Play: The Secret to Success and Happiness

I have a difficult question for all of you. When was the last time you really had fun? Think about it. Do you even know what that feels like anymore?  

For most of us, life is busy. Busier than busy. If we don't have 5,000 things at work to get done, then it's the dishes, laundry, or bills. Needless to say, this makes it difficult to spend time with our family, let alone on things that we really enjoy. This is life, is it not? At least, that is what I thought as I neared the end of my 4 years in medical school. Life is a hustle and there isn't always room for relaxation, let alone fun.  

But then, I read Dr. Stuart Brown's book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. And I realized that in order to be successful, productive and lucrative as doctor and happy and fulfilled as a person, I needed to play.

But what is play?

Play can be anything. It really depends on your personality. For me, play can be a weekend of camping or being engrossed in a good book or movie. Any activity can be play, but Dr. Brown has defined a few properties based on his research. I could list out the properties, but instead, I want you to image a child playing with a train set, completely engrossed, making up stories, losing track of time. Or maybe imagine two dogs romping in the yard, barking joyously, without a care in the world. When we play, we lose a sense of ourselves, we are completely unselfconscious and care free. We are fully present in the moment and having fun.  

Maybe some of you are starting to remember what play feels like. For a lot of us, this feeling may be covered in cob webs in the back of our minds. We have a vague memory of playing, but we are not truly connected to this feeling.

Why does play matter?  I am an adult, after all.

We all have a biological drive for play. In nature, we see play functioning as a way for animals to learn about their environment and how to interact with other members of their species in a safe way.  We see play serving the same role in people. We also see play decreasing the risk of dementia, heart disease and other neurological problems. Beyond health, play also sparks our imaginations and ingenuity, leading to more productivity and success at work. Play stimulates new neural connection and allows us to integrate new ideas.  

The opposite of play is not work.  The opposite of play is depression.  
-Brian Sutton-Smith

More importantly, however, play is the spice of life. It takes the monotony out of existence.  It infuses our lives with a sense of joy. Too many of us trudge through life, driven by a sense of duty. We have given up the things that make us happy, the things that stir the blood with excitement. We have given these things up because of cultural pressure, shame, and the responsibility of growing up. But, as Dr. Brown says, "Joy is our birthright". Play and joy are not the exclusive domain of children. We all deserve to experience bliss. We just have to be daring enough to claim it.

If you are ready to reclaim your joy, pick up a copy of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown or watch his TED talk here.