Life is about hard work and sacrifice.
If you’re not disciplined, you’ll end up living in your parents’ basement.
You can’t be a success unless you’re making a good living.
Everyone knows that, surely!
In the 21st century, career is everything. With the financial markets more unstable than ever, you’ve got to hustle to stay on top of the game. No matter how much you have in the bank, it isn’t enough. Not if you ever hope to retire.
Really cheery stuff…
But do you remember back when you were a kid?
You were having so much fun playing that you couldn’t understand why grown-ups just sat around and talked or watched TV.
Why didn’t they join in the fun? Why were they so boring?
They were always too tired to play. They weren’t even very good at playing when they tried.
One thing was for certain:
YOU were never going to grow up and end up like that.
You were going to stay a kid forever.
Adults Don’t Have Time for Play
That was me.
As a kid, I did not want to be anything like the grown-ups in my family. It didn’t work, of course. I grew up despite myself.
Now, as a parent, I’m one of those boring old adults who’s always tired. My daughter wrinkles her nose at me. “Party-pooper!” she yells.
And I try to think back and figure out how it happened. How did life stop being fun? How did fun start feeling like too much work?
Maybe it started back in college, when everyone told me the work I put in now would set me up in my career. I didn’t go out partying like the other students in my dorm, because I really, really wanted that career.
Then, when I got out into the workforce, I learned that we work in order to get paid. Our reward is those few dollars remaining after the bills are paid. We get to spend them on something foolish and fun for ourselves. That’s our pleasure. Then it’s back to the grindstone.
Everyone was doing it. Working hard, making money, then spending it on meals out or gadgets or big-ticket items like a boat.
I figured it out:
Grown-up fun costs money.
You have to work to get that money.
Therefore, having fun takes work.”
That wasn’t the equation I remembered from childhood.
The Science of Play
Dr. Stuart Brown is founder of the National Institute for Play and author of the bestselling book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.
He believes that play isn’t a luxury. It’s just as essential as sleep and a good diet. In fact, without play, big things can start to go wrong.
He found that childhood play deprivation played a role in shaping the violent tendencies of mass murderers. 
Lest we think the need for play ends in childhood, adults need play just as much.
Play has a positive relationship with mental health. It helps you feel more optimistic and resilient. Without it, you get overwhelmed by stress. Little things that would usually roll off your back become major crises.
Dr. Brown is blunt:
The opposite of play is not work; it’s depression.”
How Can We Play More?
It’s easy to see what play looks like from a child’s perspective, but what counts as play for an adult?
Playing a video game? Monitoring your social media feed? Doing board games with your kids?
Dr. Brown lists 7 characteristics of genuine play:
- It has no apparent purpose.
- It’s voluntary. You’re not being made to do it.
- It’s inherently fun.
- You don’t notice time passing.
- You lose any sense of self-consciousness.
- It’s got space to improvise.
- You don’t want it to end.
What I love about this definition is that play is highly individual.
If something doesn’t feel fun to you, then it isn’t play, no matter how many other people enjoy it.
You may hate board games, count every minute you’re wasting on an adult coloring book, and feel stupid playing ping-pong. Then that’s NOT play.
Dr. Brown suggests thinking back to your childhood, to those activities you really enjoyed as a kid. Any reason you can’t enjoy them again?
Being a parent gives you the best possible excuse to engage in play. Your kid wants to play with you more than anything else in the world (at least, up to a certain age).
Why not give your children AND yourself the gift of unstructured playtime? Show your kids what you liked to do when you were their age.
The benefits might stretch well beyond quality family time.
The beneficial effects of getting just a little true play can spread through our lives, actually making us more productive and happier in everything we do.”
Want to learn more?
Then check out my interview with The Love Lab about the importance of pleasure to your health, relationships, and success.
 Play (New York: Avery, 2009), 7.
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