Submerged in the responsibilities of life, the seriousness of world affairs, and an ever-growing to-do list, we often forget to PLAY. Animals, on the other hand, continue to play throughout their adult lives! We may believe that play is somehow no longer appropriate or cast it aside as a frivolous waste of time. Research suggests, however, that play is essential to our well-being, creativity, and health.
1. It Boosts Our Creativity Mark Beeman, Ph.D., at Northwestern University found that people have an easier time solving a puzzle after watching a short comedy clip. Having fun, perhaps by easing tension, may be facilitating neuronal connections helpful for greater mental flexibility and creativity. In another brain imaging study, Dr. Beeman found that activation of pleasure centers in the brain predicted successful puzzle-solving. These findings suggesting that well-being helps us think more creatively and could potentially help us resolve challenging situations.
2. It Helps Us Think Outside the Box Barbara Fredrikson, Ph.D., of the University of Chapel Hill – North Carolina and author of Positivity, found that positive emotions increase our cognitive resources by expanding our visual attention as well as our social resources by improving our ability to connect with others. In other words, play may be a way of getting literally “unstuck.” Taking a break and engaging in a totally frivolous act of fun can help loosen our tension and worries and help us think of different ways to engage with a challenging situation.
Stuart Brown, M.D. describes in his book Play how the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) found it difficult to find young engineers of the same caliber as those that had retired. After interviewing the engineers that had retired, they came to the realization that the retirees had engaged in various forms of analytic play that had resulted in their brilliant performance as engineers. Today, JPL interviews include questions about the type of play that applicants engaged in during their youth.
3. It Improves Our Health Laughter is a natural outcome of play. Preliminary studies suggest that, in addition to being enjoyable and relieving feelings of stress and tension, laughter can also improve physical health. It has been linked to decreased stress and inflammation in the body and may improve vascular health.
4. It Makes Us Present One of the reasons play may be so fun is that it brings us into the present moment, which is the only place where we can feel happiness. When we lose ourselves in play, we can enter a state of Flow, a concept proposed by research psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi – author of the book Flow. Flow occurs when we are completely immersed in an activity — the state of being one hundred percent in the present moment, and it is a state of great pleasure.
About 50% of the time, we aren’t in the present moment, according to a study of 5,000 people by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University. Our minds tend to wander and the researchers found that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” No matter what we’re actually doing, pleasant or unpleasant, we are happiest when our mind is in the present moment. When our mind is in the past, it usually dwells on negative emotions such as anger or regret. When it is in the future, anxiety and fear arise. Play makes you present, and both research and ancient wisdom say that’s the only place you can be truly happy.
5. It Connects Us As I described in my previous post, social connectedness is a fundamental need for human beings. On January 1st 1915, during World War I, a soldier in the in the front line sent home a famous letter that was first published in the London Times. It described the events of the truce on Christmas Day: ‘The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.’
This striking story is a reminder that play – the ability to laugh and let go, to inhabit the present, and to be immersed in mirth and lightness of being – can be an ultimate act of love and belongingness. When we can laugh and joke, we are remembering our joint humanity, our mutual desire for happiness and love, and our fundamental interconnectedness.
Check out more on this topic in my book The Happiness Track