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Playful Intelligence

Spontaneity's hidden power.

Those close to me know that I struggle with perfectionism. At times, trying to be perfect has been a great ally, driving me to work hard and deliver the best possible care to my patients.

At other times, however, the relentless self-critic that is perfectionism has made it harder to bounce back when things run amok. That’s because the perfectionist responds to chaos by ratcheting up the perfectness. But when there’s too much to make perfect, rigidity sets in, and the soul hardens. The perfectionist tries to disguise this, because they can’t appear vexed; happy and unbreakable are the hidden creeds of perfectionism. Meanwhile, vulnerability and flexibility keep knocking on the door of the perfectionist’s life. All in all, a recipe—you might even say a "perfect" recipe—for burnout. At least it was for me.

When I first started exploring what the playful quality of spontaneity truly looked like, I expected to see how spontaneous actions—doing unplanned things outside of routine—led to fun experiences. And I certainly found this to be true. But as I gathered more data, I also noticed something that I didn’t expect to find: spontaneity often reveals itself to us as psychological flexibility. Essentially, what I was finding and observing in the lives of playfully-intelligent people was not only a high regard for spontaneous actions, but also a consistently flexible mental response to the unplanned and unpredictable nature of life.

We traditionally think of spontaneity as something we can see or experience—a spur-of-the-moment vacation, an out-of-the-blue phone call to an old friend. Psychological flexibility, on the other hand, is the spontaneity that we can’t always see. It has the chance to act within our minds every time something doesn’t go as expected. It allows us to mentally ricochet in fresh directions when the unplanned happens. Psychological flexibility eases us through disruptions in our daily routines and helps us learn how to value them.

When I was growing up, my grandmother would say to me, “Anthony, no matter what the weather is like, move your day forward.” Her wisdom usually surfaced when rain threatened an outdoor event of mine, such as a soccer game. In my kid brain, I thought her advice meant that I shouldn’t let bad weather spoil my day (which is true, of course). But my grandmother’s advice was actually a statement about spontaneous, psychological flexibility. Conceptualizing psychological flexibility as mini moments of spontaneity inside the brain has helped me combat the perils of perfectionism.

Playfully-intelligent people are adept at this flexibility because they don’t allow seriousness and intensity to always have the upper hand. In other words, there’s power in living lightly; psychological flexibility is easier to achieve when one’s grip on life is neither too tight nor too loose.

In the exact moment that something in our lives, big or small, doesn’t go as we had planned or predicted, the playful quality of spontaneity has the opportunity to manifest as psychological flexibility within our minds. As we practice being psychologically flexible during these moments, we improve our psychological flexibility over time, becoming better at moving our thinking in fresh and productive directions.

Here are two ways that you can start playfully improving your psychological flexibility right now:

1. Break routines routinely.

We are creatures of habit. We love our ruts and routines. And for the most part, they help us manage and stay on top of our adult responsibilities. But when we become too closely tied to our schedules and routines, we risk becoming numb.

Adding tidbits of spontaneity to our routines can help protect us from going through the motions, emotionless. Spontaneous actions also help build our psychological flexibility because when we are engaging in spontaneous activity, we are venturing into the unknown, which demands a mindset that is flexible and open.

Here are some easy ideas to break up your daily routine: change the order of your morning ritual; get dressed with your eyes closed; use your opposite hand to brush your teeth; take a five-minute break in your workday to explore, on foot, a part of your workplace that you’ve never been to before; eat one new food or a food that you haven’t eaten in a while; take a different route home from work; sit in a new spot at the dinner table; have a spontaneous Saturday—get in the car with no plans and just start driving somewhere (pack an overnight bag to make it more interesting—keep it light!).

2. Hold emotions lightly.

When a difficult or unexpected situation arises in life, we often experience a flood of emotions and feelings. We need to feel and experience the emotions that are flowing inside us, but we also don’t want to let them overwhelm us. The key to surviving the flood is to hold on to our emotions lightly. When we do this, we deactivate our need-for-control neurons and spark our psychological flexibility.

But how does one lightly hold on to their emotions? It’s not easy. Some things to try are saying the emotions aloud or writing them down. Another trick is to have a silly code word (I like “Bingo-Bango”) that you can say aloud to yourself when your emotions are getting the best of you. Because you are conscious of what is happening when you say the code word, your brain will naturally move itself toward psychological flexibility.