Goofing Off


The pure pleasure of play is a true antidote to all the mundane duties of adulthood, especially that most tedious of tasks, maintenance of Self. But we have a hard time allowing ourselves the purposelessness that is absolutely fundamental to the relief we crave.

Pity in the baseball fan. the strike may be over, the season under way, but the memories of the bickering and greed have forever marked our "national pastime" as Big Business. Gone, it seems, is the game's romance; the sweet blend of illusion and innocence. Gone, too, is the sense of play. Indeed, if the strike taught us anything, it's that professional sports now have little to do with playing. Play is something we do for fun, the outward expression of some deep, presumably joyful urge. Yet today's sports starts, with their grave expressions, steely glances, and rehearsed post-game patter, seem about as joyful and spontaneous as a White House press release.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

"What's disillusioning is that the element of play has completely dropped out," laments psychologist Margaret Carlisle Duncan, Ph.D., an expert in leisures studies at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee and president of the Association for the Study of Play. "All we see now is the professional aspect: what drives the players has become invisible; reduced to dollars and cents."

In many ways, our rising ambivalence about professional sports reflects a larger and deeper confusion in our conception of play itself. Americans, by almost all accounts, crave play. We work hard so that we can play hard. We spend lavishly on leisure and diversions--hundreds of billions of dollars a year. We idealize play, admiring "playful" personalities, envying others who manage to keep play in their lives.

And no wonder, for play--true, unadulterated play--is pure pleasure, an activity undertaken solely for enjoyment. Play is intense, absorbing, and invigorating. It can override consciousness, displace anger, anxiety, and fear. It can produce illusion and make-believe, clouding our sense of time, place, and identity.

Play isn't simply the antithesis of work: Its an antidote to all the mundane duties of adulthood, from partnering and provisioning right down to the tedious maintenance of Self. Little surprise that researchers link play and playfulness to such positive outcomes as healthy relationships, strong families, creativity, spiritual growth, and personal confidence.

Yet even as we idealize play, we're finding the ideal is elusive and depressingly complex. For all its rejuvenating powers, play--or "flow," as University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., calls it--can also be disruptive, dysfunctional, even addicting. "Flow isn't necessarily good," he says. "It's like electricity: It can be used for a toaster or an electric chair."

More important, playfulness, even in its healthiest sense is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. Not only do we have less time for play, but we've begun to blur the boundaries between our work selves and play selves. More and more, we work at playing, larding our leisure with labor-related terms and themes: efficiency; perfectionisms; results. "Today's tennis players use terms like 'stroke production,'" grouses Geoffrey Godbey, Ph.D., a professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania state university and author of The Sociology of Leisure. "That's not playing; that's work."

Indeed, in our drive for efficiency, we've even begun making our play do work, using it as a means to other ends--stress reduction, therapy, fitness, the never-ending process of "self-actualization." We may be fitter and faster, but we're also undermining the purposelessness that is so fundamental to play.

The harder we play the less playful we're becoming--and the more vulnerable we leave ourselves to the very things play is supposed t prevent: tension, stress, anxieties, discordant relationships, poor work performance, even depression. "Are we as late-20th-century North American adults at a crisis point?" asks the university of Wisconsin's Duncan. "Speaking as contemporary North American adult, I'd have to say 'yes.'"

A State of Grace

What is play? Like love or happiness, play is a concept that resists explication: You know it when you feel it. In fact, play is now studied under so many diverse disciplines, from psychology and sociology to literary theory and theology, that definitions run the gamut. Nonetheless, many researchers agree that play can be described by four or five basic characteristics.

For example, true play is its own reward. It is undertaken voluntarily. It is often a form of self-expression and is always pleasurable. Finally, all play, whether experienced directly (through participation) or vicariously (through observation), is completely absorbing.

Why humans need such experiences is a far more complex and long-standing question. Since classical times, scholars have recognized that play is universal, and not simply within the human sphere. All higher animals, from the two-legged variety right down to fish in the ocean, exhibit some degree of play activity--that is, mental and physical action not directly related to survival. Play was, therefore, not simply a by-product of the mind: It dearly had some cruder biological end.

Most early researchers, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, sought to explain play in deterministic, cause-and-effect terms. We played, depending on the theory of the day, to burn excess energy, to recharge depleted energy, to practice "instinctual" behaviors such as fighting or courting, or to purge unwanted tensions.

In 1938, the Dutch anthropologist Johan Huizinga advanced the then-radical notion that play might be its own end. In his seminal work, Homo Ludens (Man the Player), Huizinga argued that play did not necessarily serve some biological or psychological objective, but arose from, and was of value primarily as, an experience. Huizinga observed that this experience was often achieved via physical activity, but could arise from numerous other sources. Reading, gambling, watching soccer; all could produce the same mental state.

Huizinga regarded this play state as distinct from other states. He believed that it could occur only under specific conditions. It had to be absorbing. It had to include some element of uncertainty, and it usually involved a sense of illusion or exaggeration--in other words, play-pretend. Most important, Huizinga insisted that true play must exist outside ordinary life. That is, even though absorbed by the activity, the player is always conscious of the fact that the play is not real, that its consequences won't carry over into "real" life.

Playing: Safe

This distinction between real life and play life was critical to Huizinga's theory and remains central to the modern picture of play. In Huizinga's view, play is a safe place. It is bounded by explicit or implicit limits--time, space, rules, etc.--within which a player may not only comfortably surrender to the playful urge, but take chances, try on new roles, attempt tasks that, under normal circumstances, might be avoided as too difficult or unpleasant.

Play is a place for pleasure and gratification, but also conducive to experimentation and learning. For that matter, the novelty of a new experience or task can often add to the intensity of the play experience. Huizinga considers the "play element" to be central not only for individual psychology but also for society as a whole; he credited play as the fount for art, philosophy, poetry, knowledge, law, war, and most other forms of culture. "Civilization," Huizinga wrote, "arises and unfolds in and as play."

Wired for Play?

Huizinga's rather idealistic view of play has undergone significant modifications, particularly in terms of play's physiological components. Huizinga argued that the "intensity" and "absorption" of play find "no explanation in biological analysis." Yet more recent research suggests that play, or at least the playful impulse, is distinctly biological.

Humans and many other species are probably "wired" to play, or at least, neurologically predisposed to desire the levels of stimulation and the kinds of mental activity that play produces. Subjects placed in stimulus-deprivation tanks, for example, will soon suffer from a variety of physiological symptoms, including hallucinations. Likewise, too much stimulation provokes anxiety and discomfort.

In short, what Huizinga described as the experience of play, with its boundaries and its separation from real life, is probably more completely understood today as a state of optimal stimulation, or, to use Csikszentmihalyi's term, flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, all human experience lies on a stimulus continuum, with "boring sameness" at one end and "anxiety-producing chaos" at the other. "It is in the enjoyable middle regions," he writes, that an individual's psychic energy "flows" most effectively and produces the greatest pleasure. Within this optimal state, Csikszentmihalyi says, an individual's capabilities are ideally balanced with the challenges of the particular task or activity. The result is a sensation of confidence, of being in control, but also of being completely absorbed or focused. Indeed, a key aspect of flow theory is the notion of attention. During flow experiences, Csikszentmihalyi says, we're able to artificially refine our focus or attention to a limited number of ideas or objects.

"When you are in a play setting, you're symbolically redefining what parts of the world are relevant to you." he says. "You can achieve a kind of artificial focusing: When you jump out of a plane to go skydiving, your mind cannot wander." Thus, for Csikszentmihalyi, like Huizinga, flow, or playfulness, is blissfully distinct from everyday life. There is a sense, he says, of "forgetting time, of feeling that your goals are clear, of getting clear and immediate feedback, not feeling bored, or anxious."

Flow theory may not get us any closer to the meaning of play, but it helps explain why play is so appealing and how it works as such a powerful motivator. One needn't see a classroom full of sleepy children or the crowd in a dentist's waiting room to understand that pleasurable engagement is infinitely preferable to either boredom or anxiety. As important, however, individuals in a state of flow or playfulness experience higher-than-normal levels of confidence and self-assurance. They have, according to Penn State's Godbey, "stopped asking questions about whether they can do something or whether they should do something."

In such a comfortable, poised state, they may actually be able to grasp new concepts or cope with difficult situations more easily, or at least be more willing to attempt them. Animal research suggests that many species use play as a form of problem-solving and of mastering new tasks and skills. Similarly, play is dearly central to development in children, providing them with a pleasurable, comfortable "space" to master new techniques, experiment with adult roles, and simply practice the fine, but difficult, art of being.

This sense of safety, of being a step removed from reality, can also help adults cope with difficult situations. Research suggests that levels of innovation and output among engineers, designers, and other creative types can be boosted by creating a more playful, more relaxed work environment. Couples are also known to employ playful actions and language to discuss issues, such as sex or money, that might prove too awkward for serious "everyday" communication.

More generally, research indicates that play has a central role in the creation and support of intimacy. For example, research by Mark Knapp, Ph.D., now chair of the University of Texas's speech communication department, and Phillip Glenn, Ph.D., at Southern Illinois University, showed that couples often use highly personalized forms of play to enhance communication, strengthen bonds, and moderate conflict.

Knapp and Glenn report that these "personal idioms"--gestures or phrases unique to the couple--provided "playful ways of expressing a variety of ideas, including affection, confrontation, requests, sexual references, sexual invitations, and teasing insults," and generally served to promote "cohesiveness within a couple's relationship." As important, they observed, "the loss of playfulness in a marriage was strongly correlated with the onset of marital dysfunction."

Innocence Lost

The playful impulse is undeniably a potent force, and one capable of generating a great many benefits. Yet both research and common sense indicate that whereas playfulness may always be intrinsically rewarding, its longer-term consequences depend almost entirely on the ways in which it is experienced. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow can be achieved in variety of ways that may work against an individual's health or well-being.

Computer and video games, for example, often generate the flow experience, yet may promote a sedentary lifestyle that is largely isolated from the social contact which play once provided. Csikszentmihalyi also notes that many criminal acts, particularly those providing a high degree of excitement or risk, qualify as flow experiences. In fact, criminals often report that committing crimes yields the same sense of pleasure, confidence, and separation from mundane life that athletes may achieve in sports.

Further, just as children's play can turn cruel, so too can adult play turn oppressive, even abusive. Domineering individuals or groups can subject their unfortunate "playmates" to considerable emotional wear and tear--from insults to outright harassment--yet defend their actions as "harmless" play: "We were just playing around" or "Can't you take a joke?"

"We have a highly romanticized and idealized view of play," observes the University of Wisconsin's Duncan. "Yet play is not always the positive, creative, pure, innocent life force that people used to think it was. It can be manipulative, subversive, and even quite dysfunctional. But academics have insisted on putting play on a pedestal."

The Corruption of Play

Yet if academics have romanticized play as an almost sacred phenomenon, an experience undertaken solely for its own sake, most of the rest of us seem to have wandered far in the opposite direction. Adult play is now entirely secular, un-sacred. It has become a thing, a commodity, an event undertaken at a specific time, for a specific purpose. We play for a reason: to relax; to spend time with the kids; to take our mind off work. All these may be excellent objectives, but the process by which they are achieved is no longer play: True play has no end beyond itself.

The most glaring examples of this corruption of play may be sports and fitness. We no longer simply "go for a walk." Instead we try to keep our heart rate to within 60 percent of maximum. "Where play used to be flat-out nonproductive, it's now turned into some way for you to do something better, make yourself stronger, build more muscle, lose more weight," says Kenneth Gergen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Swarthmore College. "To even think anymore about [play as] not doing anything: It's almost unimaginable!"

Our increasing tendency to "use" play has many intertwined causes, the most obvious being our chronic lack of time. Despite promises that technology and automation would shorten our work week, nearly every study suggests we're actually working more hours now than even a decade ago, and earning less real income. We've actually added nine hours of work to our work week. Polls indicate that the average American has only hours of leisure per week. "People are moonlighting, working extra hours," says Chris Smith, of the American Association for Leisure and Recreation. "And with dual-income families, mom's not there to do the housework or handle child care."

That, in turn, has had an enormous impact on the way we perceive our time. In 1983, according to one survey, 25 percent of adults reported always feeling "rushed." By 1994 the percentage had climbed to nearly 40 percent. Not surprisingly, we want to maximize every available minute: If we're playing, we better be achieving some recognizable results to justify the expenditure of time.

But Is It Therapy?.

Compounding our sense of time-poverty, however, is what some researchers describe as the "therapeutic" tendency. Ours is a culture obsessed with Self. We are painfully self-aware, driven by the promise of self-actualization and self-improvement. More and more, we see play in terms of yet another emollient that can be applied to the Self. We focus not on the play, but on the benefits play can provide us and we consciously play for them. We end up playing because we feel we should be playing. It is, ultimately, a doomed endeavor.

True play requires that we forgo the Self, step outside our relentless self-awareness--a step our Self-obsessed culture hasn't prepared us for. As the University of Wisconsin's Duncan notes, "in a highly organized, individualistic society, where every minute of every day must be accounted for in some way that is directly related to building the consciousness, people can't simply 'lose' themselves." Adds Penn State's Godbey: "Instead of seeing ourselves as the buffoons we really are, we take ourselves far too seriously. Instead of losing ourselves in play, we're concerned about what we're wearing or whether we smell good."

How to Goof Off

Can playfulness be recovered? While we're not likely to see a sudden surplus in leisure time or lose our obsession with Self overnight, researchers like Godbey, Csikszentmihalyi, and others insist that bringing play back into our lives is far from impossible. The first step, researchers suggest, is to take stock of our own state of playfulness. Are we getting enough? Have we been using play more than simply experiencing it? Are there possible changes that might shift the balance back?

One suggestion, researchers say, is to try to simplify your play objectives. For example, try taking a walk without your watch or without monitoring your heart rate. And don't take on an activity that is so ambitions, challenging, or expensive that you spend the entire time worrying about whether you can afford it, or whether you're performing well enough, or having enough fun, to justify the time expended.

Also, check out how attached you've become to the material aspect of play--clothes, shoes, equipment, etc. If you've reached a point where you can't go biking without your biking shorts, biking may be not be as playful an experience as it could be.

Chances are, you're not a professional player, so stop pressuring yourself to play or perform like one. Although amateur has almost become an insult, bear in mind that the word derives from the Latin for to love. Unlike professionals, amateurs engage in an activity solely because they love it.

And remember to goof off. A century ago, baseball was played by men who would, on occasion, go on field wearing outlandish top hats. Play, says Godbey, "means giving yourself over to an activity and not having worry whether you're making a fool of yourself. Playing is fooling around, and fooling around requires fools."

Likewise, don't forget to let your mind play as well. Fantasize. Children spend a good deal of their playtime imagining they're somebody or something else. Don't be afraid to do a little "play-pretending" yourself. Moreover, be inventive. Don't limit yourself to routine or traditional types of play, or feel you need a certain time, place, or set of gear. Left by themselves in a large grassy field with a ball and a few traffic cones, children will invariably come up with their own game, complete with rules and boundaries. Adults, too, are allowed to come up with their own games.

Yet perhaps the most important step we can take is simply to pay attention: be open to play. Perhaps play will never be as simple or pure as it was when we were young, or when our culture was less complex, or when we had fewer responsibilities, or more money. But play, like hope, springs eternal. It breaks out, like weeds between cracks in the cement. It pops up and out in the most unlikely situations.

Our task is to recognize play and then be willing to just let it happen. "Walking along a sidewalk isn't playing," says Godbey. "But as soon as one observes the cracks in that sidewalk, and then begins to measure one's stride by those cracks, then tries to avoid stepping on those cracks--well, that's play."

PHOTO (COLOR): "There are three things difficult: to suffer an injury; to keep a secret; to use leisure." -Voltaire

PHOTO (COLOR): Playing miniature golf

PHOTO (COLOR): Playing touch football

Photographs by Chip Simons

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.