Bring More Play Into Your Life

Being an adult can be so serious. There’s work that never ends, bills to pay, houses or apartments to maintain, and oftentimes kids to take care of. Roller skating, building with Legos, or simply goofing around may not be a priority. But adding more play into your life—however that may look—can help combat stress and even make you more creative and productive.

In a study published in the journal Leisure Sciences, researchers found college students who scored higher on a questionnaire measuring playfulness experienced lower levels of perceived stress. They also more frequently used adaptive coping strategies, facing their stressors head-on rather than avoiding them. (And many of us know first-hand that avoiding things can often only make the situation worse.)

“To play and be playful facilitates the experience of positive emotions,” explains René Proyer, PhD, a psychologist at Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. He defines playfulness as individual differences that “allow people to frame or reframe everyday situations in a way such that they experience them as entertaining, and/or intellectually stimulating, and/or personally interesting.” He adds, “those on the high end of this dimension seek and establish situations in which they can interact playfully with others—for example, playful teasing and shared play activities—and they are capable of using their playfulness even under difficult situations to resolve tension, such as in social interactions, or in work-type settings.”

Proyer has found that playfulness also has the potential to help us see more avenues to solve problems, in turn filling up our toolbox of skills and resources. Additionally, “playful actions that involve one or more other people help us manage social relationships and may, in turn, help build long-term relationships and foster the development of networks for social support,” he says.

If the stress-slashing isn’t enough reason to amp up your play factor, other research found that when work groups participated in improvisation training, they not only became more playful, they also became more creative compared to workers who didn’t get any training. And that could help you advance career-wise since creativity is linked with intrinsic motivation, which is our internal drive to do something (rather than doing it for external reasons, such as pressure from others).

But you don’t need to sign up with your local stand-up group to experience the many benefits of being playful. In a study published in August, Proyer found other ways that adults can learn to be more playful.

He split 533 adults into four groups. For a week, each tried a different playfulness intervention for 15 minutes before going to bed:

  • The first recorded three playful things that happened that day. They noted who was involved and how they felt during those times. Maybe you surprised your partner with a flirtatious text during work or randomly joined a pick-up soccer game for a minute during a run.
  • The second wrote down how they used playfulness in new ways during the day. For example, did you playfully tease a coworker, when you normally are very business-like at the office? Or perhaps you vividly shared a story about your eccentric uncle, mimicking his voice and wild hand gestures. This group also jotted down who was involved and how they felt.
  • The third group reflected on playful experiences they had over the day, tallying this number. These experiences could be any of those already mentioned or others. “What is playful to one person may not necessarily be playful to another person,” Proyer notes.
  • The last group was the placebo group. They wrote about early childhood memories.

After examining the participants’ playfulness, facets of playfulness, well‐being, and depression right before and after the week-long intervention as well as two, four, and 12 weeks later, the researchers found that the second strategy—using playfulness in a new way—appeared to have the most effect.

“This [strategy] combines different modalities,” Proyer explains. “Cognitive, or thinking about what to do; behavioral, or doing it; and affective, or experiencing emotions while using playfulness in a new way. This combination may make it particularly engaging.” To try it, “think about how you usually express playfulness in your daily life and try using it in different situations, contexts, or environments,” he suggests. For example, if you are very playful in your romantic relationships or when dealing with your children, why not allow for some play and playfulness at the workplace when interacting with your colleagues?

But if that intervention doesn’t seem appealing, the “three playful things intervention” may also help, Proyer says, because it’s easy. It doesn’t matter if you acted playfully, thought about something playful, or observed something playful—each of those counts. Maybe you teased your partner or caught a particularly whimsical act from a street performer.

Lastly, counting playfulness is also easy and could help you see more playfulness in your life, Proyer says. “We typically see an increase in the number of observations [as days go by]. Hence, people may be more open to experiencing playfulness in their lives or be better in identifying playfulness” when they count, he explains.

However you might decide to boost the play in your life, it’s possible and worthwhile. “Playfulness as a personality trait means being able to frame or reframe almost any situation in life in a way that it can be experienced as entertaining, interesting, or intellectually stimulating,” Proyer says. “Engaging more in playful activities may even—in the short term—contribute to greater well-being. And it’s fun!”

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