We all know about the basic human drives to eat, sleep and reproduce. These are essential for us – but they’re also essential for an ant. What is it that makes a human life well lived? Increasingly, scientists think there is a fourth basic drive: the drive to play.
We spend a lot of time – perhaps all our adult lives – busily ‘doing’ and ‘achieving’. When that’s all there is, though, life is pretty grim. A leading researcher in this area, Stuart Brown, thinks the opposite of play isn’t work – it’s depression, a life without pleasure or joy.
What is play? Imagine a dog ecstatically chasing a ball on a beach, kids jumping on a trampoline, an artist absorbed in her painting. That’s play. It’s a state of curiosity and fun, with no immediate purpose other than itself. Being fully in the moment, not worrying about the past or the future.
But you live in the real world of targets, client demands and deadlines. Why bother with play? The research shows that play actually fires up our brains, setting us up to thrive. Better decision-making, more creativity, more joy. People who don’t play tend to be more rigid. They are less able to cope with the challenges of daily life – hardly a recipe for triumph.
How can you incorporate play into your working life? Here are five tips to set you up for some fun… and for success. Have fun!
1. Find your key to play
This is to get us back in touch with the joy we have all experienced at some point in our lives. Think back to what you did as a child that you really loved, that swept you away, gave you joy. Re-live it: see what you saw, hear what you heard and, most important, feel what you felt. That feeling is your key to play. Where can you get more of it in your life now?
2. Play outside work
Schedule in time for play just as you do for anything else. It might be tennis, horse riding, painting, learning the piano, gardening, playing footie with the kids. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s fun. And prioritise: when you’re with a client, you don’t constantly read emails or take calls – so treat this the same way.
3. Playfulness at work
Play will actually improve your efficiency and productivity. It’s amazing what happens if you simply bring a playful attitude with you to work. You smile more; people respond in kind. Work is still important, but doesn’t seem so crushing. You are energised, imaginative, switched on. You can be more structured about triggering the play state at work: friendly competition, internal games, brainstorms, exploratory states. Paradoxically, real success comes from more than focus, drive and determination. It comes to those who love what they do – for them, work is play.
4. Press pause on the world
Several of my clients have found it useful to imagine ‘pressing pause’ on the world while they choose to play. I do this myself – when I’m playing with my young daughter, I visualize the whole world temporarily freezing around us. It’s just me and her. I’ve found that even two or three minutes of fully-focused play like that is much more rewarding for me, and satisfying for her, than an hour of scattered, diluted attention.
5. Read the book
If you’d like to know more, I highly recommend Stuart Brown’s book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul. If that doesn’t get you away from the desk and outside with a smile, nothing will.
This is a slightly amended version of an article written by Madeleine Shaw, executive coach and facilitator. It has been shortened to make it suitable for web publishing.