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Getting Serious About Play

How important is having fun? Dr. Stuart Brown, the world’s leading researcher on the science of play, believes it’s the key to happiness, health and better relationships. Here’s why.


by JoBeth McDaniel

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Dr. Stuart Brown discovered his life calling when, as a young researcher, he found something remarkable linking together the life stories of mass murderers: None of them had played as children. Could the seemingly innocuous activity of play really be critical to human development and happiness—even success or failure as an adult? Over the past five decades, he has become the world’s expert on the subject, interviewing thousands of people, from Nobel Prize winners to criminals, about their play histories. We’ve asked him to explain why goofing off is essential for anyone seeking to make a life change – and how we can all bring more play into our lives.

What is play, exactly?

Play is something done for its own sake. It’s fun! It’s voluntary. It’s stuff you don’t need to do. Play comes out of your inner nature, so it is unique to every person. There’s an almost infinite range. Reading a novel, square dancing, gardening, listening to music – those are all ways of engaging with the world.

So you don’t consider play to be confined to physical activity.

No, what’s important is that feeling you get from play. Look at a kid romping around on the beach, or puppies chasing each other. That’s real play. All humans have that capacity, but some of us lose it. What defines play is that it is a different state of being, just as sleep is a different state of being from all others. Play takes you out of the sense of time.

What happens when play is missing from our lives?

Sadly, most adults don’t look upon play as something fundamental, like sleep or good nutrition. Yet play is an essential ingredient for overall wellbeing. Here’s the point: It’s not just for kids. There is strong science behind this. Play has a payoff. The average adult in our culture separates work and play. But when we link them, our lives are better. When we don’t, our lives are less fulfilled, less joyful, less competitive.

But can’t play become obsessive?

I call that “junk play.” People say, ‘I’ve got to go to Las Vegas and gamble.’ If there’s a truly compulsive or forced quality, that is not play. It’s something driven. Golf, tennis – anything can be junk play. A person who is play-deprived is desperate to get some relief. It’s like the relief an obese person gets from junk food. Junk food doesn’t fill the nutrition and need, but it’s available, so the obese person jumps on it.

What about that whole Google-esque movement to make workplaces wacky and fun? Is that real play?

Well, it depends. When play is forced, it becomes something else entirely. I consult with corporations, and management will tell me, ‘We want to be a playful company. We’ll put in a game room with a ping-pong table, and schedule regular games. All hands on deck!” But who on earth wants to be forced to play ping-pong? Thirty percent of their workers won’t want to play, but they’ll do it because of the pressure to conform. That’s why play is the state of being, and not the activity itself. Some people will think, “Ok, if I pick up this darn ping-pong racket, that’s play.” Well, maybe not.

See also: How Old Is Your Funny Bone?

How do we, as busy adults, find our own unique type of play?

The easiest way is to go back in your history and find a memory that produces a true sense of enjoyment. Everyone has at least one – a moment when you were really at peace with yourself and the world. It’s such a personal thing. I have an example in my book of a woman whose sense of joy had completely vanished. So she went back in her memories and realized that what she enjoyed most was being around horses. She found a way to be around them, and it lightened her mood, and ultimately changed her approach to all her surroundings. You want to find that emotion-charged memory and link it into some opportunity in the present.

Are there other benefits to adding play to your life?

Play-deprived people will find that their sense of optimism skyrockets. Playful imagination gives you a series of choices that nothing else offers. They are emotionally charged choices, so they are powerful. You tend to put them into action. It’s not just something in your head: It’s something in your heart. And what play does, better than anything else, is unite what is in your head and your heart.

Sounds like play is essential for a person who wants to make big life changes.

Absolutely. The most effective transformations in life are those that come from being in touch with your playful side. Our ability to change comes from our playful imaginations. Let’s face it: If you frame your life reinvention as, “I’ve got to be responsible," chances are, you’re not going to joyfully and passionately jump into it. If you are trying to have an inner sense of purpose and meaning, and it’s not linked to something joyful and playful inside of you, it will ossify. It will become an endurance contest. We can survive without play, but poorly. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, MD is available from Avery Books.

Learn more about play at Dr. Brown’s National Institute for Play

Photo credit: David Fenton