Fun, un-Fun, and Anti-Fun

When pronounced with an accent that isn’t one of the many and varied anglophone ones, the English word “Fun” sounds pretty bad.  When said with an accent and spit out in distain, it sounds even worse. Although not comfortably wed with the work-ethic cliché of North Americans, a cliché that ranks right up there with the superficial friendships and fake smiles cliché is that Americans always wants to have “fun.”  For instance: “Everything at school always has to be ‘fun.’” Drinking Kool-Aid, munching on fish crackers, this all has to be fun. And that is bad. 

Of course, “fun” might be related to smiling, so one possible hypothesis is that “if everyone is having fun, then then it’s not really fun.”  But if that’s how you felt about it, then you might feel pity instead of distain.  On the other hand, the underlying theory cannot be “if everyone is having fun, then nothing is getting done,” because that would be inconsistent with imperialism and capitalism.  Not getting stuff done would be eating late and being cool, so the “fun” would now be something to be admired rather than distained.

We spent a year in the US and when back in our own laboratory in France for a week, my husband mentioned to a colleague that our kids were enjoying school back there.  He said they looked forward to going to school, and were liking to learn. He expressed positive feelings about all of that, but made no cross-national comparisons.  The colleague asked with some doubt, “Do you really think it is necessary to enjoy school?” 

According to Kotchemidova's (2005) account of the social history of cheerfulness in the United States, there was a change from a preference for expressions of melancholy to those of  “good cheer” over the eighteenth century.  Apparently the early modern period of American culture was marked, consistent with European culture, by a focus on feelings of sadness and melancholy.  Suffering was held, in traditional Christian teaching, to be the road to virtue.  Parliamentary institutions on both continents endorsed a “culture of sadness”:  In both Britain and America people were often portrayed in literature as “doleful,” and women characterized themselves as expressing sadness and tears in diaries.

But then the Age of Enlightenment in religious thought brought about a change in the public expression of emotion as a religious act of virtue.  According to the emerging thought, enlightened individuals were supposed to display cheerfulness.  Sadness and melancholy were considered passive, and cheerfulness was in contrast held to be a sign of human agency, which was viewed in both England and the United States as a desirable characteristic. So, a different social norm for cheerfulness emerged in England and the United States, particularly when compared to cultures defined by entirely different religious traditions.

If cheerfulness is important for a culture, then it might be associated with good outcomes both in learning and in the work place.  It’s a hypothesis that has received support in the psychological literature.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 6:43 AM JUN 14, 2011