by Alan Reinstein, English teacher
I saw a Ben & Jerry’s bumper sticker a while ago that read, “If It’s Not Fun, Why Do It?”, and I’m thinking of it now in mid-winter, in the depths of the school year, with months to go before ice-cream season really kicks in. The message is simple enough: only do things that are fun, or more broadly, live fully and live for pleasure. As Ben might have said to Jerry, “Let’s make ice cream the symbol of a life happily lived.”
And yet these two men, who created a brand that supports significant social causes like voting rights, racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights and climate justice, know well enough that there are many things worth doing other than fun. So let’s make that bumper sticker a real question, an invitation to think deeply about the things we must do that are not fun.
This is a profound question of human purpose and action: Why do we do things that do not give us pleasure? And then, of course: When should we do them?
One reason is that there are secondary pleasures that lead to primary ones. Primary pleasures are the immediate ones satisfying our appetites through activities we often see as joyful, like eating ice cream, listening to or playing music or riding a roller coaster.
Secondary pleasures are the joys in the hard work that goes into obtaining primary pleasures, like having the job that earns you the money to buy the ice cream, the iPhone, the saxophone or the Six-Flags entry ticket.
The practice — training, studying or drilling — that goes into a final product isn’t fun, but we put in the time to reach that primary pleasure that comes out of the effort. So there’s one way to answer Ben & Jerry’s question: some less-than-fun activities are necessary in order to get to the fun. You need to work to pay for the cone — or at least beg your parents.
Another secondary pleasure comes from making the world better, even if there is no primary pleasure at the end of the effort. There is the work and sacrifice that goes into helping those in need, fighting for justice, disciplining a child, cleaning up — the necessary discomfort that makes up a life worth living and exposes the ignorance of asking why doing anything that’s not fun is worth it.
There are things that must be done that are not fun, and Ben & Jerry understand this intuitively, I’m sure, as we all do. They might have thought twice before approving the bumper sticker. An obsession with fun, only doing things that are fun, neglects the heavy lifting that both the world and our lives within it require.
We should always be on the lookout for moments of joy and opportunities for creating it, even seeking it within those tasks that may seem devoid of fun. Slogans like “Find time for fun!” or “Choose fun when you can” or “Ice cream is fun. Have fun!” send the same message to drivers and potential customers that life should not only include joy but be driven by an insistence for it.
Life is a gift spent in the “pursuit of happiness,” yes, but to ignore the necessary periods of struggle that make up all of our lives is to misunderstand both the nature of fun in particular and the human condition in general.