We all know how important play is for children, but the benefits of playfulness are arguably even bigger for adults.
See, a common theme across most forms of adult unhappiness is rigidity. For all our fancy educational attainments, steady careers, and big vocabularies, we adults tend to get stuck in our ways, often to our own long-term detriment.
While our routine ways of thinking and acting may be useful in some ways, as well as comforting and familiar, they often prevent us from growing and adapting. And ultimately, they can contribute to a lot of our misery, from depression and anxiety to stale relationships and boredom.
An under-appreciated antidote to this stuckness and unhappiness is play. What follows are seven of the most important benefits of playfulness for adults.
1. Playfulness helps us “outcompete” worry and anxiety with curiosity and passion
Worry drives anxiety. Full stop. Which means the way to feel less anxious is to break the mental habit of worry.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill for worrying less—it takes practice and hard work. Specifically, it means training your brain to feel the pull toward worry but to pause, re-direct your thoughts elsewhere, and keep them there. Mindfulness meditation is a good exercise to develop this anti-worry mental muscle, but it’s challenging and takes lots of repetition.
But there’s another underrated approach to worrying less: Cultivate interesting objects of thought that “outcompete your worry.” It’s hard to stop worrying and think about something else, when you don’t have much in your life that you’re interested in or excited about.
But when we make play a consistent part of our lives, it often generates new and interesting things to think about throughout the day. And this can help dramatically in the task of worrying less and lowering our anxiety.
2. Play increases freedom and optionality
Play expands the range of options available to us. When we play, we tend to look at things in new ways, often because the particular game or new situation forces us too. When we’re consistently practicing looking at things from new perspectives, two powerful things happen:
- We make novel connections. The ability to see connections between seemingly unrelated things is the hallmark of creativity, and some would say genius. But it’s not just something we’re born with (or without); anyone can cultivate this ability to see novel connections and relationships through regular play.
- We see possibilities that we missed before. I remember as a kid being stuck on a particular page of Where’s Waldo and my grandmother suggested turning the book upside down. It sounded silly, but almost immediately after trying it, what I was looking for appeared, as if by magic.
It’s amazing how much we miss seeing because we’re stuck looking at things in the same old way. Regular play is a powerful way to see the world with fresh eyes—the benefits of which are incalculable.
3. Playfulness fosters better relationships
As a therapist, I hear about a lot of people’s problems—often the things you might expect: anxiety, depression, marriage difficulties, addiction, etc.
But one of the struggles I hear about all the time that most people don’t talk about anywhere else is loneliness. Many of us in today’s society are profoundly lonely. And it’s not because we’re isolated; it’s because we don’t feel truly connected to the people we do have in our lives.
While play can obviously be a source of new friendships and connection (making new friends by joining that city kickball league, for example), perhaps more importantly, play can make our existing relationships more intimate and meaningful. And this is really the antidote to loneliness.
It’s counterintuitive because we associate play with superficiality and childishness, but in reality, play helps us to be vulnerable and intimate when it may otherwise be difficult for us. And nothing accelerates a relationship (of any kind) like intimacy.
4. Play is a stress reliever and relaxing
Most of us feel chronically stressed out because we spend too much time in work mode.
Our mind is constantly analyzing, judging, comparing, predicting, hypothesizing, problem-solving, goal-setting, and any number of other productive mindsets we’ve been trained so well to operate within.
And while these work mode mindsets are incredibly valuable and important, they’re exhausting if we can never shift out of them (imagine a driving a car that could only go in 6th gear at 90 miles an hour?).
While there are a variety of techniques to help you downshift out of work mode a little more often and give yourself a break (mindfulness, deep breathing, etc.), there’s one way to genuinely unwind, relax, and get out of that exhausting mental work mode that almost all adults forget about: Play.
The trouble is, many of the things we adults think of as play aren’t really playful. Watching Netflix may be entertaining, but is it really playful? Going out and getting a beer with your buddy after work is enjoyable, but is it really playful?
The key factor that separates playfulness from other forms of seemingly relaxing, stress-reducing forms of downtime is novelty. Far from the mind-numbing quality of most of our adult diversions from work, genuine play is radically stimulating, thought-provoking, and challenging even. The key difference is that it’s challenging and novel in a different way. In a way that isn’t seriously goal-oriented or pressure-filled.
A few examples:
- Learn a new instrument.
- Join a city-league team for a sport you haven’t played since childhood.
- Take a watercolor class.
- Teach a watercolor class.
- Go hiking in a new area.
- Try a new board game.
- Make a home video.
- Create a new playlist.
The key idea is this: Just because something is enjoyable doesn’t qualify it as play. And as a result, it doesn’t get you the deep relaxation and stress relief that genuine play does.
5. Playfulness leads to creative thinking and smarter decision-making
Play offers the relatively unique chance to exercise both the analytical and creative aspects of our thinking.
When it comes to making important, complex decisions, we need as much mental firepower as possible. Of course, we need to think carefully and logically, weigh the possible pros and cons, consider both benefits and risks, etc. But we also need to think creatively, flexibly, and outside the box.
Many forms of play turn out to be a wonderful training ground for simultaneously exercising our capacities for analytical and creative thinking. A board game like Settlers of Catan, for examples, requires systematic, logical thinking about overall strategy; but to play really well, you must be able to change that thinking in novel, surprising ways in order to adapt to the unique styles and decisions of your competitors.
Importantly, games and play are not only an opportunity to practice a mixture of analytical and creative thinking, but they’re a safe, easy place to do so.
I think a lot of people fail to exercise the more creative aspects of their thinking because it’s looked down upon or seen as risky in a lot of traditional settings like work. Play offers an opportunity, at least in small ways, to think more creatively to solve problems but in a way that’s lower stakes.
6. Play can help us learn new skills
A lot of people tell me how much they would like to learn a new skill or start a new hobby. Rightly, they sense that one of the keys to a satisfying life is not just minimizing the negative, but also building in more enjoyable, meaningful activities into their lives.
I had a client, for example, who really wanted to learn to play the piano. He had stopped taking lessons when he was in middle school and always regretted not learning the instrument and being able to play.
Over the past decade or two as an adult he had tried to start learning several times but never got much momentum and was feeling pretty discouraged about the whole thing.
When I asked about the times recently when he had tried to begin and didn’t stick with it, a common theme was that the way he went about learning seemed pretty miserable. One time he bought a book on teaching yourself classical piano and spent hours per day for a week or two drilling chords and scales. Another time, hired a teacher, but she was apparently pretty intense and ended up firing him as a student because he missed too many lessons because of work!
I suggested to my client that his previous attempts didn’t seem like much fun. Consequently, maybe a better way to approach it would be to try and make it more playful. I asked him what songs he would really love to be able to play and he named a few 80s pop songs that he loved and always daydreamed about being able to play.
Next, we did some research and found a YouTube channel where you could subscribe to this guys channel, and if you paid $100, this guy would create a video walkthrough of how to start playing any song you wanted. Even better, there was a private community you could join and upload videos of yourself playing songs and share with other students, asking for help, showing off your accomplishments, etc.
Turns out, this was exactly what my client needed to make progress on his dream of learning how to play piano—a little fun and playfulness!
Play is one of the most underrated strategies for learning new skills because it encourages novel thinking, flexibility, and most importantly, provides huge amounts of positive reinforcement, which is key to maintaining motivation in the tough early days of learning a new skill.
So, if you’re struggling to learn a new skill, ask yourself, how could I make this process more playful? How could I turn it into a game? How can I gamify my skill acquisition?
7. Playfulness helps with identity diversification
Play is often the first step toward new passions and income streams for your identity.
It’s common financial wisdom to diversify your investments. If all your capital is tied up in stocks and the market plunges, you’re screwed. But, if you have 30% in bonds, 20% in cash, and 50% in real estate, anyone one leg of your investment portfolio and falter and you’ll still be okay.
Well, the same principle applies to our psychological wellbeing. If your entire sense of self is wrapped up in, say, your work, what happens if you get laid off or retire?
Identity diversification means creating and maintaining multiple “income streams” for your sense of self. Rather than defining yourself primarily by your work, better to also invest time, attention, and energy into your role as a father and spouse, your position on a team or outside group, and maybe a hobby or passion too.
This is something most kids do intuitively. They have many facets of their self that they value and “invest” in—they’re a best friend, a captain of the soccer team, a lego engineer, etc. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that kids also are experts at play.
When you’re constantly joining new teams, trying new skills, making up activities and games, and generally being playful, you open yourself up to new relationships, opportunities, and interests, all of which help to cultivate a well-rounded and diversified sense of self.
So, if you wish your wellbeing and emotional health was more resilient to the ups and downs of our frequently stressful adult lives, try playing a little more and see what happens.
Other benefits of playfulness?
What do you think? These are 7 of the most important benefits of playfulness I’ve encountered in my work as a psychologist, most I’m sure there are many more.
What’s an important benefit of playfulness for you in your life? I’d love to hear what you come up with, so leave a comment below!