A few years ago, when I was teaching an undergraduate seminar at Stanford on the psychology of happiness, I had the students put away their books and push their chairs to the side to play a game. Soon the students were running around, laughing with the spontaneity and joy of children. As the game drew to a close, I asked about their experience, and a beautiful 17-year-old named Jackie Rotman grinned from ear to ear and sheepishly shared, “I thought we weren’t allowed to play anymore?”
What is ironic is that animals continue to play throughout their adult lives, yet we rational humans often don’t. Submerged in the responsibilities of life, the seriousness of world affairs, and the demands of work, we often forget to play at all. Like Jackie, we often believe that it is no longer allowed or that it is a frivolous waste of time.
Of course, we do sneak in some play here and there. Why is it that we love to watch athletic games, go to water parks, or play sudoku? What is so fun about throwing a ball for a dog or giving toys to children? When I first told the Stanford undergraduates to move their chairs aside, I saw them look in puzzlement at each other, still burdened with the thoughts and worries they had walked in with, slightly uptight, and definitely nervous at the idea of doing something embarrassing. Then, once they started to run around, laughter and excitement bubbled up. In just a few minutes the group was all smiles, full of enthusiasm, and buoyant with a lightness of mind reminiscent of children.
Mark Lepper, a social psychologist at Stanford, found that if you pay children and adults to pursue what they already enjoy doing, they will no longer be motivated to continue pursuing it without getting paid. The simple reason is that pay subverts play. In fact, reason subverts play, because play is a natural outcome of a joyful mind. As play researcher Stuart Brown, MD, writes, play is “apparently purposeless — done for its own sake.” Nevertheless, such purposelessness has extraordinarily positive effects. Play quiets our busy minds, putting a stop to our constant barrage of thoughts about the past and future.
How does it do this? Stop reading for a moment and put all your concentration into one big happy smile.
Play and the Present Moment
The root of the word “enthusiasm” is Greek and means to be inspired or possessed by divinity; it literally means “inside God.” When we engage in play, we become like children again because we are fully present — a state which, for many spiritual traditions, is also equated with being one with divinity.
According to a study of 5,000 people by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, adults spend only about 50 percent of their time in the present moment. The minds of human beings, unlike those of animals, spend about half of their time wandering. The researcher also found that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” No matter what we’re actually doing, pleasant or unpleasant, we tend to be less happy when our minds wander.
For example, you can probably remember a time when you were on vacation but couldn’t quite take in the experience because your mind was dwelling on a personal problem. When our mind is in the past, it usually dwells on negative emotions, such as anger or regret. When it is in the future, anxiety and fear arise. Even when we are engaged in an unpleasant activity and our minds wander to happier memories, we do not feel happier. Think of a time you had to do a chore you were dreading, like cleaning your apartment. Once you started, however, you became so engaged and enthusiastic that you ended up scrubbing more corners and polishing more areas than you had intended. You were uplifted and energized by being fully immersed in the task at hand and were left in a state of joy.
A Fountain of Energy
One of the reasons children are filled with extraordinary amounts of energy and enthusiasm may be that they are in the present moment. Their energy is not wasted on a wandering mind that exhausts itself through negative emotions. The elderly also tend to live in the moment, as another Stanford researcher, Laura Carstensen, found out. Why? The elderly become acutely aware of the finiteness of life and are therefore more likely to live in the present moment and to savor every positive experience. This knowledge, of course, begs the question: is it necessary to wait until we are old to appreciate the gifts of the present?
Play allows us to inhabit the present. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we need to start a game of tag or adopt a dog. Another way to think of play is the state of flow, a concept proposed by research psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Flow occurs when we are completely immersed in an activity — the state of being 100 percent in the present moment — and it is a state of great pleasure. It can happen during any activity: art, music, work, or spending time with a loved one. As Csíkszentmihályi notes in his book The Evolving Self, flow has been reported by a wide range of people “from Hindu yogis and Japanese teenagers who race motorcycles, by American surgeons and basketball players, by Australian sailors and Navajo shepherds, by champion figure skaters and by chess masters.”
Is It Play vs. Work?
Growing up in France, I noticed that people there live to play. Vacation plans are a favorite topic of conversation, and work hours are few. Yet people are disgruntled that they need to work at all. When I first moved to the United States from France, I admired that people lived for their work. Their conversations always revolved around items on their to-do list. Yet people in the United States are disgruntled that they are so stressed. Interestingly, both cultures are focused on the future: either vacation lists or to-do lists. Flow, whether in work or relaxation, is only found in the present moment. It is a state we all find when we are fully engaged in what we are doing without drifting to the past or the future. At that moment, no matter what we are doing, be it chores, work, or lying on a beach, the present becomes play.
Of course, many spiritual traditions have emphasized this point and have suggested specific methods, like meditation, to bring the mind back to the present moment. The irony is that many people think of meditation as something else to work on, rather than a way to play.
Mark Beeman, PhD, at Northwestern University, found that people have an easier time solving a puzzle after watching a short comedy clip. Having fun, perhaps by easing tension, may facilitate neuronal connections that are helpful for greater mental flexibility and creativity. In another brain imaging study, Dr. Beeman found that activation of pleasure centers in the brain predicted successful puzzle-solving. These findings suggesting that well-being helps us think more creatively and could potentially help us resolve challenging situations.
Play and Meditation
I once attended a Buddhist meditation retreat where everyone was very serious about learning to meditate, and we spent most of our time in silence. The mood was sincere, earnest, and solemn. But one morning, as we were sitting in absolute silence at breakfast (we were meant to chew mindfully, preferably with eyes closed), I heard a strange knocking sound. Curious, I peeked out and saw the one Tibetan monk at the retreat quietly eating his oatmeal. After a few minutes of bewilderment, I noticed a twinkle in his eye (his were not closed). Soon, I got it! He had been knocking on the underside of the table to tease us. When he realized I had noticed, he flashed a smile and bobbed in silent laughter.
Later that day, as we walked in silent mediation, I saw him throw an apple core at a bird to make it fly away. The other participants, who also had witnessed his action, anxiously wondered what he was trying to teach us, but I just laughed to myself. The monk was having fun in our too-solemn affair. Later in the retreat, the instructors called him up on stage to share some wisdom. He took his head in his hands and said, hilariously, “I don’t know what you all are up to.” A few days later, I saw him throwing an apple core again. This time it was at a participant walking in silent meditation!
Play and Service
“Mischief is the outcome of joy. What is life without fun?” writes His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living Foundation. Yet play does not mean being irresponsible. In fact, many of the greatest spiritual teachers take on more responsibility for world affairs than most, yet still remain immersed in playful bliss. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, is heavily concerned with world peace and the Tibetan cause, yet his frequent chuckle automatically sends peels of laughter through the large audiences he addresses. His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar leads service projects and peace-keeping missions around the world, yet the lightness in which he delivers wisdom and connects with people uplifts and brings smiles to those he serves. These great teachers have a childlike quality that is charged with play and a lightness of being that actually allows their message to be better understood.
Stuart Brown, MD, describes in his book Play how the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) found it difficult to find young engineers of the same caliber as those that had retired. After interviewing the engineers that had retired, they came to the realization that the retirees had engaged in various forms of analytic play that had resulted in their brilliant performance as engineers. Today, JPL interviews include questions about the type of play that applicants engaged in during their youth.
The Most Sacred Prayer
In Darshan Diaries, Indian spiritual teacher Osho writes, “Playfulness is as sacred as any prayer or maybe more sacred than any prayer, because playfulness, laughter, singing, dancing, will relax you. And the truth is possible only in a relaxed state of being. When you are totally relaxed, in a state of let-go, the impossible starts happening, the miracle starts happening. Letgo is the secret of meditation.”
As Osho describes, in play, the mind dissolves and relaxes. Think about how you go to sleep or even as you are reading this magazine right now. Feel your face: is it soft, relaxed, and innocently trusting, like that of a child, or are the muscles between your eyebrows tense, your jaw locked, your shoulders contracted? In which state are we most likely to find peace and well-being, to think with greater clarity, and to benefit others and carry on our work and responsibilities? Many traditions have emphasized that taking care of oneself is the best route to serving others and to successfully carrying out our work in the world.
Jackie Rotman, now 20 years of age, recently shared the following: “I realized that meditation and play helps me connect with the happy part of your innermost self, and when you connect with that it’s easier to feel joy and share it with the people around it.” Jackie knows about taking responsibility for her community. She is the founder of Everybody Dance Now (everybodydancenow.org), a non-profit that teaches inner city students to dance, and has trained to become an instructor for YES! the Youth Empowerment Seminar, a program offered in high schools around the United States that incorporates play with yoga and meditation, as well as practicing to promote emotional intelligence (youthempowermentseminar.org).
Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that positive emotions increase our cognitive resources by expanding our visual attention as well as our social resources by improving our ability to connect with others. In other words, play may be a way of getting literally “unstuck.” Taking a break and engaging in a totally frivolous act of fun can help loosen our tension and worries and help us think of different ways to engage with a challenging situation.
Play and Belonging
On January 1, 1915, during World War I, a soldier on the front line sent home a famous letter that was first published in the London Times. It described the events of the truce on Christmas Day: “The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”
This striking story is a reminder that play — the ability to laugh and let go, to inhabit the present, and to be immersed in mirth and lightness of being — can be an ultimate act of love and belongingness. When we can laugh and joke, we are remembering our joint humanity, our mutual desire for happiness and love, and our fundamental interconnectedness.