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Being playful is a biological imperative, even for adults

The power of play: our forgotten lifehack.
Office team plays a game of chair races to keep their spirits up–and cortisol levels down. (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Key Takeaways
  • Many adults don’t make time for fun. This is a mistake.

  • Beyond generating pleasure in the moment, regular play can produce long-lasting mental and physical benefits.

  • To tap into the power of play, think about what you enjoyed doing as a kid and then adapt those activities to your more “mature” life.

In the opening sequence of Squid Game, Netflix’s recent smash hit about a dystopian survival competition, the protagonist describes the rules to one of his favorite childhood games. To win, you tap your foot inside the head of an abstract squid sketched in the dirt. In those moments, he felt as if he “owned the entire world. I felt exhilarated.”

The next scenes depict how joyless his life has become in the years since he left such pastimes behind.  Divorce, debt, even gambling—none of it is much fun. Mostly, he lives with his mom and dodges loan sharks. And if you’ve seen the show, you know things only get darker (and wilder, and bloodier) from there.

But Squid Game is on to something when it suggests that people often drop the ball when it comes to leisure. In an interview with Big Think+, Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Strahan—a man who launched his career playing a game—noted that “we sometimes as adults forget that you don’t have to be serious about everything. You can enjoy.”

There are lots of explanations for this maturity-based amnesia. Our to-do lists tend to grow along with our age, focusing on “serious” pursuits like advancing our careers and paying taxes. Most people have also been told not to “act childish” (often when they were, in fact, children). And the challenges of the modern world are more conducive to anxiety than joy.

But play isn’t merely a distraction—it’s a biological imperative.

The powerful instincts driving play

Not just for humans, either. Japanese macaques make snowballs and roll them down hills for fun. Wild polar bears have been photographed frolicking on the ice with domesticated huskies. Pigs can learn to play simple video games in laboratory settings. (Although that particular indulgence was probably driven more by treats than a desire to get “Porky” on the leaderboard.) Screech-owls pounce on leaves. And the internet is bursting with pictures of cats batting balls around and stuffing themselves in containers that shouldn’t be able to fit that much cuteness.

These critters probably aren’t doing it for the memes, however. The science is contested, but many researchers believe that animals play to practice avoiding predators, capturing prey, and developing social bonds and hierarchy. So why do we do it? Human play likely evolved for similar reasons—so that children could learn the skills they need to survive as adults. Goofing around also may have encouraged cooperation in hunter-gatherer societies whose members might otherwise have defaulted to dominance-seeking behaviors (i.e., displays of aggression that are decidedly not fun).

A still image from Squid Games showing guards with guns lining up contestants of the death game.
The power of play is to reduce stress and increase your sense of well-being. If it doesn’t, you may be playing wrong. (Photo: Netflix)

The powerful benefits of play

We’re also probably compelled to play because it’s healthy. Studies have shown that rats who are denied the opportunity to wrestle with and pin each other develop deficiencies in their prefrontal cortex. Other animals whose play impulses are suppressed exhibit similarly stunted brain development. 

For humans, lack of play can lead to irritability, depression, and potentially harmful behaviors. (One analysis of the Texas Tower murderer concluded that his “severe play deprivation” made him more likely to commit the type of atrocity he ended up perpetrating. An autopsy of the killer also revealed that a tumor had compressed his amygdala, a portion of the brain involved in regulating emotions.) Parents who repress their fun-loving side might fail to recognize their children’s play signals and stifle them in turn, perpetuating the cycle.

Yet the benefits of horsing around go beyond just negating the consequences of its absence. Not only does play stimulate the growth of your cerebral cortex and brain cells in general, but having fun also releases endorphins, which can lend you the energy and excitement little kids never seem to lack. For some people, making a habit out of card games and puzzles may help fend off Alzheimer’s disease.

At work, “playing” with problems can spur creativity and enhance your critical thinking, speeding up your learning and making you more productive. Play is also a lynchpin of trust, helping you lower your guard and connect with others to forge more resilient relationships. That adaptability often extends to your overall physical and mental health, reducing cortisol (your body’s primary “stress” hormone), decreasing your blood pressure, and increasing your sense of well-being.

Children playing soccer in a field.
Not sure how to play properly as an adult? Think back to what you liked as a child. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

How to start playing with power again

So, yes, you should play—a lot! But how?

It might help to start with a reminder of what play is. Here’s a general definition: an activity you do for its own sake. Not because you have to or because you’re only engaging in it to produce a certain outcome. Play is something you want to do because it’s pleasurable. In other words, you should have an intrinsic motivation to enjoy the journey as much as (or more than) the destination.

Also, keep in mind that frivolity is something that came easily to you when you were a child, and can again—being playful is a skill adults can relearn.

But what form should your play take?

There’s no one answer here. (Aside from avoiding Squid Game-style deathmatches. No murdering, please!) Everyone has a different play profile. Options include:

  • Body play (e.g., yoga and hiking).
  • Imaginative play (e.g., storytelling, painting, and acting). 
  • Object manipulation (e.g., model trains).
  • Ritual play (e.g., board games and sports with defined rules).

If you’re not sure what will float your boat, think back to what you liked to do when you were a kid. What lit you up? If you loved playing sports, look for a rec league. If you doodled every day, find a sketching class. You don’t have to stick to one type of play either. Feel free to mix and match.

I wake up. I put on my music, and I … look at what I have to do throughout my day and how I can make it fun.

Michael Strahan

But do as much of it as you can outdoors. Increased contact with natural environments is associated with many of the same health benefits as play, as well as a more robust immune system. Cartoonist Bill Watterson may not have been far off when he ended a Calvin and Hobbes strip with the declaration that, “[I]f your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life.”

And when you do play indoors, don’t overlook video games. (They’re not just for pigs!) Researcher and game designer Jane McGonigal told Big Think+ that the try-fail cycles you undergo before ultimately beating a level or completing a quest can instill qualities like perseverance. Additionally, tackling these sorts of obstacles with colleagues can promote collaboration; don’t be afraid to gamify your workplace.

Another consideration: Do you really need to post every aspect of your recreation on social media? It might be tempting to snap a pic of yourself cooking up a fancy dish or taking a spin on your spiffy new unicycle, but as soon as you share that image, you’re not just playing—you’re performing too (and probably not in a good way). Don’t hunt likes; keep at least some of your personal time private.

Finally—and this might sound less fun—try putting playtime on your schedule. Even if you don’t know what you’re going to do yet, block off an hour here and there to cut loose. That way, you can say no to people when they ask you to deal with something less refreshing.

Once you get into the habit of prioritizing play, you can also take a more informal approach and build in spontaneity as you go. Strahan keeps it simple with some quick brainstorming each morning. “I wake up,” he says, “I put on my music, and I … look at what I have to do throughout my day and how I can make it fun.”

Sounds like a blast.

Watch more from this expert on Big Think+

Develop a habit of lifelong learning with lessons on Big Think+. Our e-learning platform brings together more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs to help you and your organization develop 21st-century skills such as self-motivation and leadership.

Join Michael Strahan and learn to put yourself in the right headspace to be successful with lessons on: 

  • Find Your Happiness: How to Create Value in Your Attitude
  • Make Your Mind Up: How to Correct Negative Thinking
  • Teamwork Starts with You: How to Set the Right Tone as a Leader
  • Step Out of Your Comfort Zone: How to Develop a Growth Mindset 

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