Author Q&A: Catherine Price

– Interview by Elena Bowes

Photo credit: Colin Lenton

Catherine Price is the author of two life-enhancing books, How to Break Up with Your Phone and more recently, The Power of Fun, How to Feel Alive Again. One book led to the other. First Price realised that our lives are what we pay attention to. She realised that once she broke up with her phone, she had no idea what to do with her spare time. The Power of Fun offers a practical, evidence-based plan to find the long-lost fun in our lives.

What inspired you to first write Breaking up with Your Phone?

I have a background in science journalism and mindfulness, and I have always been committed to trying to live a full and meaningful life. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of that. I was feeding my baby daughter in the middle of the night. I was exhausted and I had this out of body experience and saw the scene as it would appear to someone outside of me and there was this baby looking up at me and the mother looking down at her phone. I realised it was not how I wanted her to think of a human relationship and it’s certainly not how I wanted to live my own life and so that’s what inspired How to Break Up with Your Phone. I realised there weren’t many people talking about (phone addiction), but I certainly wasn’t alone in having this issue. So, I wanted to combine the reasons it’s so hard to have a healthy relationship with our devices and an exploration into the effects these unhappy relationships might be having on us.

And what inspired you to write The Power of Fun?

It’s one thing to realise the value of our attention, but it’s another thing to decide where you want to spend your attention. My husband and I were in the practice of taking 24-hour breaks from technology. I was sitting in our living room, my daughter was taking a nap, my husband was out and I had this glorious hour where I could do whatever I wanted. Instead of being happy and diving into something that would bring me joy, I realised I had no idea what I wanted to do with my free time. I had gotten so used to letting my phone and the internet fill up my brain that I lost sight of how I wanted to fill ‘me time’. I thought,  “Oh my God, I’m just waiting to die.” I have a tendency to get existential.

So, I asked myself the question: what’s something I say I want to do but I supposedly don’t have time for? And my answer in that moment was “I want to learn the guitar.” I had a guitar for years, and I have a musical background so why am I not learning to play? I remember that I’d seen a flyer for an adult guitar class at a children’s music studio and signed up for that. It just resulted in this feeling which was at the same time familiar, and it also seemed foreign to me – it was this feeling of freedom, exhilaration and energy that lasted throughout the whole week. And it wasn’t just about learning a new skill, there was something bigger going on. I became fascinated by this feeling and tried to figure out what’s the best way to describe it. I concluded it’s fun. And that’s what inspired this book. Why is fun good for us, and how I and other people could have more of this. We’re out of practice, and once I got a taste of it, I was ravenous for more.

With these two books, you’ve been very self-aware. You observe what’s happening to you in your own life and then extrapolate that it’s probably happening to others. You then have the stamina and wherewithal and curiosity to write a book about it. It’s impressive.

You make this sound very noble, but I think I like to turn my personal issues into a professional project to solve it for myself and hopefully help people along the way too. Plus writing a book about fun during the pandemic was really helpful, to have something positive to focus on.

Why does having fun matter?

I should start by saying the reason people say it doesn’t matter, the common pushback – we don’t have time for fun, we have too many responsibilities, my to do list is too long, it’s just for privileged people, you have to be rich. There are so many problems in the world, why should we care about fun? It’s almost irresponsible to be saying people should be having fun.

All of those criticisms are misguided. Fun is not frivolous. It’s actually good for our health.

How is having fun actually good for us physically?

Fun is a low stress state – you’re not ruminating when you’re having fun, you’re not anxious when you’re having fun because you’re totally engrossed in your present experience. Anxiety is future focused, rumination is past focused so you’re not doing either of those things when you’re having fun. It’s having a good impact on our hormonal balance. The more fun you can have, the more balanced hormonally your body will be.

Another way having fun is good for us physically – having fun is an antidote to loneliness and isolation. There’s a substantial body of research that says loneliness and isolation are bad for us physically. The health effects of loneliness and isolation are said to be comparable to 15 cigarettes a day. You’re not lonely and you’re not isolated when you’re having fun. Having fun is almost a health intervention. It’s free in many cases, and it’s accessible so it’s a win, win, win. There’s no catch.

Is having fun good for us in other ways?

It also can help us solve the world’s problems. Too often we think life is black and white – if you’re prioritising fun then you can’t be a serious person who cares about the world, and I think that’s totally wrong.

Having fun helps us tap into our shared humanity. So if you’re having fun with someone you’re seeing them as another person, you’re not seeing them as an adversary or from a different political party. You’re just human beings. It breaks down some of these barriers that are causing so many problems right now.

How would you introduce fun pragmatically into political negotiations?

There’s a great book called Humor, Seriously, Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and in Life that is very applicable to having fun. One of the stories in the book is about Madeline Albright going to a diplomatic convention in Asia, negotiating something to do with Myanmar, it was very tense, there was a Russian adversary. What Albright didn’t realise until she got to the conference was a conference tradition: in addition to the negotiations, all the dignitaries had to do skits together. Long story short, Albright is paired with her Russian adversary. The Russian delegation brought a lot of vodka. The two politicians end up in a hotel room, rewriting West Side Story to become East West Side Story, and instead of ‘I just met a girl named Maria’, the song becomes, ‘I just met a girl named Madeline’. In the middle of dinner, Madeline starts singing a song, and then her Russian adversary joins her, and they do a duet. Hilarity ensues.

On the surface, people might be saying ‘what the hell, this is serious business, these people are being paid by tax payers…’ What Madeline explained later is that because she and the Russian had had this shared experience of fun, where they let down their guard and connected with each other as humans instead of as political rivals, when they later sat down at the negotiating table they were much more productive. It wasn’t like they agreed on everything or that there wasn’t tension, but she and the Russian had established a foundation of a human relationship between the two of them that endured throughout the time of their working together.

All that’s to say if having fun works for a high stakes negotiation then it can work for our everyday lives.

Can you define true fun versus fake fun?

The reason I felt the need to come up with the term true fun is because even though we use the term fun all the time, we don’t use it very precisely. We use it to describe all sorts of experiences, some of which do feel fun and some which don’t at all.

When I looked up fun in the dictionary it said, lighthearted pleasure. But when I reflected on experiences that I would consider truly fun, like my guitar class, it wasn’t just lighthearted pleasure. There was a joyful energy running through them that was much more powerful that those words would suggest. And that’s why I felt I needed to come up with a definition to begin with.

To make sure it wasn’t just based on me, I recruited a big group of people that I called the ‘fun squad’ and they shared experiences from their own lives that they would describe as having fun. The same feeling of joyful energy ran through theirs as well even though the details were different. That’s where I came up with the definition that true fun is the combination of connectedness, playfulness and flow. And fake fun is activities that are marketed to us as fun but don’t result in playful, connected flow. Because we don’t have a great definition of fun, we’re vulnerable to marketers that tell us something is fun.

What are some examples of fake fun?

Social media is one of the biggest examples. You’re just mindlessly scrolling. That’s where there are a lot of connections between this book and How to Break Up with Your Phone. Any business that is trying to get you to spend as much time as possible on their product is probably fake fun because they’re trying to manipulate you into giving up your time and your attention.

And while I don’t think there’s anything wrong with watching TV, the way that streaming services are designed to auto-play the next episode in three seconds, that often leads to fake fun. You might sit down to watch a show, and you might enjoy an episode or two, but all of a sudden you watch seven, and now you feel gross. It’s like the junk food of fun, initial jolt of pleasure but then you end up consuming in excess and you feel disgusted.

Once you have a label for something, then you can identify it, you can sort it and categorise it. So, if you’re able to look at your life and identify sources of fake fun, it’s kind of a low-hanging fruit, then you can eliminate that and then you have more time for good stuff. It will help free up time and space.

I love the quote in your book, “We can’t control the fact that we die, but we can control whether we actually live.”

I’m glad that you appreciated that because some people were like, ‘this book is really not fun.’ What drives me ultimately is trying to live as fully as possible. I don’t think anyone on their deathbed says “I wish I had spent more time on Instagram.” I did read a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying by a palliative care worker and one of the top regrets was ‘I wish I’d let myself be happier.’ I thought that was a very good counter to fun is frivolous, or that we don’t deserve to have fun or that we can’t enjoy our own lives.

Who knew having fun was so critical and so overlooked. Any other positives to letting ourselves just have a great time?

Yes, I’m a much better parent when I’m having fun for myself. I’m much more resilient and that’s backed up by research into positive psychology and the things that help people thrive. Positive experiences don’t just feel good, they actually help us cope with periods of stress. If I have more fun on my own, I am better able to have fun with my daughter. I can engage with her on her level instead of just being annoyed.

When I read your book, I started thinking a lot about what I do that’s actually fun. It’s not such an easy question. It would have been much easier to answer when I was a kid. Am I alone in thinking this?

There seems to be something really threatening to people about having fun. People tense up if you suggest having fun. I think when you talk about fun, it kind of makes people face the fact that they are not having fun, living the life that they want to and that feels really threatening. It’s hard to get to the next step, that it’s possible to get back in touch with that person who you just realised went missing.  You’re basically telling me that I’m dead. It gets existential quickly. I can imagine people realising that they’re totally unhappy in their marriages.

Tell me something surprising about yourself?

I’m 43 years old and I’m learning to play the drums. When I talk to my daughter and she says, ‘I can’t do a cartwheel. I add, ‘yet’. Why don’t we do that for ourselves as adults. Add the yet. I’m not dead. Yet.

– Interview by Elena Bowes

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