Rediscover the power of play for greater physical and mental health

There is no getting around it. Life is chaotic. No one can predict what will happen next. As much as we try, we can’t control the things that matter. You can science your way into love, happiness, success, or fulfillment. You can’t buy them. There is no app for that. You can’t work hard at them or brute force it. You won’t find them on Netflix, Amazon, or the metaverse.

Life is also playful. We can dance with it as we move between chaos and order. We can laugh at life’s spontaneity. We can gaze in wonder at its beauty and serendipity. We can treasure the good and bad times shared with others. We can choose to play in this uncertainty and be happy, healthy, and have a sense of humor, even though life is messy. Messy can be fun.

The choice to play is up to you, as well as how you go about it.

– Dr. Peter Gray

Play is how we learn to live in this chaotic world. Every mammal on the planet plays. It’s how we explore and how we prime ourselves for learning on a biological level. Our bodies learn through play. Our brains play with ideas, habits, and roles. A playful state transforms stressful, depressing, and dangerous situations into opportunities for creativity, growth, and human connection.

Play releases positive chemicals in the brain that lead to more flexible thinking. Psychological flexibility and creativity increase job performance, satisfaction, mental health, and even pain tolerance.

Stress, on the other hand, is unbelievably bad for us. When we refuse to play and instead try to control the uncontrollable, the stress becomes overwhelming. We get rigid in our thinking and our muscles tense up. When under attack, our bodies release adrenaline that causes our fight, flight, or freeze mechanisms to trigger. Our biological systems work in crisis mode to keep us alive. Our focus narrows. Our body tenses, and our brain fixates on the one best possibility to keep us alive. It is a great system when facing a threat or a crisis. It is a bad way to live long-term.

Our society is suffering from play deprivation. Research from Cigna suggests that over 50% of all people are stressed out and lonely, and it is more physically dangerous than smoking and obesity!

Choose to Play

A ton of scientific and psychological research has shown that life is not the problem. Life is going to be chaotic and messy. It is how we choose to respond to that stress that matters to our ultimate happiness. Eventually, bad stress breaks down our bodies and minds, and we end up sick and sad. However, there is another type of stress, called Eustress, which is the flow state we enter when we choose to respond to life as a playful, low-stakes challenge to be enjoyed. This playful state leads to long-term happiness and health.

It turns out that happiness drives success, not the other way around. Happy people see a boost in their confidence, mental and physical resilience, resourcefulness, and relationships with others. Positive emotions are contagious. We spread them to our coworkers and clients, and this playful attitude creates amplification of other strategies and tactics. It creates a positive cycle that attracts more happy people, and your collective success continues to grow.

Here are five things you can do to increase your playfulness:

  1. Remember your childhood play. What did you always love to do as a kid? How can you remember what it felt like to be in that playful state?
  2. Make a reverse bucket list. What are small, easy, and fun things you can do often to enjoy life? Don’t pick big goals that stress you out. This is just for you to enjoy.
  3. Choose a hobby with no expectations. What can you do that is just for you? Not a side-hustle or something with too much pressure. Pick something you love and do it often.
  4. Schedule time to play. When can you fit this activity into your day? You are not too busy. You have just chosen to prioritize other things. Start with minutes not hours.
  5. Connect with others who share your passion. Who else loves what you love? Find a meet-up, online group, or a friend with whom you can share your passion to amply your results.

When was the last time you voluntarily made a mess, just for the fun of it? When was the last time you got dirty, wet, had a food fight, spilled glitter on the floor, stepped on a Lego, or knocked something over? Share in the comments.

Despite our parents’ and teachers’ best intentions, we have learned to see these as bad outcomes. They are simply side effects of play, and play is necessary for happiness.

Don’t mute yourself or your loved ones to avoid marks on the walls or the stains on the carpet. You can clean up and fix things later… but a happy soul, joy in your heart, and a healthy body are much more valuable!

Go play.