We live in a culture where work is prioritized over all else. From a young age, we're pushed to figure out what our 40+ year career will be. We're supposed to dedicate 40 hours a week to that career, even more if we want to make more money, status, or prestige. Busyness and exhaustion are considered status symbols.
Yet work is not the only thing that's important in life – play is important too. It's great for relaxing, enjoying, and recharging for the next round of work. In fact, playing can lead to even more success in your career than more work can.
"Once people understand what play does for them, they can learn to bring a sense of excitement and adventure back into their lives, make work an extension of their play lives, and engage fully with the world."
– Dr. Stuart Brown
To understand the value of play and how it can help us live better, more productive lives, we must first understand what good play really is.
What is Play?
Play is the act of freely engaging with the world without purpose or expectation. It is the most natural way humans learn, experience, and grow in life. It lies at the core of creativity, innovation, and living a wholehearted life.
Dr. Stuart Brown, author of the book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul breaks down what perfect play looks like into seven key properties.
Great play has no purpose. There's no apparent "practical" value in the activity, nor is there any objective to earn money or gain any material advantage. We play for the sake of play because we feel it and enjoy it. You don't need a reason for doing something positive that makes you feel good.
"If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint."
– Edward Hopper
Play has no obligation, commitment, or responsibility. There is no requirement to act in a certain way or to even play at all. Play can be done when you want and how you want. It is an act of freedom.
(3) Inherent attraction
Play doesn't have any to-do list, pressure, or burden. We are naturally attracted to it because it's fun, enjoyable, and brings about psychological arousal. In simple words: we like it.
"There’s no fear when you’re having fun."
– Will Thomas
(4) Freedom from Time
Play makes us lose track of time – in a good way. Detaching from time is how we feel most alive, totally absorbed in the moment, what researcher Adam Grant would call flow. It's an escape from the structured world of demands and constraints. That escape feels incredible.
(5) Diminished consciousness of self
Not only does play help us forget our sense of time, but it also helps us forget our sense of self. We don't think about the way we look or how we're performing. We're not self-critical. There's no pressure to achieve anything. It's what Abraham Maslow called peak experience:
"Think of the most wonderful experience of your life: the happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music or suddenly 'being hit' by a book or painting, or from some creative moment."
– Abraham Maslow
(6) Improvisational potential
Play leads to creativity and discovery. Haven't you ever taken a break from work, gone outside or had a snack perhaps, only to randomly have a great idea spark in your head? That's play at work! It allows your mind to wander, tinker, and get the juices flowing. You think freely, naturally stumbling upon ideas that you ordinarily wouldn't have.
(7) Continuation desire
Play drives us to engage in even more play. Our brains recognize the pleasure, so we do anything we can to keep it going. It feels good, so we want more of it. That's a good thing because it means that we're being driven to enjoy life. It's a beautiful cycle.
“The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.”
― Dr. Stuart Brown
How Play Makes Life Better
The seven properties of play that we have defined above give us the background to understand why play is so vital to living a great life.
Play isn't just something to do on the side after work. It's not an afterthought that you can just slip in. It's a natural component of human life.
Without play, your brain doesn't have the space to relax and recharge. It's too overloaded. You might be able to power through it in the short term, but long term it will crash and lead to lower productivity overall. The human brain has evolved to play. But it has to be true play that's driven by your own inclinations and desires.
Play allows your brain to voluntarily and purposelessly wander. It's free and natural living which promotes creativity and ingenuity. You're letting your subconscious mind do what it does best: think. If you're always working, then you're restricting your brain to thinking linearly. But it has evolved to do its best thinking from intuition, which is far more powerful. You must respect this biological programming of your mind.
Play brings joy to life. It creates positive emotions, memories, involvement, activity, and pleasure. The dryness of work in comparison can hardly be called living. Plays gives us a break from all the pressures, restrictions, and pulling of life. Work makes life pull you, while play lets you push into life.
Finally, we recognize that play is the most natural way of life because it is based on involvement in the present. It has thousands of years of evolution backing it as the best way to achieve a sense of peak experience. We can see it most clearly in children: they play all the time and are the happiest of all! As an adult you have more responsibilities, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't play. If you work all the time then you might get to experience joy later, but playing lets you experience joy right now.
"In the long run, work does not work without play"
– Stuart Brown
Play is an act of freedom and life itself is free. With all the societal pressure to be workaholics, the truth is that play is a requirement for productive work and fruitful life. It sparks joy, energizes the soul, and stimulates the mind. You must play.