The New York Times recently ran an article about Red Sox slugger, David Ortiz, who entered a prolonged slump earlier this year, and reduced his spectacular hitting numbers to just one home run during a two-month spring stand.
Extra batting practice didn't help. The advice of friends and coaches didn't, either. Dissecting his swing and stance was a bust. And then Ortiz woke up one morning and decided to attack his game with the spirit of a happy, 12-year-old Little Leaguer who was playing for the sheer fun of it.
What Ortiz learned from his slump was that clearing your mind and having fun was the surefire recipe for relaxing, eliminating shoulder stiffness resulting from anxiety, and recapturing his love of the game.
Although researchers have cited play as one of the most critical characteristics in developing a youngster's brain, problem-solving abilities, executive functioning and imagination, we often forget as adults how important it is to play. I always ask my clients to take the VIA Signature Strengths test when we first start to work together because I want to see where the quality of "zest" lines up among the other 23 strengths, and when it's very low, I know I have a client who needs more play in his or her life.
I had this lesson reinforced unexpectedly when my 14-year-old son, Bayard, suffered a concussion in football practice in the weeks preceding the start of high school. Almost immediately he experienced swings of nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, an inability to read, and extreme sleepiness. He fretted about the fact that all of his peers were starting high school without him while he lay at home in a darkened room, trying to listen to books on tape and adjust to the "new normal" of his life.
He tried to conjugate French verbs. His head screamed in pain. He wrote a short paper for English class. The headaches were fierce. He went to talk to a therapist about how to deal with the varied fallout from the concussion and what it might mean for school, sports and other activities. He grabbed his head and pleaded with the therapist to stop talking because the questions were so thought-provoking that he couldn't tolerate what his brain was doing in response.
The concussion clinic doctors examined his regression on the baseline tests and ordered him to go home and "not think," so that's what he did. He watched sappy movies, sometimes the same one over and over. He organized his bookshelf and precious National Geographic magazines. He refused to indulge any thoughts that might make him sad or anxious.
The following week his concussion assessment scores catapulted forward, all because he had decided to substitute fun and play for serious effort and concern. Although my son isn't out of the woods yet, he's back in school, just like Ortiz is hitting again.
Creating your best life sometimes means returning to a state of childlike innocence, and seeing the world as a fun and happy place, and not a place where we have to drag our depression and tension from activity to activity, stressing our brains in ways that we may not even be aware of.
In a similar vein, positive psychologists are trying to learn how to teach adults to raise their zest scores because of the high correlation between success, happiness and zest. A happy person is often a flourishing person, and if childlike enthusiasm is one of the tickets to get there, it behooves all of us to learn how to play better and more frequently.
One easy way to do this is to be around other zestful people, and to have a role model in having more fun. My grandmother was my primary "fun" role model. She skipped down the street in her sixties, wore ridiculous fluffy pink bathing caps in her seventies, and delighted in the silly games she played with me, challenging me to a round of golf in her eighties (she won) . As a direct result of her influence and her role-modeling not to take life so seriously, I sport multi-colored fingernails, drive an impractical canary-yellow car with a smiley face on the spare tire, and jump on the bed of every hotel I stay in.
I guess it's no surprise that zest is my number-three VIA trait, but I'm angling to get it up to number-one this year because my son's injury has shown me in vivid clarity how valuable it is to not take life so seriously, and why it's more important than I ever could have thought to live out the Sesame Street mantra: "Come and play, everything's A-okay!"