Play Makes Us Human IV: When Work Is Play
Is your work play? It can be.
Posted Jun 25, 2009
When work is play, it is humanizing. It brings out our best qualities and makes us feel good. When work is toil--the opposite of play--it can be dehumanizing. We become beasts of burden, whether the burdens are borne mostly by our muscles or our minds. What are the qualities that can make our work play rather than toil?
In this series on "Play Makes Us Human," I was originally going to devote just one essay to the topic of work. But now I realize that one essay would be inadequate, so I've decided to devote two essays to the topic, which will be just a little less inadequate. Here, in the present essay, my focus is on the definition of play and how gainful employment can fall within that definition. Next week I'll describe how hunter-gatherers minimized the work-play distinction and suggest some ways by which we might emulate them in this regard.
Definition of Play
In an earlier essay, on the *definition of play*, I elaborated on the idea that play is structured activity that is (a) self-chosen, (b) self-directed; (c) imaginitive, or creative; (d) intrinsically motivated; and (e) produced in an active, alert, but not distressed frame of mind. To the degree that any activity has these characteristics, we experience it as play. Work, at its best, can have all of these characteristics to a high degree. Let me explain.
(a) Work Can Be Self-Chosen.
Play is what we choose to do, not what we have to do, so the more we experience a sense of choice about our employment the more we experience it as play. If you feel that necessity requires you to work at such-and-such a job, then it will be hard for you to maintain a playful attitude about that job. The more you feel free to leave a job, the easier it is to experience the job as play. Play, by definition, is something that you are always free to quit. If you can't quit, you have no sense of choice, and the activity is not play.
Some years ago, Reed Larson and his colleagues conducted a research study in which married men and women, who all had out-of-home jobs, wore beepers throughout their day and wrote down information about their activities and moods whenever their beeper sounded. A major finding was that women were happier than men when they were at their out-of-home job, and men were happier than women when they were doing chores around the house, such as cooking or cleaning.
The researchers interpreted this finding as a reflection of the element of choice. At least at the time that the study was done, out-of-home work was regarded as more of a necessity for men than for women. Men often felt burdened by such work, because they felt they had no choice about it. It was their duty to participate in the "rat race" to support their families. Women, in contrast, were relatively more likely to feel that out-of-home employment was a liberating choice, not a duty, and this feeling helped to endow their work with a quality of play. For housework the opposite was true. Women felt little choice about cleaning, cooking and the like, so they often reported themselves as angry or bored while engaged in those tasks. Men, in contrast, were more likely to feel that their domestic work was optional. They were gallantly helping out at home, doing something that was not their ultimate responsibility.
As Larson and his colleagues noted, the findings fit with a certain gender stereotype, which may still hold at least a grain of truth in our culture. Men "slave" at work and come home to enjoy themselves. Women "slave" at home and go out to enjoy themselves.
The broader point here is that, regardless of the kind of work we do, the more we can adopt the attitude that we don't really have to do this work, the more we can experience the work as play. Slavery is outlawed now, so at least in theory all of us should have the opportunity to choose the work by which we earn our income, though I recognize that economic conditions can sometimes make this difficult.
Schoolchildren, of course, experience no freedom about being in school or not. They are required by law to be there. That is one reason why schoolchildren rarely experience their schoolwork as play. We do not, in our society, provide the same basic freedoms for children that we do for adults.
(b & c) Work Can Be Self-Directed and Creative.
Players are free agents. They not only choose freely to play the game or not, but they also choose how to play it. They must follow the rules, but within the guidelines of the rules each move must be their own. Players are not cogs in a machine that is controlled by someone else. It is not surprising, therefore, that workers who are free to make their own on-the-job decisions are much more likely to experience their work as play than are those who do not have such freedom. Nothing sucks the play out of work more than does a micromanaging boss.
One reason why children experience their schoolwork as the opposite of play derives from the close supervision of that work. Schoolchildren, more than almost any employed workers I know of, are under the constant thumb of their bosses (teachers, in this case). They are told just what to do, just how to do it, and just when to do it; and every detail of what they do is judged and evaluated by criteria that are not their own. Work of this sort truly is the opposite of play. But in the real world outside of school, in places where slavery is forbidden, people are never so tightly controlled.
In a classic study of work satisfaction, sociologist Melvin Kohn and his colleagues identified a highly desired constellation of job characteristics that they referred to as occupational self-direction. Jobs high in this quality are those that are (a) complex rather than simple, (b) varied rather than routine, and (c) not closely supervised by others. These, of course, are precisely the characteristics that call for a high degree of on-the-job decision-making and creativity. Kohn and his colleagues found that self-direction was desired and enjoyed as much in blue-collar employment as in white-collar employment. Although the researchers did not describe their findings in terms of play, from my perspective occupational self-direction is crucial to the playfulness of work. Whether you are a plumber or a lawyer, you will experience your job as play to the degree that it entails lots of occupational self-direction.
Kohn and his colleagues discovered that workers who went from a job low in occupational self-direction to one high in that quality not only experienced more pleasure at work but also changed psychologically over time. They became more flexible, less rigid, in their home life and hobbies as well as in their work life. Their parenting styles became more democratic, less autocratic. They began to value creativity and autonomy in their children above blind obedience. In other words (my words, not Kohn's), their whole outlook toward life became more playful than it was before.
(d) Work Can Be Intrinsically Motivated.
Play is intrinsically motivated; that is, it is activity that is done for fun rather than for some end that it produces. Play may have ends, but it is the process of achieving the ends, not the ends themselves, that is most valued. It is the creation of the sandcastle, not the sandcastle once created, that players on the beach enjoy. It is the process of scoring points or trying to score them, not the points once scored, that pleases tennis players, if they are truly playing. In other words, in play the activities themselves are the source of pleasure; any product that may emerge is a side effect.
Work can never be completely intrinsically motivated. By definition, the purpose of work is to produce some valued end--such as repairing the plumbing or creating a successful trial defense for a client, and /or producing a paycheck to bring home to support yourself and family. But extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation are not mutually exclusive. You can work for a valued end while still focusing on and enjoying the process. To the degree that you focus on the process, your work is play.
In my employment as an author, writing is a burden if I concentrate just on the end--the published piece or the royalties I might earn. When I take that attitude, the writing itself is just a necessary means to an end. In that case I find it hard to start, and once I do start the writing drags along. Writing then is toil, not play. To make writing play, I must remove my focus from the end. I don't totally forget the end, of course, but I put it on a shelf in the back of my mind, so I can focus my attention on the process--the process of generating ideas and crafting phrases with which to express them. I can even convince myself that the end doesn't matter; writing is such fun that it is worth doing even if the piece is never published, never has any effect on the world, and never earns a cent. Ironically, when I succeed in taking this playful attitude, the end result is far better than when I don't. And the same is true for other tasks I do, including laundry, cooking, and lawn maintenance.
When we are exclusively goal oriented, we view the activity required to achieve the goal as a necessary evil, so we perform it in the most minimal way that we think will be acceptable. We do just enough to earn the paycheck, or to satisfy the boss, or to produce a meal that our family won't reject. In school we do just enough to get an "A" or whatever grade we have chosen as our goal. In contrast, when we allow ourselves to become absorbed in the process as play we sometimes achieve far more. For shear fun we may do much more than is needed to produce the originally envisioned product; and the product, as a result, may be far better. It may even become an artistic creation. That can be true whether the product is repaired plumbing, a mowed lawn, a meal, a legal brief, or an essay.
(e) Work Can Entail an Alert, Focused, but Non-Distressed Mental State.
This final characteristic follows naturally from the others. The decision-making, creativity, and focus on process that characterize play require and produce mental alertness. The reduced focus on ends and on others' evaluations reduces or eliminates our fear of failure. For most of us, our work does not have life-or-death consequences, so fears we have about failure are likely to be exaggerations. However, even for people such as surgeons, or fire fighters, or police officers, whose work can have life-or-death consequences, a focus on process reduces the sense of distress and increases the chance of a successful outcome.
What might we do as a society to increase the playfulness and reduced the burden of work? Here is where I think we have lots to learn from hunter-gatherer societies. Tune in next week.
See new book, Free to Learn
 Larson, R. J., Richards, M. H., & Perry-Jenkins, M. (1994). Divergent worlds: The daily and emotional experience of mothers and fathers in the domestic and public spheres. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 1034-1046.
 Kohn, M. L. (1980). Job complexity and adult personality. In N. J. Smelser & E. H. Erikson (Eds.), Theories of work and love in adulthood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Also, Kohn, M. L., & Slomczynski, K. M. (1990). Social structure and self-direction: A comparative analysis of the United States and Poland. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.