In nearly every corner of the world — in sandboxes, soccer pitches, and even jungles — humans and mammals play. But as we age, the freedom to play lessens and is replaced by pressure to be productive or to have an “impactful career.”
In the past 50 years, free playtime for children has declined sharply. In turn, this lost time lessens opportunities for imagination and threatens mental and physical health, even after those kids become adults.
While it’s clear play is crucial for human development, what role does it have for professionals? It turns out, taking a more playful approach to work or time off for fun, pointless activities enables improved performance, creativity, happiness, and out-of-the-box thinking.
“We're such an achievement-motivated society that we almost think it's sort of sinful to just do things for the fun of it,” Peter Gray, a veteran play researcher and psychologist at Boston College, tells Inverse. But the opposite of play is not work, it's depression, experts say.
This week, we explore how adulthood doesn’t have to mean the end of play and outline how to bring play into the office. In a world dominated by “self-optimization,” it’s time to recognize it’s still ok to do something just for fun.
“One can come up with a lot of purposes of life, but surely the most important thing about your own individual life is that you enjoy it. If you're not enjoying it, what's the point?” Gray asks.
I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.
Why do humans play? — Playing doesn’t seem to serve an obvious purpose, but there’s one major reason all mammals play: to learn.
“There's a reason why the young of all mammals play much more than the more mature ones,” Gray explains. “When you're young, you've got more to learn and so you play more.”
Even though what Gray calls “pure play” declines as humans age, play is still vital in adult life.
In adults, playfulness is associated with greater life satisfaction, improved physical health, and stronger social bonds both at work and at home. Some researchers even argue a lack of play predicts criminal activity and can hinder healthy relationships.
What exactly is play? — While it may seem abstract, play has some core characteristics that operate on a spectrum, Gray says.
- Play is self-directed and self-motivated: If play is being controlled by an outside figure — a forced icebreaker game or evaluated puzzle — that isn’t play. It has to be something you choose to do yourself.
- Play is intrinsically motivated: You're doing it for its own sake, not to reach an external outcome or to get something like a trophy or money. “In psychology and economics, we have this view that people do things to get rewards and to avoid punishment. But that's not the motivating factor in play... the motivating factor is that you just really want to do this,” Gray says.
- All play is structured, and structured by the players themselves. There are always some guiding principles (which are self-created) involved in playful activities. “The rules provide the boundaries to the activity, and within those boundaries there's an infinite number of choices that you can make in terms of what you're doing.” This applies when kids are pretending to be superheroes and when adults play video games.
- Play is always creative and imaginative: “When you are in a playful frame of mind, your ability to think outside of the box or come up with creative ideas and new solutions to problems is much more enhanced compared to when you are in a more serious frame of mind,” Gray explains based on decades of research in children and adults.
Blurring the line between work and play — The key to playing as an adult is thinking like a child, Gray says. Removing the fear of failure, judgment, or desire for an external outcome can help adults be more playful, even in professional settings where the stakes are high.
“The fear of failure produces a kind of constrained thinking that leads you to not be creative,” Gray says. This looming anxiety leads people to do things they already know how to do, because if they try something different, chances are pretty good that it won’t work, he adds.
In order to be creative, you have to be willing to fail, Gray says. Particularly at work, playing requires turning off goal setting and desires for external outcomes. To the degree you can, forget you’re working for the money and immerse yourself in an activity the way a child does.
“You can't be afraid of somebody else's judgment, at least in some immediate sense,” Gray says. “You have to be willing to engage in an activity in a way that it may not work and may even look stupid to somebody outside of you.”
Experts suggest taking short daily breaks to do mindless, fun activities: Watch a funny YouTube video, dance around, play catch or video games with a friend, or do a Sudoku puzzle.
“The ideal break is where you're doing something that's really fun but it doesn't absorb your mind too much,” Gray says. These breaks can also be seemingly pointless hobbies, like cross-country skiing or chopping wood. They keep your mind active but in a kind of “rhythmic way,” Gray says.
Don’t think of these tasks as new items on your to-do list, but rather moments to check out, be present, and laugh. Play may not seem productive, but it will bleed positively into the rest of your work and home life.