Hello friends, happy August! Although there is still a full month of summer ahead, back-to-school ads are already starting to pop up everywhere and I can’t help but feel a sense of “fun is ending/work is starting” in the air. I think it’s a normal feeling given that most of us see work and play as completely different things – one is important, the other is the reward for doing the important thing. But after digging into this a little deeper (as in, watching the latest TED playlist which happened to be on the subject of “play”) I’ve learned that this particular viewpoint is incorrect. It turns out, play is an invaluable activity for human beings, one that leads to the most fulfilling, innovative, and productive kind of work…and life!
Research shows that play – humor, fantasy, flirtation, creation – is what most effectively develops the brain of a child and most thoroughly lights up the brain of adults. We know that puppies learn boundaries and social skills by roughhousing each other, and chimps learn about the world by playing with different objects around them. A recent study showed that rats who were allowed to play as babies were less fearful and willing to explore their options when faced with the scent of a cat, whereas the rats that didn’t enjoy playtime hid and never came out. And why do you think icebreakers are so popular in meetings? Play transcends biases and personal barriers, connecting people from a place that bypasses the rational mind.
So why do we resist play when we grow up?
It might have something to do with our standard definition of it. The dictionary defines splay as “engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” Most of us see play as an afterthought, a luxury that takes the back seat to the important things we must accomplish in life. This definition also reinforces another viewpoint many of us have ingrained in our minds: favorable results require sacrifice.
No pain, no gain – right?
I, for one, grew up fiercely clinging to the idea that good things came at a cost, that the hardest path forward was the only path to success. This made sense and it made life fair, so it had to be true.
And then my life started to unfold in ways that didn’t follow this philosophy.
I discovered a little yoga studio in DC called Tranquil Space and started practicing something very different from what I was used to – something that didn’t require me to push myself to exhaustion to benefit from it. After a year of yoga practice, I was in better shape than I had been by suffering on the treadmill and forcing myself to lift weights. Fast-forward a year and I met Dave…I fell in love with Dave… I married Dave. To be honest, the whole thing was pretty darn easy! No struggle, no huge compromises, no fights between my head and my heart. Fast forward again and I quit my job… I rented a space… I opened up a yoga studio. Even though this took a lot of time and thought and physical labor, no part of that incredibly fulfilling journey ever felt like a big sacrifice.
It turns out, the most wildly successful events in my life have been infused with (and partly driven by) play. When I stopped making the search for a husband a serious priority and simply let myself connect and enjoy people just because, I met Dave. Sure, I wrote a serious business plan and developed multiple financial models in Excel before opening up Yogaleena, but all of that “work” was actually driven by imagination, creativity, and fun. And even after 8 years of practicing yoga, the less I focus on getting “better” at it and simply let myself flow through the poses, try new things, and laugh at myself when they don’t work out, the stronger I get.
This month, I encourage you to invite playfulness into your life. Don’t just treat yourself to a good time after hard work, approach hard work itself with a sense of humor, lightness, and delight. Let loose as you step on your mat and give yourself permission to play, to fall, to laugh and to share the silly experience freely with your neighbor. You never know what amazing things will come your way when you’re too busy having fun to get in your own way.