn howto imagine, and practice it. The children and animals can show us how.

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13 Responses to If Our Job Is Work, and Marriage is Work, And Recreation is Work, When Do We Have Fun?

  1. lugon says:

    “In praise of idleness” was written by some phylosopher. Can’t remember who.

  2. Bob G says:

    Thanks, I needed that one.I enjoy your blogBob

  3. Rob Paterson says:

    Lovely Dave – so true

  4. Mariella says:

    This is my take about non modern wisdom..:..In Non Modern cultures daily life, play, make love, go to harvest or knit their weavings, raise their children, eat, practice their rituals or sleep, happens in a continuum life, where no action is more important than the other, just like the seasons, changes naturally come. And acceptance, instead of confrontation, just like we accept seasons, is the philosophic stone, the foundation supporting this liberty.Is the conscious of the enough. The adaptation of the Self to the Whole. They change and adapt themselves, instead of trying to change the world

  5. Mariella says:

    About Cognitive Strategies : Some say that every doing of ours, the way we use our knowledge to achieve whatever, is supported by a cognitive learned strategy.If we succeed in being depressive : it

  6. eric says:

    Dave, I discovered your site a couple of months ago and keep coming back to it. You have an incredible talent for reading and synthesizing so much that is out there. I don

  7. Brad Carson says:

    Reminds me of the book I am currently reading called “Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West” by John Ralston Saul — about how structure and rationalization have stifled creativity, imagination, fluidity, etc. Nice post Dave!

  8. Great article, Dave.I don’t buy the evolutionary psychology/sociology, but what you’re saying about play is right on. The way we’re raising our kids right now is putting them in the exact environment you’re talking about.Now: how to break out of that pattern?

  9. As a 55yo, I’m so glad I grew up in a time and place (1950s/60s NYC) when play dates, organized activities, chauffeuring parents, and resume-building kids’ schedules did not exist. The after-school times and entire summers I spent “doing nothing” were the best times of my life, and I have tried to replicate them all my adult life.

  10. Ronnie says:

    “Watch children playing video games, and listen: How much laughter do you hear?” — Oh, Dave, TONS!! And when a whole family plays video games together, there is conversation, companionship, and a closeness that is immeasurably valuable. Our gaming time is *exactly* the playtime you say we are missing. It is very physical, very social, nobody cares for more than a minute or two who wins, and the game’s objective is so transparently separate from the types of objectives one finds in the Real World that it is effectively no objective at all! PLEASE be more original than to blame video games for the world’s ills. It is far more accurate to blame schools and other big-business enterprises.

  11. Mariella says:

    Hi Ronnie, I don´t play video games but in my home, my children and their friends play and chat and laugh a lot too, I find they have (as well as you describe) had the ability to build a healthy social doing out of it. ¿But can you assure it is so everywhere? How many lonely children only have their PC as company and feedback? not to mention what the contents of some video games are made of…. Take a look at the macro reality.

  12. Martin-Eric says:

    “When do we have fun?” is precisely what Päivi and Santeri asked themselves a couple of years ago, when they left their prestigious jobs and sold everything to go on a world tour. They have written a couple of PDF books (downloadable from their site) about how they came to the conclusion that being a mere cog in the economic machine is counter-productive for someone whose goal in life is happiness and bliss, even if one’s place in the corporate ladder is at the top.I know very little about Päivi, but Santeri is famous for founding Finland’s only Linux vendor, SOT Linux, which was later renamed Best Linux to cover for the wider Baltic market. He was a much-admired figure in the Finnish free software scene and did a lot to popularize Linux in Finland and in the Baltic countries, back when Linux was still a big question mark. Still, all the fortune and fame did not bring Santeri happiness. The Lutherian ideal of hard work paying off some day did not work. After several divorces, Santeri noticed that he was married to his startup, rather than to his spouse, so he sold his shares in the very company he founded, handed over his resignation and focused on being happy with Päivi. Päivi did the same with her high-profile position in some consulting company. They got married and then both left with a backpack each and have been roaming the globe, living a simpler, but happier life, ever since then.

  13. Ronnie says:

    Lonely children relying on video games for company and feedback is a sign of bad or overwhelmed parents. The video game use is a symptom, not the real problem.As for the content, that’s another subject, isn’t it? The content of a game has little bearing on whether playing the game counts as “real” play or not. I will say, though, that all the public concern over video-game content is amazingly similar to the concern expressed back when television was new and full of truly alarming material like Howdy Doody and I Love Lucy. It’s people running off at the mouth without anything to back up their doomsday predictions. These people never stop to consider that the terrible trends they perceive are not trends at all but simply human reality. Or, if trends there are, then their causes are much deeper and harder to fix than video-game and television content.Try taking those lonely kids out of the schools that smash and inhibit their natural learning, imagination, and creativity, that suck dry all the minutes of their day that *should* be spent in play, and then see what you get.

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