During the last couple of weeks Thom and I have been staying in Baja Mexico at an oceanfront condo. We came here to escape the excessive heat of summer in our hometown of La Quinta. We found a reasonable rental where we can enjoy the cooler weather, get outdoors and still accomplish our daily work schedule.But even better than a more temperate climate is the enjoyment we are having by changing our routine, getting outdoors, and hanging out with new and old friends. It’s fun—pure and simple. And while playing and having fun might seem to be frivolous and extravagant in times of climate crisis, a struggling economy and political and social unrest around the world, play is much more than that. In fact, playing just might be the antidote to all those problems, plus much, much more.
Outrageous claim? Maybe. But the idea first came to me after reading yet another chapter in the book Essentialism—The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Surprisingly, McKeown makes a case for the importance of play in the lives of anyone wanting to live a more simple, more fulfilled and meaningful life. And after reading what McKeown has to say, and discovering others like Daniel Pink and Dr. Stuart Brown who agree with him, I am now equally convinced that it’s true.
But what exactly do I mean by play? McKeown’s definition of play is defined as “anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather than as a means to an end—whether it’s flying a kite or listening to music or throwing around a basketball…” Author Suzanne Miller says that play, “…is an attitude of throwing off constraint.” And just as in last week’s blog post when I explained how there are many benefits to the act of creating beyond getting paid cash, play and having fun is usually an inner-motivated and voluntary activity independent of traditional goals and outcomes. What I read over and over was how the importance of playing and having fun should never be underestimated.
Benefits To Play
Here are seven reasons to include fun and play in our lives on a regular basis:
#1 Improves personal health. According to Dr. Stuart Brown, “…research suggests that play is a biological necessity.” Both adults and children who regularly play in a physical way are directly impacted by improved health. A short list of benefits include:
- Weight maintenance,
- Reduced risk for cardiovascular disease
- Strengthened bones and muscles
- Decreased risk from some cancers
- Improved balance and agility
- Increased chances of living longer
- Counteracts depression and can prevent recurrence.
#2 Leads to brain plasticity and higher function. Dr. Brown in his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates The Soul states that play actually makes us smarter. (You KNOW we liked that!) Brown states that there is a positive link between brain size/frontal cortex development and play. During play, the brain engages in simulations and grows connections that did not exist before.
Also interesting is that play deficiency can lead to ill health and mental illness. Brown’s research shows that severe play deprivation was evident in the lives of studied homicidal males in Texas. Play deprived children often grow up to be troubled adults who also cannot play.
#3 Makes us adaptable and resilient both personally and in business: Marty Anderson recently wrote an article in Forbes Magazine entitled, “The Power of Play…How to Revive the Largest Economy in the World.” He writes, “With very few exceptions the truly sustainable organizations are ones that Play. They have fun. They make life fun for their customers and suppliers.” Anderson emphasizes the benefits of play along with many other outliers who are saying the same these days. Sadly he admits that on a national level we have “almost completely outlawed play…we measure our social activity in billable hours and money…We work for elusive shareholder value, not for the joy of our customers and families.” Innovation suffers and so do we all.
#4 Enhances learning and creativity. Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, CEO of the LEGO Foundation says, “Play allows us to test our capabilities, as all forms of learning should. It stimulates children’s learning abilities by fostering creativity, building critical thinking, sparking intellectual curiosity, and facilitating learning by doing.” But it isn’t just children who benefit—we all do. The famed Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once wrote, “Play is the answer to the question: how does anything new come about?” Even better, Albert Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.”
#5 Improve personal relationships. Simply put, play helps us get along with others. Premier child researcher and play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith believes that play is essential for social development, a sense of equality, connectedness, and concern for those around us. Play also allows us to work as a team, compromise when necessary, develop trust and accept differences in others, empathize, become generous, and to cooperate automatically with those around us. Unfortunately the opposite is true. Those who don’t play become anti-social, narcissistic and often unhappy and destructive people.
#6 Improve business outcomes: McKeown is convinced that play fuels engagement and exploration at work in three specific ways. First he says, “Play broadens the range of options available to us.” Second, “Play is an antidote to stress,” which allows us to embrace the freedom of trying new things. Finally, McKeown writes, “play has a positive effect on the executive function of the brain.” This executive function includes such critical business skills as planning, prioritizing, anticipating, delegating, prioritizing, deciding and analyzing. Each of these skills vastly improves the business environment.
#7 Transformation. Because play gives us the freedom to go beyond normal constraints, be adaptive, quirky and open to variables within a flexible “field” of pleasurable and unexpected outcomes, we ripen ourselves for transformation. Without play we hunker down in tiny little boxes of conventionality where imagination is lifeless.
Why Don’t We Play?
What became evident for me as I explored the value of play and fun in our lives is how the mechanistic focus of our culture colors how we view play in the first place. Think about it. Machines can’t play—only living beings play. If we think of our lives, our schools our businesses or any part of it as machines that must be fed and are lifeless, play becomes trivial and irrelevant. Only by embracing our human nature and the fact that our biology, including our connection to mother Earth, is a living, breathing entity, can we reap the full benefits of a playful life.
Our aversion to play is also evident in our distrust and fear of leisure. In many ways that is a throwback to our Puritan forebears who say work, not play, was the key to success. In some ways hard work was even a key to salvation. Nowadays, economic forces keep our noses to the grindstone in an effort to trivialize play and keep us ironically working hard to buy more and more stuff so we can enjoy ourselves and have fun.
But Dr. Stuart Brown reminds us, “Our adult biology remains unique among all creatures, and our capacity for flexibility, novelty and exploration persists. If we suppress this natural design, the consequences are dire. The play-less adult becomes stereotyped, inflexible, humorless, lives without irony, loses the capacity for optimism, and generally is quicker to react to stress with violence or depression than the adult whose play life persists. In a world of major continuous change (and we are certainly facing big changes economically now) playful humans who can roll with the punches and innovate through their play-inspired imaginations will better survive.”
A Few Ways To Play
So what’s the solution? Play! Can’t think of any ways to do it? Here’s a VERY short list:
- Go dancing for the shear joy of movement. (no goal-like exercise in mind!)
- Find kids or pets to play with on a regular basis!
- Act silly and improvise. (Refuse to care what others think!)
- Play a game without caring who wins or loses. (competition is a play-killer!)
- Laugh and tell jokes.
- Go outside and just wander at will. Again—agenda seeking is a play-killer!
According to McKeown, play opens up our imagination and give us the mental freedom and space to go beyond our normal routines and limitations. The benefits are enormous. And while I hope I have shown that active play is critical for the physical and emotional health of us all, the biggest benefit is increased and sustained happiness on a daily basis. In fact, doing something fun just for the sheer pleasure of doing it, may be one of the SMARTest things you could do for yourself today.
Question: What’s at least one play-filled thing you do on a regular basis?