"When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality."
Dr. Stuart Brown’s Play may be the most important book I’ve read this year. His focus on the science of play, its evolutionary impact, and its necessity throughout our lives highlights the importance of play for our wellbeing and lifelong health. Beginning with an examination of what play is and why we do it, Dr. Brown guides us on a path to restore joy and creativity to our work and life.
He defines play as “an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. We have to put ourselves in the proper emotional state to play (although an activity can also induce the emotional state of play.)” Dr. Brown outlines eight play personalities:
- The Joker – enjoys and kind of nonsense
- The Kinesthete – likes to move
- The Explorer – like to go to new places, whether physically or mentally
- The Competitor – likes competitive games and enjoys winning
- The Director – enjoys planning and executing scenes and events
- The Collector – enjoys collecting things
- The Artist/Creator – finds joy in making things
- The Storyteller – likes to create or perform stories and to watch or read stories
Once we’ve identified the archetype that most closely matches our dominant play mode, we begin a journey to reclaim play.
The Opposite of Play Is Not Work
"The quality that work and play have in common is creativity… At their best, play and work, when integrated, make sense of our world and ourselves."
The opposite of play is actually depression, and as we grow in our careers, it’s far too easy to become overwhelmed by our responsibilities, to miss (or avoid) opportunities for play, and to exist in a state of perpetual exhaustion. The challenge then is to see work and play as mutually beneficial and to find ways to bring a sense of play into our working lives.
The key is to engage our creativity (the part of us that combines imagination with reality) to incorporate disparate ideas with daily work, thereby driving innovation, increasing productivity, and solving problems. By giving ourselves permission to be creative and to play with ideas without self-judgment, we energize our work lives and avoid the trap of depression.
Unfortunately, there is a “culturally supported idea that people who play are superficial, are not living in the real world, are dilettantes or amoral slackers.” But “this is nonsense. We can enjoy our work. We can have fun.” And whenever we feel depleted or lacking purpose, we can trace this type of depression to an ongoing state of work without joy, creativity, or play. So, what do we do about it?
"Physical activity – movement of any kind – has a way of getting past our mental defenses."
As Dr. Brown reminds us, “Since movement is the first thing that shows up in our own development, it can also be the first step we take back into play.”
In studies of women suffering from depression, Dr. Brown found that routine, regularly scheduled endurance activity proved necessary to prevent a recurrence of their depression. Furthermore, even a short walk improves mood. Not surprisingly, any type of physical activity helps to change our mental state, including walking and playing with our children or pets. And once we’ve opened the door to lighter spirits, it’s far easier to enter a state of play and recapture the joy that is our birthright.
"When people are able to find that sense of play in their work, they become truly powerful figures. It can be transformative."
There is a challenge in returning play to its priority status in our lives. Some serious introspection is in order for us to define the kind of play that “speaks to your heart and soul” and to then incorporate more “heart play” into our lives. Dr. Brown advises a series of steps to guide us back toward a life of play:
1. Take your play history. Really examine your childhood, how you played, when you felt most free, most excited, most joyful. Identify the activities that elicited those emotions.
2. Expose yourself to play. Every day, look for opportunities to play. Seek out humor, irony and joy.
3. Give yourself permission to be playful, to be a beginner. Let go of cultural expectations of seriousness and embrace nonsense and silliness.
4. Fun is your North Star, but you don’t always have to head north. When you are engaged in an activity that is personally playful and joy-filled, it doesn’t have to meet any preconceived ideas of what play should be. For you, it’s play.
5. Be active. The fastest way to enter a state of play is to move. Any kind of movement will do, even walking.
6. Free yourself of fear. You can’t relax when you’re anxious, nervous, or afraid. Create or find a safe haven where you can play without judgment.
7. Nourish your mode of play and be with people who nourish it, too. Take the time necessary to play and make it a priority. Seek encouragement. Again, make it a priority.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. As someone who has experienced the type of depression mentioned in Play, I can attest to the destructive effects of a life driven by expectations, demands for production, and never delivering enough. It’s exhausting, and far too often in that state of exhaustion, it’s easy to forget that life is meant to be lived, that joy IS our birthright, and that play is not just a distraction but a necessity to life and health. And for an individual in a high-pressure field, I find that I sacrifice play when it’s the one thing I need the most.
So I’m learning to play again, following the advice to give myself permission to be silly and unafraid, joyful and childlike.
Do you see yourself in the Play Personalities? Have you sacrificed play for productivity? Have you reclaimed play? What did you do? What was the result?