I’m all about solid research studies. I love empirical data. I used to hoard out-dated issues of Scientific American because I couldn’t bear to put them in the recycling bin. I swear, nothing gets me going like a randomized, controlled, double-blind study.

Research is endlessly beneficial. It explains incredible things like the color spectrum wavelength, demystifies the reason bird poop turns white, and determines which bad habits are most likely to result in death. It even re-explains things we think we’ve already nailed down. Like happiness for instance.

Wait a minute. I already know what makes me happy. Family. Friends. Coffee. Book sales. YouTube videos of baby laughter. I’m stopping here because even though I’m close to the mark I’m still wrong, and despite my love of data the research on happiness isn’t any better at finding an answer.

There are studies that tell us what happiness looks like, how to get it, and most importantly how to keep it. A recent study out of the Netherlands says long-lasting happiness comes from having a strong religious faith. That might be true to some extent but it can’t be the entire story. If it was then atheists would be miserable and those Islamic extremists wouldn’t go around chopping off heads and burning people alive.

For me, the key to happiness can’t be found in current research, probably because it’s too simple. It’s not about religion. It’s about fun. Unfortunately we’re taught from birth that fun is something reserved for weekends, summer vacation, and retirement. If I have to wait thirty more years to start living it up I might as well chop off my own head.

Why is fun something we have to wait for? Why do we cram fun into limited hobbies, shove it into little windows of time, and then feel guilty about having it? Why are we frowning and grumbling and cursing each other out? Why are we popping antidepressants like PEZ? Why are we slaving and sweating and priding those with a “good work ethic” and thinking the only way people become successful is when they give up on fun?

I don’t want my life to be work. I want it to be joyful. I want to stop killing the fun, and more importantly I don’t want my kids to start doing it in the first place. But this killing the fun thing is so ingrained in our culture it’s easy to ignore, and it’s even easy to miss when the same culture slams it our faces.

There’s an episode of The Amazing World of Gumball called “The Joy.” It’s basically about a how a wild and untreatable strain of joy hits the school and giddy happiness spreads all around while the teacher tries to prevent herself from contracting it. It’s so funny and so sad because it’s so true. We don’t even realize it’s happening, but adults are constantly telling children to avoid getting “The Joy.” Maybe we don’t understand that kids are born with it and we do everything in our power to squash it out of them.

Exchanging fun for seriousness is so rampant, not only do we miss when we’re doing it, we even judge other adults who keep their joy. I was at the playground with Gwen and Kira and there was another dad there with his kids. Our kids were running around and whooping it up and the two of us were sitting there like lumps on a bench. He was checking something vitally important on his iPhone. I was staring into space and occasionally peeking out of the haze to make sure Kira wasn’t falling to her death.

Another guy brought his kids over but he didn’t sit down. He played. He seriously climbed and slid and even went down the fireman’s pole. Then he started singing. Out loud. In public. My first thought? He must be clinically insane. I mean, who does that? Then I looked closer and saw it. He was filled to bursting with “The Joy.” He was showing his kids how to have fun. I took a look at myself and iPhone Guy and realized we were showing them how to kill it.

It’s not just our actions that teach killing the fun. Our words do it too. Kids are constantly hearing, “Get down! Stop running! Put your shoes on! You can’t throw mulch! Don’t write on yourself! Get out of that mud! This isn’t a joke. Do you think this is funny? You might get hurt! You might! You might! You might!”

Adults are hearing it too, only it’s the perpetually ingrained parental voice inside our own heads. “There’s no time for fun! Take out the trash! Mow the yard! Keep that job you hate! Quit smiling! You need Botox! You’re too clumsy to dance! Do you really think you can do that? You might look stupid! You might! You might! You might!”

There are so many mights in life, and when we live in fear of them we aren’t really living. Yes, you might get hurt. Yes, you might look stupid. But yes, you might honestly have fun doing it. Oh the horror.

In order to live happily we have to come to terms with the fact that life doesn’t have to be so serious. One of my favorite quotes is from Van Wilder. Remember that movie about the drunken lush of a college-kid who ruled the school by having fun? I’m pretty sure the quote was stolen from author Elbert Hubbard, but it sounded much better in the voice of Ryan Reynolds. Anyway, the quote goes, “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out alive.”

You won’t. I won’t. Nobody will. Maybe this is where the religion part sneaks in. If we realize our time on this earth is severely limited we’ll finally stop killing the fun.

When I realized what was going on I decided to reverse all that joy-squashing and just embrace it. I took the girls to Target. I grabbed their hands and skipped through the parking lot. Every step was like a dagger through my heart. I was tearing off layers of suckitude and it was painful. I’d killed the fun for so long it was on life support, but each jazzy step was like zapping my lifeless remnant of fun with an AED. By the time we reached the door I realized something. I had “The Joy” and I didn’t want a cure. I wanted to spread it around.

We went straight to the toy aisle instead of cramming it into the last five minutes. We bounced balls. We chased each other with dinosaurs. We rode the bikes without helmets. We pushed every button and turned every crank. I’d never seen my girls so happy. I’m sure I got some “she’s insane” looks, but I didn’t even notice because I was giddy with happiness too.

The weird thing about rediscovering fun is that it hurts at first. We’ve covered ourselves over with layers of blah. Maybe to protect ourselves, or to get ahead at work, or to seem more mature. Whatever the reason I’m telling you it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to kill the fun or cram into places where it fits all tight and convenient. You just have to embrace it.

Start by asking yourself one question: What do you love to do? If you need to think about it, even a little, it means you are figuratively covered in sucky blah-blah. It’s sticky. It doesn’t want to come off. But the more you practice having “The Joy” the easier it gets.

I keep reminding myself to practice. It’s easy when the kids are with me because I’m obviously doing it for them. But what about doing it for myself? I’m waiting for the day when I’ll skip back into Target all by my lonesome. I’ll stop in the middle of the aisle and smile because I brought “The Joy” with me. I’ll grab myself a lollipop, and slurp my way around the store while humming the chords of “Let it Go.” Maybe I’ll even belt out the chorus with my lollipop microphone while trying on those hot pink cowboy boots I’ll never buy.

Will this joyful day ever come? Maybe the bigger question is, will it come for you? You can do it. Go forth. Skip around the parking lot. Eat the candy. Slide down the fireman’s pole. Stop killing the fun and start spreading the joy, and if you see a grown-ass woman cartwheeling down the aisles at Target it’s probably just me embracing the fun too.

**Disclaimer for the science aficionados: I’m highly aware of the lack of empirical evidence for my findings, but when it comes to happiness my own case study will have to suffice.

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