What’s Fun: Three Rocks or Marshmallows?

As a teen, my brother was always bothering me with the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead by Bill Griffiths. He thought it was brilliant and would show me strip after strip. I thought it was inscrutable, but with great artwork. A particular strip outlined the meaning of fun:

Zippy: What is fun, Ernie?

Ernie: Three rocks.

My brother would show me this particular strip and laugh until he was falling down. Literally. Later on in the strip, Zippy asks Ernie if four rocks are fun, and if two are fun. According to Ernie, no, just three rocks are fun.

I never got it. I still don’t entirely, though I found an article that kind of explains it here, in the ninth paragraph:


However, after being heavily advised by many over the last few years to “try and have some fun, will you?” I realize that fun is still an inscrutable concept for me these days.

So I looked on the handy dandy internet for inspiration. According to the first definition search, fun = enjoyment, amusement or lighthearted pleasure.

Hmmm. To be honest, I do not let myself indulge in those emotions much these days. That could explain a lot. I’m out of practice! There is just so much to be done and it is hard to accomplish things with little kids around, which is frustrating.

Now that I really think about it, my aversion to fun is a scheduling issue.

Starting in school, I developed the good habit of reserving fun for a time after my work was finished. After school, after I practiced this piece of music enough, after I finished my homework, after school let out for the summer. That sort of thing.

I am an expert at the Marshmallow Test – you know, the test where researchers determined that children who could delay the gratification of eating a marshmallow sitting before them on a plate for a few minutes for the reward of a second marshmallow had significantly better success in life than those who just ate the darn thing right away.

And I have to say it is a pretty good prediction of success. I graduated from college and held some good paying positions. I got married, have a house, have children. Yay!

However, I’ve gotten so good at it that I believe I have forgotten to eat the marshmallow. In fact, I think it has swung way too far the other way. I don’t even want the stinking thing at the end of the day. You can keep your two marshmallows, you jerky researcher, I am exhausted, I seem to be saying in my own personal tantrum.

I guess I have to schedule back in the fun.

When I was working for a company, the schedule was easy. It was just like school – save fun for home rather than the office, for weekends and for vacations. I remember disliking talking to co workers about non work related subjects unless it was lunchtime.

I have to admit, unless it was art related or outdoors related, I found all of the many diversions my co workers would mention (usually football, basketball, baseball and  buying cars), huge sucking wastes of my time. But, I think maturity is finally, after all of this time, kicking in. My co workers were expressing to me what they thought was fun! I’m sure they were reliving the fun in memory form a little, to enjoy the day a bit more.


OK, honestly I just could not figure out WHAT they were doing when they were in that state at the time. When people would bring those subjects up initially, I assumed they were just trying to find common ground with me, and I would nod and smile and say I didn’t follow those things closely but I could see how they could like those things. But they still would talk about that stuff.

Now the sports debate can go into another blog post altogether. Suffice to say that I am still irked that I have to learn a little about football to get along in the world in general and NO ONE has to learn about the mathematical beauty of the circle of fifths in MY world. I accept that is just the price I have to pay for honestly having different predilections, of which I am finally proud of having.

Anyway, fun.

What’s fun? It is one of those personal questions. If it had a simple answer, entertainment executives would have a much easier time of it. Fun has a spontaneous edge to it. To me, it is the instant enjoyment of a moment that has no overt purpose.

I have heard a bit about the book The Theory of Fun by Raph Koster, which I should read. Albeit this book is about game theory, not just life theory. I hear that in a nutshell, fun is achieved in games when the player is faced with a challenge that is not too hard and not too easy, that takes a bit of effort to get through. When the player meets the challenge finally, endorphins strike. Hooray!

Sounds a bit Marshmallow Test, really. I could see the difference between games and life being that in games, this is choreographed and staged fun, where in life you have to cultivate it.

It strikes me that reliving memories of fun could be helpful. It is one of those tasks that is hard to motivate myself to do when I am stuck in the tantrum of frustration of not being able to accomplish anything. But hey, perhaps that is why many moms like scrapbooking and journal writing. It gets you into the memories, back to a roadmap of what you are forgetting.

Finally, it strikes me that it is key to enjoy the little accomplishments, like winning the battle over barbarism after my three year old threw her breakfast plate across the room and she actually picked it up after fifteen minutes of pouting. No shouting on my part. Explained that was not OK and to please pick it up. Waited it out. Then success!

Appreciating the little “funs” does sound awfully Hallmark, but really, it takes effort. It is easy to forget and wallow in the bigger non-accomplishmenst. I just had to remind myself of that moment. It was great. Go mom. Yay! Fun.


About LornaGovier

Lorna Govier lives in Tucson, AZ.
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1 Response to What’s Fun: Three Rocks or Marshmallows?

  1. Darrell says:

    “Flow” [1] is an interesting way to think about fun. Consider a graph of challenge vs skill (scroll down to “conditions for flow” on the wikipedia page). Your brain likes getting more skilled — specifically when you’re challenged by a task in which you have some skill (“arousal” in the graph), then get better and transition to “control” because you’ve improved. Getting better at things is critical for survival, your brain doles out an endorphin reward.

    Video games usually get more challenging as the player gets further in; players make that arousal to control transition over and over [2]. Setting an appropriate difficultly is also an interesting problem: an unskilled player may get frustrated and a very skilled one bored.

    This applies in the real world too, be it via a teacher helping a student navigate their own flow through math skills, or a hobbyist getting better at something they like (cooking, gardening, bowling).

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)
    [2] http://tommyhanusagames.blogspot.com/2014/05/an-in-depth-understanding-of-how-fun.html

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