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Why it always pays to have more play in your life

Why it always pays to have more play in your life

The benefits of play are seemingly obvious: it’s fun and it makes you feel good. However that is just the tip of the iceberg, says Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist, researcher and the founder of the National Institute of Play.

Why it always pays to have more play in your life

In his book aptly titled Play (Scribe) Brown shows how the simple act of doing something you enjoy is not only pleasurable, it is also a profound biological process that makes you smarter, creative and innovative. “Play energises us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities” says Brown.

“As children, we don’t need instruction in how to play,” he says. “However, as we get older we are made to feel guilty for playing. We are told that it is unproductive, a waste of time, even sinful. The play that remains is mostly very organised, rigid and competitive. We strive to always be productive, and if an activity doesn’t teach us a skill or make us money then we feel we should not be doing it.”

“I have found that remembering what play is all about and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human,” says Brown.

If you want to introduce more play into your life but don’t know how to start, Brown suggest by firstly taking your play history. “The primary purpose of the play history is to get us back in touch with the joy that we have all experienced at some point in our lives” says Brown. Start this exercise by spending some time thinking about what you did as a child that really got you excited.

Brown also suggests asking yourself some questions such as:

  • When have you felt free to do and be what you choose?
  • Is that part of your life now? If not, why not?
  • How free are you now as you play with your partner, friends or family? Or do you treat them as an extension of a dutiful responsibility?

The opportunity for play is everywhere, the trick, says Brown is to have a playful approach to life. “Probably the biggest roadblock to play for adults is the worry that they will look silly. Or they think that it is immature to give themselves regularly over to play.” The joke is – as neuroscientists, biologists, psychologists and social scientists have shown for decades – that the act of play can significantly improve your skills, performance, relationships and productivity.

Learning doesn’t stop when you reach adulthood, and neither should play. “There is evidence that there is a play deficit much like the sleep deficit,” says Brown. “With enough play, the brain works better. In an individual who is well-adjusted and safe, play very likely continues to prompt continued neurogenesis throughout our long lives.” One study done at Syracuse university showed that for people who had the most cognitive activity (doing puzzles, reading, engaging in mentally challenging work) the chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease were 63 percent lower than the general population. Another study done in Okinawa, Japan, by the National Geographic Society revealed that engaging in activities like playing with young children was as important as diet and exercise in fostering longevity.

Brown makes a point of stating that play is a state of mind, rather than an activity. “Many of the things we regard as play may, on closer inspection, have the qualities of work. And what to many people might seem like work may really be built on a foundation of play. A golf game might be the epitome of play, or it might be stressful. If exercisers or competitors feel bad when they don’t meet certain expectations they have for themselves, what they are doing is not really play.”

“If anyone goes without play for too long, grinding out the work that is expected of them, they will at some point look at their lives and ask “Is this all there is?” says Brown. “Joy is our birthright. When we lack that feeling of lightness in what we do it should be taken as a warning sign.” So if your life is lacking some joie de vivre it’s time to start playing.

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