“The true object of all human life is play.” - G. K. Chesterton
In recent years, self-reported stress levels in the United States have skyrocketed. Studies have shown that more than 75% of American adults experience stress related symptoms like headaches, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping; and more than 50% have said the stress has "negatively affected their behavior.” I know that for me personally, recent years have included many more incidents than I’d like of me not acting in a way that is consistent with my core values, and I know that it has been directly related to stress.
The hard fact is that we face a daunting number of worrisome topics these days, all fighting for the brain power and physical attention of modern day adults. Alas, this has reinforced the notion that we’d all better “get serious” as grown-ups and set aside childish activities like play; an activity that not only lifts our spirits but is also crucial for creativity, healthy relationships and especially for problem solving. If we could only give ourselves the license to play more, we’d likely stress less, have better connections with others and find creative solutions to our most ominous challenges!
“A person’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
As an adult I consider myself to be even better at playing than I was as a kid. In spite of the societal pressure I feel all the time to be more of a “grown-up," I’ve stubbornly kept playing like a child well into my forties. I prize play in its various forms quite highly, and yet I still struggle to feel confident including it in my life as often as I’d like. If we are made to feel as though an activity is unproductive or petty or even some kind of a “guilty pleasure,” it gets harder to schedule time for it. Our actions are so often judged solely by their potential for material gain. Even though I’m keenly aware of how much better I feel when I’m able to get an effective dose of fun, it’s hard to silence the voice in my head that calls out professional and personal responsibilities that surely leave no time for play.
Fortunately, scientific research continues to reveal that prioritizing such activities doesn’t actually detract from our ability to be more functional, productive, happy, healthy adults. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Although still in its infancy, research like this one, "The importance of having fun: Daily play among adults with type 1 diabetes,” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8158911/) is helping people like me to feel a lot better about my instance on playfulness.
Defining play in the context of supporting a healthier lifestyle can be surprisingly difficult. Unfortunately the only type of play which is readily honored by most adults is the competitive and very goal oriented kind. Gambling or highly competitive sports are examples of activities that carry heavy doses of associated stress and can easily override the benefits we’re trying to achieve in their performance. It’s interesting to note that those are examples of much more socially acceptable, big business forms of “play" than something like Dungeons & Dragons, isn’t it?
So what might the hallmarks of a more positive play experience be? The psychiatrist and author Stuart Brown, MD, sums it up quite succinctly in saying that it is a “state of being,” “purposeless, fun and pleasurable.” Perhaps more importantly, he emphasizes that the focus should remain on the experience and not on accomplishing a particular goal. The kind of play we’re looking for here is its own reward and should be inherently enjoyable (not just enjoyable because we win something or make money).
With all this in mind, I believe we can seek out and prioritize forms of play that reduce stress, improve our relationships, restore vitality and energy, inspire creativity, increase brain function, lift confidence and help us sleep better. Consider these categories of play:
Physical; moving our bodies - Hiking, yoga, martial arts, surfing, strength training etc.
Imaginative; moving our minds - Making music, storytelling, painting, crafting, acting etc.
Ritual; activities with defined rules - Board games, video games, puzzle solving etc.
Now consider the forms of play that might cover more than one of the above categories and we start to see some serious potential. Recreational sports, dance classes, jam sessions, escape rooms, these are just a few wildly different expressions of play that combine the benefits of physical and imaginative pursuits, or imaginative and ritual undertakings, or physical and ritual activities. These apparently purposeless endeavors carry such powerful potential for positive interactions and experiences that we must insist on them being a part of our increasingly stressful lives! They are strictly voluntary, there is no obligation or duty to take part in them, we can lose ourselves in them such that time is less of a constraint and self consciousness slips away in their performance so that we can just feel good relating with others. The release of endorphins, the regulation of cortisol and the general sense of well being that comes from this type of play is a sure boon to stem the rising tide of stress.
When we created Breakthrough Strength & Fitness, we endeavored to provide our members with positive play experiences like this. Although our training can be goal oriented at times, it is never at the cost of better health and wellness. As such, an element of playfulness remains a key component. Special programs like our Adventures Team and particularly this fall’s upcoming Tactical Strength Challenge - The Super Hero Edition aim to emphasize play and fun over competition or hardship. There’s no shortage of that in other aspects of our lives and we could all use a recess!
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” - George Bernard Shaw