“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Before becoming a scary trope in a Kubrick’s movie, this was an ancient proverb. Playfulness is often interpreted as frivolous—something associated with children activities, or as something purely physical. Yet playfulness is an inherent part of human nature, and is crucial for personal growth. Playfulness as a practice can be associated with any intrinsically motivated activity done for enjoyment and recreational pleasure.
“Playfulness is, in part, an openness to being a fool, which is a combination of not worrying about competence, not being self-important, not taking norms as sacred and finding ambiguity and double edges a source of wisdom and delight,” explains Professor Maria Lugones in her paper about playfulness.
In this other paper which is mostly about sex and is based on data from university undergraduates, which the researchers themselves say to view with extreme caution, there’s one sentence I particularly like: “In an ultimate sense, play has helped make us who we are, as adults; and in a proximate sense, it has made being an adult much more fun than it might have been otherwise.”
There are two main ways to be playful in your daily life: direct and indirect play. In both cases, play comes with many psychological benefits.
The benefits of playfulness as a practice
You’re probably aware of the importance of play for children. What fewer people know is how beneficial playfulness as a practice is for adults as well.
Playfulness is a way to reclaim our freedom. “We are born with 100% of potential to be free. As we grow older, we not only have outside factors telling us what we can and can’t do, we also develop that inner monologue of doubt as well. Plus we now have bills to pay. Societal expectations to meet. Before we know it, that 100% of potential to be free we once had is now starting to look like 0.02%” explains Braulio Tavares. Here are some of the psychological benefits of practicing playfulness.
- Better relationships. “It’s counterintuitive because we associate play with superficiality and childishness, but in reality, play helps us to be vulnerable and intimate when it may otherwise be difficult for us,” explains Nick Wignall, clinical psychologist at The Cognitive Behavioural Institute of Albuquerque. Playfulness is both a way to make new friends, and to make our existing relationships more meaningful.
- Less anxiety. Play is a great way to relieve stress. We tend to try to relax with passive entertainment that lacks playfulness, such as watching a show on Netflix. In order to really take our mind off things, go for playful activities that engage your mind rather than numb it. For instance, drawing, painting, making a video, playing a board game, creating a playlist, coding a silly application.
- More creative thinking. Looking at things in a playful way often helps us make novel connections and envision possibilities we missed before. It also helps us acquire now thinking skills. This is why many games are so enjoyable: they’re fun and creative, but they also push us to think and see the world in a different way.
We’ve established that playfulness is good for you. What are some concrete ways to practice playfulness in your daily life?
Living playfully in a serious world
It’s important to note that there are many cultural differences in the way we approach play. For instance, research shows that people with an African-American or Asian-American cultural heritage tend to favour group activities and see it as a learning opportunity, whereas Euro-American see play as more of a self-care activity, necessary to relieve stress.
Still, playfulness and play time for children is a cross-cultural phenomenon which is universally accepted and encouraged by most communities around the world. How can you be more playful as an adult?
- Try new things. Mindless routine is terrible for playfulness. Everytime you see yourself repeating the same action for a while, take a few minutes to consider: is it the only way? For instance, if you take the same route to go to work in the morning, try a different one. If you tend to order the same food at your local restaurant, try something new. If you usually listen to business podcasts, try an audiobook. If you usually let your partner cook, try to cook for them. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, just a little different.
- Make playfulness a habit. Don’t wait until it just happens. Make play a part of your life. This could mean hosting a regular game night with your friends and family, scheduling time to the park and play frisbee or use a kite, and making sure you have dedicated time to play with your kids, your pet, or whoever matters in your life. Design your own playful rituals.
- Forget about the goal. At the heart of playfulness is the idea of doing something for the sake of it—deriving pleasure from the intellectual stimulation itself rather than the reward of reaching a specific end goal. Fail like a scientist, where each failure becomes another data point, an opportunity to learn.
- Cultivate your curiosity. Did you know that, on average, children ask more than a hundred questions per hour? Science suggests that our subsequent decrease in curiosity could be caused by our increase in knowledge as we grow up. To counter this trend, try to have more episodes of curiosity such as asking direct questions, manipulating objects, or intent and directed gazing. Instead of grabbing a spoon, take a few seconds to look at it: where does it come from? Who made it? Who invented the spoon in the first place? (some answers for the curious)
- Surround yourself with playful people. Connect with people who are more likely to support your efforts to play and enjoy life. People who like joking, trying new things, exploring interesting questions. Make friends who value playfulness and curiosity. Find your playmates.
This is what playfulness as a practice is all about. Building your own PaaP is a choice you have to repeat every day. After a while, you will realise that every place—whether physical or in your mind—can become a playground. You will start connecting dots where nobody bothered even looking, you will uncover obscure facts that will stimulate your imagination, and you will build relationships that are more meaningful, more intimate, and more creative.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
I’m an ex-Googler (yes, I’m aware of the irony), entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about mindful productivity.
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