Why more play is the key to creativity and productivity

Adult recess and other apparently ridiculous activities may be one of the best ways to feel, work, and be better.

Businessman sitting on a swing in a park
Shutterstock
  • Play is one of the primary ways that children learn.
  • As we get older, however, we begin to worry more about the opinions of others. Gradually, we stop playing quite so much.
  • This could be a grave mistake. Research has shown that adults who make time for play reap the benefits in terms of greater productivity, more creativity, and greater health and happiness.

Some adults with high-powered jobs aren't spending their lunch breaks meeting with clients, but are playing kickball and hopscotch instead. Still other adults are buying coloring books — not to develop a skill, but to mindlessly shade in pre-drawn lines in bright primary colors. There are even consultants whose careers are based on teaching businesses how to incorporate more playtime into the workday.

It might be tempting to dismiss this craving for play as another quirk of the ostensibly over-coddled millennial generation, but if recent research is to be believed, more playtime actually keeps us healthy and makes us more productive and creative. Unsurprisingly, humanity's natural condition isn't to stuff themselves into suits and ties and manipulate spreadsheets all day. Human beings like and need to be creative, and sometimes that creative spark needs to be nourished, even with something as apparently insane as adult recess or coloring books.

All work and no play

For many, the only thing they need to hear about play is that it feels good and is good for you. Play reduces cortisol — the hormone responsible for stress, which can increase your risk for heart disease in excess — and releases endorphins. It also helps to keep depression at bay, improves your cognitive health, and lowers the risk of developing age-related neurodegenerative conditions like dementia.

That's all well and good, but plenty of adults have reached the conclusion that they'd rather work and earn more than play more. However, there are good reasons for even the most diehard grinches to make time for play in their schedule.

Tim Brown, the CEO of the design firm IDEO explained that there's a pragmatic side to playfulness in his TED talk. "We think playfulness helps us to get to better solutions. Helps us do our jobs better and helps us feel better when we do them."

This makes sense when you consider the function of play from a developmental perspective. For the group that's typically associated with recess (children), play is a method for learning about the world. Children learn about spatial relationships, concepts and ideas, motor skills, and even social roles and interpersonal interaction through play, whether that's playing with action figures, blocks, or just a stick and some dirt. Play is fun, but its "purpose" is serious stuff; it's one of the very first ways that we go about learning. Most importantly, studies have shown that play facilitates insightful, divergent thinking — in other words, creativity.

Bring the Power of Play to the Workplace, with Jane McGonigal

Despite these benefits to well-being, learning, and innovation, many adults react to adult recess or coloring books the same way they do when a relative makes an off-color joke at Thanksgiving, even though these were perfectly acceptable activities to engage in as kids. "But as kids learn to become adults," says Brown, "they become much more sensitive to the opinions of others, and they lose that freedom and they do start to become embarrassed. And in studies of kids playing, it's been shown time after time that kids who feel secure, who are in a kind of trusted environment — they're the ones that feel most free to play."

This sense of embarrassment may be getting in the way of some serious innovation. Studies have shown that even in the workplace, play increases creativity, productivity, and group cohesion. Apparently frivolous doodling helps people to learn and remember salient details better and increases functional connections in the brain. Physical exercise and sports like kickball, for instance, have been shown to improve workplace productivity. Businesses have known about these effects for years, too. There's a reason why Google's campus is scattered with ping pong, billiards, and foosball tables. So, if a sense of shame is holding you back from making room for more play in your life, just remember: The benefits far outweigh the risks.


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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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