When life handed the world lemons in the form of a global pandemic, Catherine Price found a way to make lemonade. She began researching and writing a book that would help readers define, prioritize and add more fun to their lives. For anyone hoping to make 2022 a banner year, The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again provides the perfect jump-start. Instead of trying to corral the willpower and restraint that’s key to so many self-improvement plans, Price prioritizes fun, a strategy she compares to “going on a diet that requires you to eat more foods that you love.”
“We go into this self-restriction phase after the indulgence of the holidays,” Price says, speaking by phone from her Philadelphia home. “But you can make positive change in your life and have fun. In January, we feel like we have to make up for anything we did in December, instead of realizing that this is a wonderful opportunity to set a good tone for the new year by doing things that make us happier.”
Price notes that millions of people devote time and therapy to reducing stress and anxiety, but most of us contemplate fun only as an afterthought. “I've drunk my own Kool-Aid,” Price admits, her voice brimming with enthusiasm. “Really, fun is one of the most important things in life, and the more fun we have and the more we prioritize fun, the happier and healthier we will be.” As she writes in The Power of Fun, “It should be our guiding star.”
Price’s latest book is a natural sequel to her 2018 book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, which she wrote after realizing that she was spending hours mindlessly scrolling on her smartphone while ignoring her infant daughter. By limiting her screen time, Price created more free time—but then she didn’t know what she actually wanted to do with that time.
For Price, her most vivid experiences of fun occurred while learning to play the guitar. Once she realized that, one thing led to another: She formed a small band, began performing at open mic nights, started drum lessons and made new friends—activities she particularly relished because her work as a freelance writer is so solitary. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Price and her musical friends had numerous outside jam sessions, sometimes in bone-chilling weather. “We did this for the entire winter,” she says, reminiscing about a keyboard that is probably still covered in campfire ashes. “The fact that all of us committed to this source of fun was so meaningful. We went beyond playmates and became friends. And it all came from having a couple other people in my life who also prioritized fun.”
For The Power of Fun, Price surveyed numerous people in detail about their own fun experiences and how they felt during those moments. She calls her writing “science-backed self-help,” explaining, “I don’t like the sort of self-help that’s just platitudes. I really want there to be some evidence. I want to know exactly why I’m doing something.” However, as she dug into the material, she was shocked to discover that there wasn’t even an agreed-upon definition of fun, nor was there much research on the subject.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to set a good tone for the new year by doing things that make us happier.”
Price eventually decided to label passive entertainment, like watching TV for hours at a time, as Fake Fun and to create her own definition for True Fun—moments of what she calls “playful, connected flow” in which someone connects with other people in a meaningful way and becomes so fully engrossed in the moment that they lose track of time. There’s a lot of middle ground between these two poles, Price notes, full of enjoyable, worthwhile pastimes that simply don’t reach peak fun. Luckily, The Power of Fun includes a Fun Audit, which Price developed to help readers identify the activities most likely to spark inner joy.
Price stresses that it’s equally important for each person to recognize activities that aren’t personally fun. For instance, Price knows that she doesn’t like charades or performing improv comedy, and that while she enjoys being part of musical groups, she’s not a solo performer. “If you’ve tried something a number of times and it never generates fun for you, then maybe it’s OK to move on to the next thing,” she says. “By saying no to that, you might open up a new opportunity that’s actually fun.”
Speaking of things that aren’t personally fun—Price faced multiple challenges as she wrote about this joyful magic ingredient “during an objectively not-fun period of history.” One moment was especially memorable, when she found herself alone for several days in the midst of the pandemic. “Imagine, if you will,” she writes in the book, “me slouched in front of my laptop with about fifteen browser windows open, each containing a different research paper about the horrible health effects of loneliness and isolation, as I sat on the couch, isolated and alone.”
“At the same time,” Price says, “the project had a powerfully positive effect on my own life. It allowed me to weather a difficult time with my sanity intact—and in fact, with my cheerfulness intact. It gave me something positive to focus on.”
At the start of the 2020 lockdown, Price, her husband and their young daughter headed to Price’s childhood home in New Jersey, where her parents could help with child care. “It was interesting to see my daughter playing in some of the very same places that I had played as a kid. But it was also interesting to reflect on what play means as an adult,” Price says. “Having a 5-year-old is very useful for reminding yourself that there are opportunities for playfulness and connection and flow around us all the time. We just need to learn to tune into them.”
This change of focus even improved Price’s marriage. “[My husband and I] were very playful people to begin with,” she says, “but it’s been really useful for us to reframe our own experience through the lens of fun and treat it as a priority, both as a couple and individually.”
“If you’re having fun with people . . . you’re embracing your shared humanity.”
In addition to improving interpersonal relationships, Price believes this process could even heal some of the nation’s divides. “Fun brings people together,” she says. “If you’re having fun with people, you’re not yelling at them, you’re not emphasizing your political differences. You’re embracing your shared humanity.”
Price became a science writer somewhat by accident. In high school, she believed science classes were boring, hard and irrelevant. That feeling changed at age 22, when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. “That moment of having to take control of my own blood sugar for the rest of my life, lest I suffer devastating consequences, like blindness or amputation or stroke or kidney failure, was a big turning point,” she recalls.
An added influence was Michael Pollan, Price’s mentor at the University of California, Berkeley, journalism program, who helped her discover that she likes “writing about health and science in a quirky, personal, fun way.” For one assignment, Price wrote about being diagnosed with diabetes, which led to the New York Times publishing her essay “Thinking About Diabetes With Every Bite” in 2009. Eventually, she even wrote a book about nutrition called Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food.
“Writing this book made me tune into what made me want to become a writer to begin with.”
For years Price has contemplated writing a book about hormones, a subject that fascinates her, but now she thinks she’ll choose a different topic for her next project. “I want to really lean into this fun thing,” she says. “I personally feel that my books come most alive whenever I’m telling a personal anecdote, and I love writing that way. Writing this book made me tune into what made me want to become a writer to begin with.”
Price hopes The Power of Fun will likewise help readers gather with friends and “spend January or February staging their own kind of ‘funterventions.’” Once you start noticing tiny, everyday moments, she says, “it brightens up your life, and, in turn, that buoyancy can help energize you so that you can start to seek out even bigger moments of playful, connected flow. I see it as a very self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing cycle with innumerable positive effects.”
These lessons have led to a very different life, Price explains. “Realizing what I really want to prioritize as fun has been truly life-changing. And I’m so excited to share that message with the world.”
Author photo by Colin Lenton