Parsing Positive Psychology: Work, Love, and Play

Play is not the silly sibling of work and love.

Posted Apr 16, 2010

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone - the sun came out today!
We're born again, there's new grass on the field.
A-roundin' third, and headed for home, it's a brown-eyed handsome man;
Anyone can understand the way I feel.
Oh, put me in, Coach - I'm ready to play today;
Put me in, Coach - I'm ready to play today;
Look at me, I can be Centerfield.

- John Fogerty

In addressing the purpose of life, Sigmund Freud famously said "Work and love, love and work - that's all there is." With all respect to Freud, I disagree. He left out play.

Play is not the silly sibling of work and love. Play is built as deeply within people as are work and love. Ethologists have addressed the function of play among the young of many mammalian species The specific behaviors that these youngsters rehearse and perfect in their rough-and-tumble play are precisely those they later use as adults to hunt, to escape predators, and to establish a dominance hierarchy. Said another way, play teaches lessons that make the serious tasks of work and love possible.

Although we have been taught not to attribute human motives to our animal cousins, it is nonetheless difficult to watch kittens or puppies gambol about without concluding that they are having "fun" in the process. Suffice it to say that we derive pleasure from watching them.

And at least among people, play can take on a life of its own. We certainly enjoy play, not only as children but also throughout our lives. Leisure activities (play) are a common source of flow and a robust predictor of how satisfied we are with our lives. In play we find and pursue our passions.

I propose that work, love, and play provide yet another useful way to organize the concerns of positive psychology.

Since the beginning of positive psychology, theorists have distinguished its various pillars, like positive experiences, positive traits, positive relationships, and enabling institutions (e.g., Peterson, 2006). But these are not literally pillars. They are psychosocial states, traits, mechanisms, and contexts, and most play a role in everything that we actually do.

In an important article, Paul Rozin (2006) took psychology to task for what he dubbed domain denigration, ignoring the important domains of behavior (like eating and sleeping, or for that matter work, love, and play) as a way to organize the field. Instead, psychologists have long parsed the field in terms of the presumed processes that give rise to behavior (e.g., cognition, emotion). The problem with this organizational strategy is that there is little evidence for cross-domain processes. The further problem is that what we actually do may be treated as arbitrary.

What makes like worth living is not a psychological process. It is good work ... good love ... and good play.

Let us study these domains explicitly.


Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rozin, P. (2006). Domain denigration and process preference in academic psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 365-376.