Cheers-ing with friends at a bar or sinking into the couch for an episode of your favorite dramedy are things that anyone might classify as “fun” without controversy: You do them for the instant pleasure of it. But the same thing can’t be said for a set of other activities that folks also willingly do for, yes, fun—like running marathons or hiking treacherous trails. Falling within a particular category of fun called “type 2 fun,” these pursuits are enjoyable in the broader scope of someone’s life, rather than in the moment. And that’s the funny thing about the brain on fun: Different parts of it can have a positive response to very different types of “fun” activities.
The concept of “type 2 fun” comes from the fun scale that’s most widely used within the outdoor adventure community. It specifies that regular old fun fun—the stuff that feels pleasurable while you’re doing it—is “type 1.” “Type 2 fun” covers fun-in-retrospect activities (like a tough hike or ski run), which can also sometimes bleed into the wilder “type 3 fun” category, if they become the life-altering fodder of books—for example, getting trapped in an avalanche or stranded in a desert. Those activities are quite a stretch for denoting “fun,” though, and aren’t beloved or sought out by adventurists in the way that type 2 fun most definitely is.
Type 1 fun is fun the moment; type 2 fun is fun in retrospect.
“In climbing both mountains and smaller cliffs or boulders, there’s an element of the homemade cookie or the well-choreographed dance,” says pro rock climber and Patagonia ambassador Kate Rutherford of the effort involved in any type-2 fun activity. The hard work of “digging your fingertips into granite crystals and connecting your hands and feet by engaging your core” only makes the view from the summit that much more satisfying, she says.
Using an explanation common to folks who live and breathe by the fun scale, skier and mountain biker Addy Jacobsend describes type 2 fun simply as “still fun, just more so when you’re done.” And in that realm, it can stretch beyond the scope of outdoor activities to include things like difficult creative endeavors (say, writing a book or painting a portrait) or even planning a wedding or buying a home—all of which tend to be more “fun” after the fact.
How type 2 fun may be uniquely rewarding to experience
The common theme with any kind of fun is some version of positive emotions trickling up at some point. But whether you feel these emotions in the moment or in retrospect is the result of a few different parts of the brain at work, according to neuroscientist Alex Korb, PhD, author of The Upward Spiral. “The habit part of your brain wants you to do stuff that is familiar; your reward circuitry wants you to do stuff that’s immediately pleasurable; and the thinking part of your brain—the prefrontal cortex—wants you to do something that’ll move you toward long-term goals or well-being,” he says.
Where people tend to restrict their sense of satisfaction is by sticking only to the everyday habits punctuated by intervals of instant reward—aka type 1 fun, which Dr. Korb calls “spring break happiness,” à la drinking margaritas by the beach. “This is certainly fun and serves a purpose, but generally only as a break from the achievement-oriented and meaningful activities in our lives,” he says. In other words? It would likely lose its novelty—and feel decidedly less fun—if you were doing it all the time.
“We have this natural desire to create a narrative arc of our lives and the meaning that we bring to the world.” —Brooke Struck, PhD, behavioral scientist
By contrast, type 2 fun can get at that “long-term goals” part of the brain that’s looking to build a sense of identity. “We have this natural desire to create a narrative arc of our lives and the meaning that we bring to the world, and overcoming challenges helps us do that,” says behavioral scientist Brooke Struck, PhD, research director at The Decision Lab. Much of the gratification resulting from type 2 fun comes from the struggle it involves: “Challenge is the site of growth, and growth helps define who we are as people,” he says.
The more type 2 adventures you successfully navigate, the better you’re bound to feel about yourself, too. “These achievements can give you a sense of control over things, which the brain loves,” says Dr. Korb. “The result is more self-efficacy and confidence. It’s like, ‘okay, if I could do that tough thing, I can probably withstand whatever else comes my way.’”
And the more you share your type 2 pursuits with others—whether in the moment or after the fact—the more coherent and strong that personal narrative becomes, says Dr. Struck. “Receiving approbation from others gives you that tingle of dopamine that also helps cement the experience as ‘fun’ and worthy, no matter how grueling it was in the moment,” he says.
Certain people are more likely to enjoy type 2 adventures than others
No matter how rewarding type 2 fun may be after the fact, the physical or mental turmoil inherent to it in real time may still outweigh the benefit for some folks. “While there are universal elements of the brain, the specific tuning and communication between all those circuits is unique to you, as are your life circumstances,” says Dr. Korb. “And that’s why some people would look at training for a marathon as the worst thing possible, whereas others would say, ‘Yeah, it’s tough, but I know it would give me a sense of fulfillment and meaning.’”
These distinct perspectives aren’t just about how you perceive the final result, though; certain peoples’ brains are more attuned to handle type 2 fun in the moment, too. For instance, some might experience an escapist upside to the physical struggle of something like bouldering or mountain biking; it can bring one back to their body in a way that distracts from other problems they might be managing. For others, the feeling of being in nature or in bright sunlight can trigger enough serotonin release to make powering through, say, a tough hike, worthy. And in still others, any kind of intense exercise regularly leads to a “runner’s high”—a euphoric release of endorphins that quells the physical pain they would otherwise experience, says Dr. Korb.
Also common among those who tend to enjoy type 2 fun is a particular mindset: It’s this idea of, “I choose to,” rather than “I have to,” says Dr. Korb. “When you reinforce for yourself that the physical or mental struggle you’re going through is a choice and not an obligation, it changes how your brain perceives pain,” he says. In effect, that mindset limits its power, allowing ultramarathoners and alpine climbers to persevere even through agony.
As for why people tend to repeat type 2 fun activities? For one reason, your personal narrative gets stronger with every additional triumph over tribulation, says Dr. Struck. “The brain likes simple patterns and causal explanations,” he says. “The more you engage in the same tough behavior only to succeed again, the more cognitive coherence that creates.”
Also, the brain is hardwired to forget or downplay intense pain in our memories of an experience, particularly if it ended well, thanks to something called peak-end theory, says Dr. Korb. “Say, you had a terrible hike that was rainy and dangerous, but then the sun came out just as you made it to the top and you snapped this great picture,” he says. “That ending will skew your perception of the experience, and you’ll remember it much more positively than it was.”
Even less obviously trenches-to-triumph situations can leave you looking back with rose-colored glasses, if the takeaway was positive: Whether you accomplished something or learned something about yourself or even just reaffirmed your own resilience, that’s the story that’ll imprint in your mind, says Dr. Korb. And that can effectively smudge out all the pain you faced to get there, so much so that you’d willingly do the activity again in the name of “fun.”
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