Remember when? Remember spending countless summer nights outside playing Ghost in the Graveyard, Kick the Can or Freeze Tag? Remember catching Lightning Bugs and putting them in the jar to watch curiously as their intricate bodies lit up the space in between? Remember watching closely the split second the street lights would come on signaling that regrettably, it was time to go inside, call it a night, and scrub off the residue of a carefree, play-filled existence, just to layer it on thick again the next day? How did you play as a child? This is a question I frequently ask parents in my coaching practice. Inevitably, I watch as their faces light up and their bodies become energized and liberated by recalling the experiences of playing frivolously as a kid. Their mood shifts back and tensions sets back in when I ask how they play now. The response is usually “I just don’t have the time.” When do we travel from those moments of pure abandon into the world of shorter days, where we are locked behind the concrete walls of our adult worlds, trying desperately to be productive and gain prestige, wealth or a stronger self-image? We claw at our own independence, believing that we should give up the fun and trade in the signals of the street lights for the blinking of a computer screen cursor that flickers with responsibility and all the things we “should” be doing instead.
Many of the mothers with whom I work in my coaching practice are overwhelmed with the responsibilities of parenting and taking care of young children. Whether they stay at home or work, these mothers are running on a hamster wheel and getting nowhere fast when it comes to their own well-being. By neglecting opportunities to recreate and play, in isolation or with their kids, they are starving for a vacation from the “shoulds”. Addiction specialist Alan Marlatt calls this an imbalance of the should-want principle. Should activities are things we think we must do, but we don’t really enjoy (grocery shopping, laundry, house cleaning). Want activities are things that we actually enjoy doing, leaving us with a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure, so much so that we want to do them again (running, reading, dancing, singing out loud). When Should activities dominate our lives, we are at risk for more physical and mental disorders like heart disease, cancers and stroke.
Scraping the remnants of the lighting bug jar and learning how to play again is a simple and powerful elixir that stirs up the happiness within. Unsure of what it means to play? You know you are playing when the activity is simple, intrinsic, unconscious, frivolous, fun, engaging activities with no merit, no sense of “productivity”, no judgment and no prestige. The primary goal of any play experience is not the outcome, but the momentary bliss, engagement and unconscious exploration and discovery. Playful people experience the following benefits:
· A vacation from worrying
· Psychological resources
· A sense of identity and pride
· Opportunities to be one with the music
· Novel experiences lead to exploration, which leads to discovery, which leads to mastery: play is self-actualizing, which is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Michael Frisch imparts the wisdom that just as people need food to eat and air to breathe in order to survive and be happy, they also need to recreate or play. Doing so is refreshing, rejuvenating and psychologically replenishing, the equivalent of thousands of brain kisses. Don’t you deserve that?
And play not only fortifies your personal well-being, but it also leads to greater marital satisfaction and family functioning. By participating in play activities, family systems become more cohesive, adaptable and more effective communicators. Family leisure time can be routine or novel. Leisure time rituals or routines build family cohesion and communication, they require fewer resources, they are low cost and accessible (Think family dinner, board games, movie night with popcorn, playing catch in the yard, dancing to music in the living room). Novel leisure-time activities build adaptability and they are out of the ordinary and less frequent. Because they are more unpredictable, families have greater opportunities to face challenges together, cope, adapt and, solve problems (Think family vacations, camping, fishing, special activities or outdoor festivals).
You don’t have to find a flash mob to take part in playful experiences. As a parent, you have a constant playmate at your fingertips, so even if you can’t do it alone, do it together. You have to want it and crave the powerful benefits to your Well-Being. No matter what your medicine: lighting bugs, dancing the hula, or singing in the shower, drink down the secret elixir of a playful experience and let the light shine within.
Argyle, M. (2001). The psychology of happiness (2nd ed.) . London: Routledge.
Frisch, M. B. (2006). Quality of life therapy. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Taylor, S.E. (2002) Health Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Zabriskie, R. B. and McCormick, B. P. (2001), The Influences of Family Leisure Patterns on Perceptions of Family Functioning. Family Relations, 50: 281–289. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2001.00281.x