The Mystery of “Type 2 Fun”
From THE GLOBE AND MAIL, Sept 3, 2021
Last week, two videos landed in my inbox – field dispatches, from two friends who took off on adventures as soon as COVID-19 restrictions eased. One friend was cycling through the Rockies on a one-speed bike, sleeping rough and grinding it out over high alpine passes; the other was traversing the highlands of Iceland with his wife. Theirs was also a bicycle trip, at least nominally, although the couple seemed to be spending as much time carrying their bikes as they did actually riding them. “This ‘bikepacking,’ ” my friend posted after one very hard day, “is kicking the crap out of us.”
It all seemed enormously punishing. And yet, knowing my friends, I suspect that they’ll start thinking about their next adventure as soon as they return home and lick their wounds, expecting that if it’s even half as much fun as their last, it’ll be amazing.
Wait: How exactly does having the crap kicked out of you qualify as “fun”? What you need to understand, says the Colorado mountaineer and writer Kelly Cordes, is that we’re talking about a specific type of fun – what he calls “Type Two Fun.”
Mr. Cordes popularized The Fun Scale, which proposes that fun comes in three flavours. Type One Fun is just pure pleasure: Eating a doughnut, or watching a movie, or flying a kite, or skiing in fresh powder. Type Two Fun is miserable while it’s happening, but fun in retrospect, like my friends’ trips. Type Three Fun is no fun at all – not in the moment, not ever. It just sucks. (For example: A failed relationship that never contained much Type One Fun in the first place.)
Mr. Cordes isn’t a psychologist, but the fact that his Fun Scale resonates so deeply suggests he is on to something real.
The first and third types of fun are easy enough to understand: one is obvious, and one is ironic. But what’s the deal with that Type Two? What are the components of the mysterious equation of pain + time = gratification? Why would the brain invent such a cover story?
One theory is that this is just nature’s way to get us to do hard things. Otherwise no one would ever have a second child, or run a second marathon (which, millennia ago when we were living on the savannah, we’d have had to do to bag an antelope for next week’s dinner).
George Loewenstein, a psychologist and economist at Carnegie Mellon University, explained this through the lens of intense exercise, in a recent interview with NPR. He described how he used to go for lung-busting runs, churning up the steep hills of Pittsburgh, but the half-life of the actual pain would be short, before the happy chemicals hit the body’s reward circuitry like a gong. Almost right away, in the “cool state” of retrospective reflection post-run, Dr. Loewenstein literally could not remember what the unpleasant “hot state” of screaming muscles and oxygen debt felt like – all that was left was the triumphant memory of having done it. “It was all forgotten, within maybe 10, 20 seconds,” he said. The next move was a no-brainer: He laced ‘em up again the next day.
But Type Two Fun isn’t just about self-motivating biochemistry. We humans crave a feeling of progress, and so we also crave tests for ourselves. Ideally, these tests should be passable, but only barely so: the sweet spot that the psychologist Nick Hobbs called “just-manageable difficulty.” A perfect life, then, might be spent skating along the knife’s-edge of your competence. (We are maximally motivated, research suggests, when we reckon we have a 50/50 chance of succeeding.) “When one achieves this fine-tuning of his life,” said Dr. Hobbs, “he will know zest and joy.” (And also, surely, the Third Horseman of Deep Fulfilment – a sense of “liberation,” no matter how brief, from psychological restriction.)
In this finely tuned state, time collapses and we fall into that blissfully familiar state called “flow.” Contrast this with Type One Fun, which is really just quick sensory pleasure; it bursts like fireworks and then is gone, leaving a spiritual carbon footprint in the sky. If Type One Fun is purely hedonism, and Type Three Fun is masochism, Type Two Fun is more like stoicism. There’s a sense that you’ve banked the unpleasant stuff, that you’re somehow better off for having endured it and have now truly earned the joy. In that way, “Are we having fun yet?” also means, “I’m pretty sure we’re building character here, though we have no way to measure it.”
That’s why, when my bikepacking friend posted daily updates from the Icelandic tundra – casting us all as witnesses to an otherworldly landscape but also to the inconvenient rivers and the unrideably steep bits and the winds so fierce they nearly blew them off their bikes – he just tipped his hat to these obstacles for “keeping us honest.” It was clear that for him, Type Two Fun is also an attitude – a philosophy in itself.
Psychologists have a term for how our memory tends to sweeten past events, cherry-picking the good and ignoring the bad. They call it “rosy retrospection.” This isn’t exactly the same as nostalgia, but it’s what drives nostalgia – the dreamy reverie of how much better things used to be before.
But what many people don’t appreciate about nostalgia, notes the psychologist Krystine Batcho, is just how social it is. “It connects us to other people … in many beautiful ways.” When you’re rosily retrospecting, you’re not just thinking about what fun you were having; you’re thinking about who you were having all that fun with, and how you’ll share it with others.
The social dimension of Type Two Fun can’t, I think, be overstated. Even if you’re on a solo adventure, like my friend conquering the Rockies on a fixed-gear bike, part of the payoff is knowing that every squall and setback and close brush with death will make a good story. The stories of our misadventures are like what they say about wood: It heats you twice, once in the chopping and once in the burning. Pleasure shared is more pleasurable, and pain shared is diminished.
A kind of bonding happens when people endure hardship together that’s hard to achieve any other way. And that – exactly what we’ve been missing during the COVID-19 pandemic – is the stuff of good memories. Just ask any veteran hoisting a pint at the legion with old platoon-mates, or battered-and-bruised hockey players passing around the Stanley Cup. Or a couple schlepping their bikes up a snowfield in Iceland. (It’s better than marriage therapy, if you survive it.)
I saw this up-close when I was researching for my 2014 book What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star, and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives. I followed Masters track-and-field athletes – competitors who were older than 40 – who travelled from meet to meet – and witnessed a camaraderie the likes of which I’d never seen before in any group of people. Competing at a high level in your 60s or 70s or 80s involves no small amount of pain; the engine doesn’t necessarily want to red line it any more, and if you try, it will make you pay. These folks weren’t competing against each other, I realized: They were competing together against Father Time. By the end of a meet, everybody’s hobbling around – and basking in a level of deep fulfilment that frankly, made me envious.
Type Two Fun can be a way of life for us all – these competitors just take it to its logical extreme. On the last day of the world championships in Sacramento in 2011, I watched two competitors, visibly limping, part ways at the taxi stand.
“Will you be back next year, Bill?” one said.
“Better believe it,” replied his friend. “If you don’t see me, it means I died.”