Why we need Play

Photo Credit (NicoBorie)

Featured on Elephant Journal

“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” ~ Alan W. Watts

It’s the end of January. I’m ticking all the boxes, and everything is going according to plan. I’m meeting all my deadlines and goals. But somehow there is something not right about me.

Life is too serious. Almost too planned. Something is missing.

I arrive at my daughter’s school for a meeting. Before I go to the conference room, I have to cross the kid’s playground, and I watch them play. I look at their faces; there is unbounded joy, excitement, and laughter. They scream without knowing why. Their smiles and laughter reverberate across the whole playground and penetrate my heart. Then it hits me. I’ve been missing that sense of play.

Play. The ability to engage with the world without purpose and lose ourselves in whatever we are doing. Though it sounds childish, it’s something we need to incorporate in our lives. Play suspends reality and trains our minds to explore new worlds. It is both a communal and a spiritual practice, and we can adopt it in many ways. Here are a few of my favourites:

Fun & Laughter

We need to set aside some time where we can have fun, let go, and forget all about the stress in our life. When we laugh regularly, we empty the “stress garbage bag” that we fill on a daily basis.

Laughter reduces our levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and increases health-enhancing hormones—endorphins. It also improves blood flow to the heart and increases white blood cell count, making us more resistant to disease.

Laughter improves our mood, and makes us more positive and more radiantly alive. Through laughter, we connect to one another. We communicate and express our emotions. It’s a spiritual form of communing; without words we tell each other, “I get you.” It’s common knowledge that children laugh much more than adults. As such, they live with less stress.

An article by Psychology Today, stated that the average four-year-old laughs 300 times a day. The average 40-year-old? Only four.

Laughter is healing, too. Norman Cousins was a writer remembered for his determination to heal himself with positive thinking. He was diagnosed with severe arthritis and had to be hospitalised. After a while at the hospital, he theorised that if negative emotions could make people sick, then positive emotions could make them feel better. He stopped all medication, left the hospital, and started watching two hours of comedy a day. His laughter stimulated chemicals in his body that allowed him some sleep, and he recovered—not entirely, but well enough to become the editor of the Saturday Review.

Dolce Far Niente

This is an Italian concept brought to the world by Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. It translates to “the sweetness of doing nothing.” It’s similar to Buddhist teachings that preach being present, not trying to strive for anything, in order to get lost in the spontaneity of the moment.

In our modern technology age, we are always looking for ways to engage the mind. We are always too busy doing this and that and have become unable to relax naturally into sheer pleasure.

In Ricardo Semler’s TED Talk How to run a company with (almost) no rules, the Brazilian entrepreneur and thinker says that “On Mondays and Thursdays I learn how to die.” He explains that he spends these two days doing nothing specific. No to-do lists, no calls from work, no meetings. He simply does “nothing.”

I’m now declaring Sunday my play day. No phones. No texts. No laptops. No emails. Just the sweetness of doing nothing.

Song & Dance

In many communities, song and dance bring out this sense of play. Whether it’s celebrating or mourning, they invoke a sense of communion. There is something about music that affects our emotions and colours an event differently. Just try watching a movie with dialogue but no soundtrack. Music invokes our consciousness in ways that other forms of communication can’t.

Dance is probably the highest form of play. Here, we drop our shields and become completely vulnerable. We let go of control, lose all self-consciousness, and are thus completely free. We can look silly and uncool, but we don’t care what people think. We don’t even care what we think of ourselves. We are simply free to enjoy the present moment.

Playing Games or Adopting a Pastime

Another way of cultivating this sense of play is to play games, be they computer games, board games with friends and family, or something else. Maybe a regular game night of playing Pictionary or cards can allow us to get lost in the joy of play, without the stress of any strenuous mental activity.

Taking on a hobby or participating in a sport that we enjoy can equally take us away from our normal routine and help us to think differently than what we are used to. That hobby could be golf, surfing, or sailing once a week, just to name a few. It might include creating a new group of friends with whom we meet up just for that pastime.

Time with Friends or Family

Whether it’s a cinema night or discovering new restaurants with friends, these activities engage us, enabling us to have fun and forget our worries and regular routine. Through them, we get out of our comfort zones for a few hours to chase that feeling of play.

Of course, we don’t want to start making play so organised that we kill the spontaneity and re-engage the rational part of our mind. The point of play is that it allows nothingness, fun, and presence into our lives.

That presence is what I saw at the playground. I wished I could be four again, but maybe I don’t need to turn back time to rekindle that spirit of fun and laughter in my life.

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