Human rewards: challenge vs. fun

Back when I was a high school chemistry teacher, my students would fairly often come in and ask if we were going to “have fun” that day. I’m pretty sure I never answered “yes.” I’m not a big believer in the idea that education should be “fun.” I expect it to be challenging, exciting, rewarding, enjoyable… but not “fun.” That may be a distinction without a difference, but to me “fun” is a matter of moments, and moments that don’t much matter at that.

When people tell me they do agility just for “fun,” I’ll be honest: I cringe a bit. I love doing agility (most of the time, anyway) but I’m also pretty serious about it. I put time, effort, money, hard work into being good at agility. Sometimes I don’t meet my own standards, which is discouraging, but I’m fully present when I compete, and I want to do well.

All of that said, I do find agility rewarding. I find running rewarding, although sometimes running is very hard work indeed.

For me, creating a challenge and then meeting it and then trying to do better next time creates a reward cycle. Karen Pryor–whose book Don’t Shoot the Dog is a classic of modern dog training, puts it this way: “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” We reward our dogs for behaviors we want them to learn and repeat. Sit, lie down, run through a tunnel, stop at the bottom of the a-frame.

As humans, too, like other trained mammals, we repeat behaviors that have been rewarded in the past. Enjoy a bite of chocolate? That taste is its own reward, and we’ll eat chocolate again. Find brussels sprouts bitter? We don’t like them and don’t want to eat them. Run a 5K race and the volunteer puts a honking big medal around your neck? You’re more likely to run another one. Or maybe you run to try and run faster in the next race. Or farther. Or to see those numbers on the scale go down. Or to see that Q on the results sheet. Or to see that your dog placed ahead of your friend’s dog for the first time. The cliche of human rewards is “whatever floats your boat.” Humans are better than dogs at anticipating rewards; we all know people who’ve worked for years to get that huge ribbon and title that we call a MACH (or CATCH or CATE).

And yes, some people call agility “fun.” For me, agility is way more complex than fun. It’s about challenges: challenges that are hard–can I get to that blind cross?–challenges that require analysis and experience–how can I best handle that line?–challenges that require training–leaving Rush in the weaves while I peel off and get farther down the course. I find meeting challenges inherently rewarding.