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Beyond Fun and Games: Playfulness May Help Combat Depression

Playfulness training exercises show promise as a new way to ward off depression.

Source: Clker-Free-Vector-Images/Pixabay

New research suggests that one week of daily "playfulness training exercises"—which are done 15 minutes before going to bed and are designed to make adults more playful—can lead to increased playfulness for weeks after the seven-day intervention.

Notably, boosting playfulness in someone's daily life was associated with fewer depressive symptoms and an uptick in well-being scores. These findings (Proyer et al., 2020) were published on Aug. 25 in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.

First author René Proyer of Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) in Germany and co-authors found that their playfulness-based interventions "increased expressions in all facets of playfulness, had short‐term effects on well‐being, and ameliorated depression."

For this study, Proyer and Kay Brauer of MLU collaborated with the University of Zurich's Fabian Gander and Garry Chick of Penn State. According to an MLU news release about this study: "Until now it had been unclear whether playfulness could be trained and what effects this might have on people."

This randomized, placebo‐controlled playfulness intervention study involved 533 participants assigned to one of three different "seven-day playfulness training groups" or a placebo group. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first study to use a placebo-controlled design to test trait‐wise changes in adults' playfulness.

What Is Playfulness?

"The quality of being light-hearted or full of fun" is the cut-and-dry definition of playfulness. But there is more to this definition: About 13 years ago, Lynn Barnett of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign set out "to determine if playfulness could be identified as a meaningful psychological construct in adults." Her pioneering research (Barnett, 2007) on "the nature of playfulness in young adults" identified fifteen qualities for both men and women that describe a so-called "playful individual."

In a Personality and Individual Differences paper, Barnett states that "playful people are uniquely able to transform virtually any environment to make it more stimulating, enjoyable and entertaining." She also provides an evidence-based description of playfulness:

"Playfulness is the predisposition to frame (or reframe) a situation in such a way as to provide oneself (and possibly others) with amusement, humor, and/or entertainment. Individuals who have such a heightened predisposition are typically funny, humorous, spontaneous, unpredictable, impulsive, active, energetic, adventurous, sociable, outgoing, cheerful, and happy, and are likely to manifest playful behavior by joking, teasing, clowning, and acting silly" (p. 955).

What Playfulness Interventions Were Used by Proyer et al. (2020)?

As mentioned, people in Proyer's study were assigned to a placebo group (which involved performing a daily task for seven days that did not influence playfulness), or they were assigned to one of three groups that performed daily "playfulness exercises" every night before going to bed for seven days. Here are three playfulness interventions:

  1. Counting Playfulness: Study participants were asked to set aside 15 minutes before bedtime to reflect and briefly write about any playful experiences they had that day (irrespective of whether this was an observation of playfulness or if they were the one being playful).
  2. Three Playful Things: Study participants were asked to set aside 15 minutes before bed to jot down three playful things that happened during the day. Additionally, they were asked to note who was involved and how they felt in each playful situation.
  3. Using Playfulness: Study participants were asked to set aside 15 minutes before bedtime to reflect on ways they might use their playfulness differently than usual (e.g., doing something playful in the workplace) and to write down some details of how the experience played out.

Before and after completing one week of playfulness interventions or placebo exercises, everyone in the study filled out a questionnaire that measured various personality traits. As part of the follow-up research on the short- and long-term impact of the playfulness interventions, participants filled out the same questionnaire two weeks after the intervention, a month later, and again three months later.

"Our assumption was that the [playfulness] exercises would lead people to consciously focus their attention on playfulness and use it more often; this could result in positive emotions, which in turn would affect the person's well-being," Brauer said in the news release. "And indeed, these tasks did lead to an increase in playfulness."

The authors acknowledge that this study has limitations and is only a starting point for future research that will dial-in on playfulness interventions that are individually tailored to someone's baseline of playfulness. "Our findings lend initial evidence to the notion that playfulness can be stimulated by following short self‐administered tasks on a daily basis," the authors conclude. "Future research should further clarify the robustness of the findings over time and address the hypothesis that interventions will be more effective if they are better tailored to an individual's level of playfulness."


René T. Proyer, Fabian Gander, Kay Brauer, Garry Chick. “Can Playfulness be Stimulated? A Randomised Placebo‐Controlled Online Playfulness Intervention Study on Effects on Trait Playfulness, Well‐Being, and Depression.” Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being (First published: August 25, 2020) DOI: 10.1111/aphw.12220

Lynn Barnett. "The Nature of Playfulness in Young Adults." Personality and Individual Differences (First published online: April 25, 2007) DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2007.02.018

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