So, I was on a first date the other night, which went pretty much like all the other many, many first dates I’ve endured over the past few years. Until, after volleying the standard questions back and forth, the gentleman in front of me threw me this new one: “what’s missing from your life?”
The conspicuous answers came first; partnership, a six-digit income, owning a home in Denver… After poking a little deeper, though, underneath the obvious a deeper yearning emerged. It dawned on me that I’ve been missing PLAY in my life. Little to no time in my days is spent doing things just for the sheer fun of it, without another agenda. It had been a long time since I had played.
“Play is something done for its own sake,” explains Dr. Stuart Brown, head of the National Institute of Play. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.”
Sure, I played a ton as a child. In my household TV time was limited and no other screens dominated our vision as they do now. So my sibling and I relied on toys that sparked the imagination, or creative play outside. I can recall hours upon hours spent under a lilac bush playing fairies with the rocks and leaves and flowers. When did that stop? And why?
In my teens and 20s I worked with children and so continued the imaginative and kinesthetic play with them. Burning Man also provided a week each year of adult silly-play-fun, prancing around in tutus and spinning fire. In my early 30s I took the great play adventure to snorkel around coral reefs, summit peaks in the Himalayas, and road trips to discover secret hot springs.
Somehow in my late 30s and early 40s life became quite serious. Along with the contentment of putting down roots and establishing a business, my responsibilities and financial obligations became weightier. Along with so many other American adults, I adopted the mindset that both time and money are scarce and that all effort should be spent on either learning, earning, or achieving. Playfulness for the sake of pure joy is a waste of precious time.
Or is it? Research shows that adults who play regularly have more emotional intimacy in their relationships, are less apt to commit acts of violence, have reduced stress-related health issues, and feel younger and more energetic. Play is an antidote to stress, anxiety and depression. Dr. Brown proclaims play to be as essential to our health as sleep and oxygen.
For those of us in countries that celebrate Halloween, this time of year lends itself to play. Disguised up as a unicorn or a ninja (pictured above), it’s much easier to set aside the adult obligations and dive into fantasy and merrymaking. I’ll be spending the next week dressing up, carving pumpkins, and handing out candy just for the sake of pure joy. Will you join me?
I doubt I’ll have a second date with the guy from the other night. But regardless, I thank him for helping see this hole in my adult life, and inspiring me to lighten up, get silly, and treat each day as a giant playground built on imagination and overflowing with possibility.