What do you like to do for fun — and when was the last time you allowed yourself to get lost in that activity? If you’re struggling to come up with the answer to one part (or both parts) of that question, you’re in good company. As adults, many of us feel pressured to perform or produce, which can make the act of simply having fun seem like time wasted. After all, don’t you have errands to run and tasks to complete?
But play is not a trivial thing, according to researcher and founder of the National Institute for Play Stuart Brown, MD, who defined play in an interview with NPR as “something done for its own sake.” He explained, “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.” The key to play is that it allows you to be fully engaged in the moment. Sure, while in that moment, you may be trying to win a game or achieve a goal. But, whether successful or not, you enjoy the process.
The Benefits of Play for Grown Ups
Now, play for adults is a little different than play for children, both in terms of what it looks like and how it benefits us. For kids, play helps develop cognitive, physical, social, and emotional skills. Adults already have those skills — or at least, most of us do.
For the fully grown crowd, movement can certainly benefit our physical health, but mental health may be the biggest benefit play offers. As research has shown, the advantages go beyond a simple mood boost and may impact our lives and health in the following ways.
Like exercise, play triggers the release of endorphins. As anyone who’s taken a health science class (or watched Legally Blonde) knows, endorphins are natural, feel-good chemicals that can make you feel happier, promote a sense of well-being, and even temporarily help with pain relief. And don’t ignore the social aspect of play! Spending time laughing or simply enjoying yourself among friends and loved ones is an excellent way to fight stress and depression.
Improved brain function
A lot of fun activities, such as puzzles or games, offer varying levels of challenges to your brain, and subjecting your mind to those challenges in an enjoyable way can be beneficial in preventing memory issues and bumping up your brain function.
Play is instrumental to the learning process in children, and that remains true for adults, too. Not only does play stimulate your imagination (which can help you think outside that metaphorical box as you problem solve), but it creates a relaxed mood that may help you receive and retain new information more easily.
If you work in a creative field or have a hobby that taps into your creative side, task switching in the form of play offers yet another benefit. It may reduce cognitive fixation, the tendency to focus on other people’s ideas rather than coming up with your own. A 2017 study showed that alternating between two separate creative tasks increased creativity in participants. So, although it may seem counterintuitive to schedule a break from your creative work to do an unrelated creative activity, science suggests it’s worth the effort!
Better relationships and connections with others
Do you ever find yourself feeling a little more warmly toward someone you just shared a laugh or positive experience with? That’s not a coincidence; that kind of connection is helpful for fostering compassion, intimacy, trust, and empathy with others, both with people you’re already close to and with strangers.
If you’d like to feel younger or more energetic, make a point to add some play into your day. It may boost your energy and improve your health, especially if you do it outdoors in the sunshine. Plus, it’s more fun than taking a vitamin, right?
How to Add More Play to Your Life
Are you convinced that a little playtime is in your best interest? Great! Researcher, professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host Brené Brown, PhD, encourages adults to stop basing their self-worth on their productivity (even though she acknowledges that she finds it challenging to do so). To make it a little easier, she offers these tips for incorporating more play into your life.
Create a play list.
Remember that question we started with? What do you do for fun? Think about the things you love to do, and write down three activities that fit the bill — ideally, activities you can do for hours and hours. They can be solo activities, endeavors you do with your friends or family, or a mix. They just have to sound like fun.
If it’s on your calendar, you’ll do it, right? So schedule yourself a slot for playtime!
If you have family or close friends you’d like to spend your fun free time with, it’s worth having everyone create play lists and sharing the results to see what types of things you can do together that feel like play. Brown, for example, found that when it came to vacations, nobody in the family found sightseeing to be all that much fun, so they shifted gears and began planning travel around the things they truly love doing together, like hiking or playing cards.
At the end of the day, remember, there’s no one right way to play, so don’t be afraid to make it personal. If you enjoy an activity in the moment and find it takes you away from your worries for a bit, it counts as play — and your wellbeing is worth the time it takes for you to incorporate more of it into your life.