Way to a Better Life
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Its that time
of year for... the beach. Say the words and they conjure the image of the
gentle tickle of waves against shore, the tease of spray against warm skin.
For most of us the place where Earth meets
ocean is the very essence of play... a place full of novelty and joyful
abandon. At the beach we are all children exulting in the sheer lightness of
As welcome as those feelings are,
plays value among adults is vastly underrated. We would all agree that
play lifts stress from us. It refreshes and recharges us. It restores our
optimism. It changes our perspective, stimulating creativity. It renews our
ability to accomplish the work of the world. Those are remarkably worthy
But there is also evidence that play does
much more. It may in fact be the highest expression of our humanity. Play
appears to allow our brain to exercise its flexibility, to maintain and perhaps
renew the multiplicity of nerve connections that embody our human potential to
adapt to meet the challenges life throws at us.
Play is an activity distinguished by having
no goals at all. But the irony is that play has the power to re-energize our
life and motivate us afresh to meet whatever goals we set. We are made for
play. And we are most human when we play.
Like art, play is that experience that is
almost impossible to define because it encompasses infinite variability. But we
all recognize play when we see or experience it.
Despite our readiness to play at the beach,
and occasionally other places, Americans have a particularly deep ambivalence
toward play. Yes, we want to get out and play, but we have also created many
ways that keep us connected to work. Partial evidence: all those cell phones
and laptop computers at the beach.
Some observers contend we have a love/hate
relationship with our vacations. We want to take them yet we fear the
consequences. Our distrust of leisure is a legacy from our Puritan forebears,
who saw work as the key to their success and a way to glorify God. In their
view play threatens to undermine both our success and our salvation.
"We still play but much of it seems to lack
a playful quality," says Penn State University anthropologist Garry Chick,
Ph.D. "Playfulness has been replaced by aggressiveness and the feeling that
more needs to be crammed into less time."
The big question is why we bother to play at
all, since most animals leave playing for the young. Humans are among the very
few animals that play as adults.
- We play because it protects us.
When men play, says Dr. Chick, its a sign that despite their
testosterone-fueled aggressiveness they are not dangerous.
- Through play we get control over the
world. Psychologists who work with children traumatized by physical or
sexual abuse clearly see how play provides the sense that we can master life.
In the aftermath of trauma, children lose their flexibility; they stay stuck,
repeating the traumatic episode endlessly. Play helps them find a way out of
- Play is essential to mental health --
it allows us emotional discharge in a way that carries little risk. Play
is, according to some observers, a simulation of an anxiety attack, an
emergency without the adrenaline response. In the simulated explosions and
aggressions of play we get to explore and experiment with feelings in a
controlled manner. So our thinking frontal lobes win out over the more
primitive fear centers of our brain. Perhaps for that reason, adults who play
live longer than those who dont.
- We play because it reflects the brains
we have and the cultures we live in. We now know that the nerve cell
connections in our brains fade away unless used. But because it is make-believe
and all over the map, play stimulates those connections, strengthening synaptic
possibilities. Studies show that when adults play video games their memory is
better and they are cognitively more capable. To say nothing of happier.
Although we all need to play, we
dont all play the same way. We differ significantly in play style. Some
folks play to win. For others a draw is just as good. Some of us like to play
in ways that test physical skill. Some prefer games of pure strategy, like
chess. Others opt for word games or jigsaw puzzles.
How we play is related in many ways to
our core sense of self. Play is an exercise in self-definition; it reveals what
we choose to do, not what we have to do. We play the way we are. And the ways
we could be. Play is our best connection to pure possibility.