All work and no play: Are you operating at a play deficit?


Earlier this month, I read Dr. Stuart Brown's book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and invigorates the Soul. Dr. Brown is a psychologist and co-founder of the National Institute of Play and a strong proponent for the importance of play in our busy grown-up lives. He believes that play is essential if we are to keep our minds and hearts open, flexible, healthy and adaptable to our ever-changing world. 

A strong argument, a fascinating read and a powerful reminder that I need to play more.

Now, I don’t think I have always operated at a play deficit. When I was a high school teacher, play was often a part of my life. It seemed like there were always opportunities to let off steam and have some fun. In the course of a regular work day, I was known to reveal my 1980s breakdancing moves (I have a pretty impressive ‘worm’, I must admit) for anyone willing to watch, wear a wig to class, or even attend classes dressed in my pajamas (not atypical for teachers). Despite the pressures of the job and the need to educate young minds about current events, wars and the impacts of globalization, there always seemed to be small fragments in time where play was a welcome and needed reprieve.

But then, slowly, I started to access play less and less. Perhaps it was the feeling of exhaustion that I experienced near the end of my teaching career or the pressure I felt in building my own business, but at some point play started to feel a bit superfluous to what I wanted to accomplish. Dr. Brown attests that as we get older, we start to feel guilty or shameful about playing. After all, as adults we need to get things done. We have bills to pay and we believe that being productive is essential to our survival. Play, on the other hand, is purposeless by its very definition. It is not driven by an agenda or the desire to accomplish anything; play is engaged in purely for its own sake. Based on the pressures of our daily lives, it is not surprising that play can be easily tossed aside for more purposeful and productive ways to spend our time. 

The opposite of play is not work; it is depression.

Play, however, is essential for our wellbeing and health. We know this intrinsically; we know how it feels after we do something simply for the pleasure it brings us. The evidence is there in our bodies and in our moods. According to Dr. Brown, the opposite of play is not work; it is depression. Choosing to play; choosing to do something that is, at its very nature, nonproductive —  is exactly what we need to become happier, more productive and more energized in our own lives. 

Too long without play, however, and our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become…incapable of feeling sustained pleasure.
— Dr. Stuart Brown

How do we recover from a play deficit? 

So, how do we recover from a play deficit? How do we tap into a type of play that sits outside of the schedules and the to-do lists that often dominate our days? 

According to Dr. Brown, the best place to start is with your childhood. What did you love to do when you were a kid? What could you immerse yourself in where you would feel complete joy? Starting with our childhood memories can help us to remember the kind of play that really spoke to our hearts. 

When I think back to my own childhood memories, it was aimlessly exploring the 100 acres of forest and field that I grew up on that would propel me into another place. I could get lost for hours in solitude with nature — noticing what was around me and engaging fully with the landscape. While my passion for nature is still alive and well today, most often the nature activities I do involve achieving something. Whether it is finishing a mountain bike ride or hiking to a mountaintop, my interactions often lack the improvisation and time-freedom that Dr. Brown argues are key properties of play. 

So, curious to connect to that childhood sense of play, I attended a Shinrin Yoku session earlier this month. Shinrin Yoku is a Japanese word that means "taking in of the forest atmosphere" and it is an actual medical practice that is used throughout Japan to reduce stress for busy Japanese professionals. For four hours that day, rather than the usual mindset of wanting to get somewhere, my experience in the forest was slowed down and my entire being was immersed in everything the forest had to offer. Time melted away. I stopped worrying about where I needed to be and what I needed to do. Instead, I settled into just being and walked out of that forest feeling more grounded, connected and refreshed. I felt like a kid again.  

Play is serious business. 

Dr. Brown's book was a reminder to me to not take the power of play lightly. Making time for the things that light us up is an investment in not only our health and our creativity, but also our ability to be resilient and adaptable to change. Workplaces can benefit from it and so can families. Engaging in some purposeless and non-structured play not only opens us up to new ways of thinking it also infuses us with a sense of discovery and aliveness that often gets lost amid the day-to-day grind. 

Now, please excuse me. I have a play date with my paints and a canvas. 

Learn more about how a Integral Life Coaching can help you to reconnect with what is truly important to you. 

Looking to have some fun at work? Consider Graphic Recording for your next meeting or conference. 


Want to learn more about Stuart Brown? Check out his TED talk, "Play is more than fun"