having fun with friends

The Benefits of Having Fun with Friends

I’m not here to say that it’s impossible to have fun by yourself–it’s just better to have fun with friends. At least that’s what some new research shows.

For as much as people search for fun in their lives, you’d think social psychologists would have developed a huge industry around the the “science of fun,” but that’s not the case. Even though we all have our own armchair psychologist theories of fun and why it’s so great, some fundamental points never received careful scientific attention. Who knows? Maybe our assumptions about fun are wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.[1]  For example, I assumed it would be fun to force my friends to watch all of the Lord of the Rings movies in one day. They made it clear that I was wrong.

Other People Influence Our Emotions

I know. You’re thinking, “Obviously, other people influence our emotions. Obviously.” After all, any time someone insults you, compliments you, or cuts you off in traffic, that person is influencing your emotions.

What I mean, though, is that the mere presence of other people can affect how intensely we feel particular emotions.

fun05For example, one early study observed people in a bowling alley to see how strongly they expressed happiness after doing well.[2]  This study may contain my favorite statistic I’ve ever seen in a psychology study. It expresses its sample size as “N = 1,793 balls.” Seriously. Is there anything better? They found that people were more likely to smile after getting a good score after they turned around and saw their friends and fellow bowlers. When they were still looking at the cold, lifeless pins, having a good frame didn’t translate into expressed emotion.

Other research has shown similar results. For instance, people are more likely to laugh when they’re with other people than when they are by themselves. This all just supports the idea that we often feel emotions more intensely when other people are around.

When Fun is More Fun

If other people can intensify our emotions, then it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that activities would be more fun if we did them with other people. Recent studies have put that prediction to the test by using a handful of creative methods.

fun02They gave more than 200 people a mobile device that they carried with them for three days. Ten times a day, the device would alert the person to take a very short survey. This survey simply asked whether the person had done anything “fun” since the last time the device rang. It also asked two other questions: how enjoyable was your fun experience and was there another person involved?

Roughly 70% of the time, people said that their fun experience was shared with someone else. More importantly, though, people tended to say that the experience was more enjoyable when it was shared with someone else.

It’s possible, though, that this has nothing to do with the influence that other people have on us. Maybe we just do different fun things when we’re alone vs. with friends, and it just so happens that what we do with friends is more fun than what we do alone. To address this, the researchers did another study where they had everyone do exactly the same thing.

They had more than 250 people play the classic game, Jenga, for 15 minutes, but people either played this game alone, with a stranger, or with a friend.

Not surprisingly, Jenga was way more fun when people played it with someone else than when they played it by themselves. It was also the case, though, that it was even more fun when people played with a friend. These results paint a clear picture that spending time with friends doing something fun can be a simple road to feeling happier.

What Kind of Fun Do Friends Help Us Have?

having fun with friendsAnother part of these studies, though, focused on exactly what kinds of emotions do we feel after having fun. You might be getting impatient and are thinking, “Obviously having fun makes you feel happy. Obviously.” 

But hang on a second–the question is a little more nuanced than you’d expect because you can think of positive emotions in a few different ways, and one of them depends on how energizing it is. For example, you can feel good because you feel excited and enthusiastic, and you can also feel good because you feel calm and relaxed. Does doing something fun make you feel good in both ways?

In the studies that used mobile devices to give people a series of micro-surveys, the researchers were also asking people more specific questions about how they were feeling. They used a series of adjectives to see what kinds of positive emotions people were feeling.

Overall, the results showed that after people did something they said was “fun,” they tended to be in more positive moods of both types. In other words, doing something fun can make you feel more enthusiastic and content.

I think the more interesting finding, though, relates to the social aspect. What kind of positive mood do your friends help bring out? After doing something fun with a friend, people tended to be in better moods, but it was specifically the high-energy positivity (i.e., excited, enthusiastic, interested) that improved.

All in Good Fun

So that’s where we are. The new science of fun. These results might not strike you as earth-shattering, but such is the nature of science. Although you might have assumed that some of these things were true, until a careful set of studies sets out to gather the necessary evidence, we can never be too sure. Nevertheless, these studies did reveal a surprising insight, which is that there’s a real difference in the types of positive emotions that friends can help us achieve. Without specifically thinking about those separately, we might not have realized that this was the case.

Your happiness is in your hands now. You want to ramp up your fun? I know that you might sometimes feel compelled to stay home and watch TV, which is plenty of fun–I agree. But maybe invite a friend over and your night will be even more enjoyable.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  For example, I assumed it would be fun to force my friends to watch all of the Lord of the Rings movies in one day. They made it clear that I was wrong.
2.  This study may contain my favorite statistic I’ve ever seen in a psychology study. It expresses its sample size as “N = 1,793 balls.” Seriously. Is there anything better?

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