Play in Mind

Exploring the nature and nurture of play—past, present, and future

10 Aggravating Things That Keep You From Playing

Bored stiff? Or bored silly?

We’re often faced with situations that bore us stiff and deprive us of play. Here’s my preliminary list of annoying situations—along with an array of antidotes.

1. The Halftime Show. If you’re a football fan and like me, you’ve been watching a Buffalo Bills’ game, you’re likely holding your head and moaning “aieeeee, aiieeeee!” Why not skip the recap, head outside, take a 20-minute walk, toss the Frisbee to the pooch, or go for a bike ride? Rake up a leaf pile for the kids to jump in. This will also keep you away from the barbeque cheese puffs.

2. The 10-minute News Cycle. News might be theater, of sorts, but it’s not the kind you’ll draw any enjoyment from. Sensationalized news cycles connive to push our fear buttons rather than light up our pleasure circuits. Typically, reporters begin with a story about flesh-eating bacteria or airborne Ebola, and then they escalate through reports of dire but remote events like planetary collision or the heat-death of the universe. To keep you watching through the commercials, however, the editors end with something upbeat—usually a story about puppies or triplets. Soon the screen returns to an expose about chemical warfare in the 22nd century. Instead, you’re better off putting 10 minutes into today’s crossword puzzle.

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3. News Programs that Feature Quarrelsome Talking Heads. Yelling is compelling but unenlightening. Remember, too, that pundits such as these are paid to annoy you. The antidote: keep a stack of political satire on hand—left, center, or right, you’ll have no trouble matching books to your mood. Read Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, P.J. O’Rourke, Art Buchwald, or Jim Hightower. Or you might find solace in Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, George Orwell, S.J. Perelman, or Salman Rushdie.

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4. Calls from Telemarketers. When the phone would ring and someone wanted to sell me aluminum siding for my brick house, I used to hand the receiver to my then three-year-old. Oh how she loved talking to friendly adults! Here are two playful strategies I use now that my grown daughter is no longer interested in talking to telemarketers either. Try repeating everything the voice on the other end says, and then explain that you’re in training for telemarketing. Or, begin softly to sing a round—“Row, Row, Row Your Boat”—and then ask the voice to join in on the second verse. I’ve found that “White Coral Bells” works well, too.

5. The Mall. Yes, granted, shopping can be fun as a problem-solving exercise and as an act of expiation. But the experience is front-loaded with anticipation and poorly balanced with fulfillment. (In that respect, it’s a little like gambling.) When you need to see and be seen out and about, avoid buyers’ remorse and try visiting a public gallery or museum instead. When you get there, wander purposely or aimlessly.

6. Waiting on the tarmac at Newark Airport. Strapped into a seat in a hollow titanium tube breathing stale air isn’t my idea of fun. I compensate by engaging my seatmates. They have recently included a mountain climber, a soprano, the lead guitarist from Commander Cody, an expert on the writing of Kurt Vonnegut, a funny nine-year-old on her way to see Mickey, and, as it happens, a play therapist!

7. Rain. See “Snow” below.

8. Snow. Living in Western New York has taught me that good weather is overrated. A psychotherapist from sunny Los Angeles once told me that dreary skies are not, per se, discouraging. The psychic enemy, she explained, is sameness. The same, unsurprising, uninterrupted, humdrum, predictable, blasted good weather can contribute to low spirits, too. The tonic? Novelty. My basic advice, rain, snow, or shine—get out in it.

9. Cutting the lawn. You may find the chore as unutterably tedious as I do—100 paces this way behind a noisy mower, another 100 back, and so on—but there’s a cure. Sometimes I cut the grass in a spiral, starting in the middle and working outward. You get an interesting crop-circle effect. Then, too, the neighbors may begin to regard you as eccentric or even creative. Plus, spinning around is fun.

10. Boring people. Say that you’ve been backed into a corner and you’re stuck listening to someone who must tell you about his new sand wedge, how he makes sure to maintain sufficient fiber in his diet, or how he saved on long-term care insurance. What do you do when someone asks, “hot enough for you?” Do you grind tooth enamel? A conversation needn’t be long to be boring. But duration drives up the tedium. I remember overhearing a long-winded customer determined to detail her trip to Radio Shack. The clerk, who’d heard the commercial, came back with “That’s a Tandy Company!” I put some miles on my molars. Yes, I should devise a strategy to manage impatience, and may well find useful advice here at Psychology Today. A friend copes with the intolerably dull by imagining he’s somebody else—a person who’s easily bored witless. Visualizing that low-tolerance person’s exasperation makes him laugh. (Good solution. Alas, though, it won’t work in my case because that exasperated person he imagines? It’s me!)

The opposite of play isn’t work; it’s boredom. When you’re swept over by overpowering indifference, remember that play is your best defense.

Bored stiff or bored silly? Send me your own play list.

Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D., is vice president for play studies at The Strong, editor of its American Journal of Play, and lead contributor to its re:Play Blog.

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