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What is ‘Type II fun,’ and why do some people want to have it?

The "Fun Scale" first caught on in the mountaineering community. (iStock)
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It was approaching sunset on a mid-February Saturday in the mountains of Flagstaff, Ariz. A couple hundred people were at the base of the local ski resort, ready to race — not downhill, but up the slope, sans chairlift, either on skis or with micro-spikes strapped to their running shoes. They would ascend 2,200 vertical feet before they slid or clomped the whole way back down to the finish line, where beers and snacks would await their arrival.

A human-powered trip up a ski slope might not sound pleasant to everyone, but to many of the participants it was a very particular kind of fun: Type II fun.

This is a reference to a “Fun Scale” often used by outdoor enthusiasts to describe the kind of enjoyment they get from their adventures or misadventures, as the case may be. Type II fun can feel terrible while you’re doing it, like climbing up a mountain on a cold winter’s night or running a 100-mile race, but when it’s over, your memory erases the miserable parts and you would do it again — for fun, of course.

“It’s exhilarating to be outside; it’s beautiful, it’s a community event,” said Shea Tinder, a licensed massage therapist who ran with her three young daughters in the shorter kid-friendly course and was one of many participants who described the event as Type II fun. (She also classified her family’s recent trip to Disneyland as Type II fun: waiting in lines with three overtired and overstimulated kids, which results in sharing their sense of thrill, awe and wonder on Space Mountain).

On this scale, Type I fun is an activity you’re sure you’ll enjoy, and you do. Think: sharing a nice meal with friends, going to the beach or a chill day of downhill skiing (using the chairlift, like normal people). Type III fun? It’s actually not fun at all. It’s often described as “harrowing,” like getting dangerously lost in the wilderness or trying to swim across the Atlantic. It often involves search-and-rescue, prayers and vows that you’ll never do it again.

But Type II fun? That’s the sweet spot. It challenges you without putting you in danger — and it’s often uncomfortable but in ways that also make you feel alive.

Are ice-cold showers good for you? I tried it for two months.

Courtney Dauwalter, a 37-year-old decorated ultramarathoner from Golden, Colo., lives by the fun scale. Whether she’s hallucinating in the middle of a 200-mile race or attempting to clock her best time washing the dishes, it’s all fun. Even in August 2020, when she set out to run the fastest known time traversing the 490-mile Colorado Trail and ended up in the hospital with bronchitis 309 miles in, she still insists it was a pleasure.

“I loved it a lot,” Dauwalter said. “I ended up having to stop for health reasons, and that wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t push it into Type III fun for me because I had a great support system around me who called it before it actually became Type III. The people around me were able to make some good judgment calls to keep me safe and make sure I’m able to try this again in the future.”

According to “Climbing Dictionary: Mountaineering Slang, Terms, Neologisms & Lingo,” the scale was coined in 1985 by Rainer Newberry, a geology professor at the University of Alaska. He told climber/geologist Peter Haeussler about it, and Haeussler introduced the concept to climber/writer Kelly Cordes, who put it online in a couple of blog posts.

The first time Matt Samet, author of the “Climbing Dictionary,” heard of Type II fun was about 15 years ago, while editing a piece by Cordes at Climbing magazine. Now it’s a common term among most climbers.

“It’s just something that’s understood. Like if you say, ‘Yeah, that’s a great route, but it’s Type II fun,’ people immediately know what you’re talking about,” Samet said. “It helps you converse with other climbers or whatever community you’re in. You can build a bond that way.”

It may have originated with rock climbers, but the scale has taken on a life of its own. There are even T-shirts and stickers that promote Type II fun. The product description for a Type II T-shirt available on Amazon reads: “There’s three types of outdoor fun, and type 2 is the best. It’s worth telling stories afterwards, and it didn’t kill you.”

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But although it’s firmly entrenched in the vocabulary of outdoor adventurers, researchers who study fun don’t put much stock in the scale.

“It’s almost as valid as me … coming up with a theory of dogs,” said Travis Tae Oh, an assistant professor of marketing at Yeshiva University, whose studies include the consumer psychology of fun. “There may be some truth to it, but I would not really use this as any scientific validity or anything like that.”

Oh’s research defines fun based on two psychological components: hedonic engagement (immersing yourself in an activity for pure enjoyment); and a sense of liberation (temporarily freeing yourself of concerns like work stress or parenting problems or dying in the ocean). A vacation free of pandemic-related worries after a long period of intense work would count, as would a night on the dance floor with good friends. But calling an experience “fun” only in retrospect wouldn’t, Oh said.

“To my theory, if the experience allowed you to liberate or feel a sense of liberation from something that was holding you back or you felt some sense of freedom, then you might evaluate that experience as fun,” Oh said.

To be sure, fun by anyone’s definition has been hard to come by during the pandemic. In fact, our concept of fun has probably shifted altogether as we drift into the third year of coping with the coronavirus. “In order to feel free, you have to feel carefree, and it’s been an environment that it’s been difficult, especially for parents or people who have older family members, people who are constantly worried about whether what they’re doing is ‘right,’ ” Oh said.

Michael Rucker, an organizational psychologist and author of “The Fun Habit” (coming in 2023), has also researched fun. Rucker’s definition of fun can be any activity that’s a pleasurable experience (delightful or exciting, as well as relaxing or calm). He has developed his own “Fun Type” calculator. While he agrees that the “Fun Scale” is not scientifically sound, he buys that some Type II varieties probably qualify as fun, although he would call them “hard fun.” He puts writing a book in that category, too.

Fun can be something that “challenges the things we believe or connects us to something bigger — gets us out of our heads so that our micro-problems feel smaller,” Rucker said. “But I think Type III is where I would diverge. I call that agonizing, and I don’t know why you would want to engage in Type III fun.”

Even Dauwalter, as extreme as her version of fun may seem to most people, agrees that Type III fun should be off the table. And she is steadfast that the mountain peaks she bags and the pain caves she puts herself in are all a delight. Otherwise she wouldn’t do them.

“Mindset is really important, and in those moments, I try to remember that I chose it and I get to do it, as opposed to having to do it,” Dauwalter said. “Just that switch of words alone can change the whole story.”

Erin Strout is a freelance writer in Flagstaff, Ariz. Follow her on Twitter @erinstrout.