Advertising
Advertising

Go Out and Play!

Go Out and Play!

Go out and play!

    We all know that play is important for kids. Play teaches them coordination, adult roles, social interaction, and basic problem-solving skills. But somehow, we’ve fallen prey to the idea that play is only important for kids. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

    Bzzz! Wrong! Neener-neener-neener!

    Advertising

    Play is important no matter what your age. Play is so important, in fact, that Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) once described it as the defining characteristic of our species. For Huizinga, humanity is notable not as Homo sapiens, “wise people”, but Homo ludens, “playful people”.

    Play, What Is It Good For?!

    Absolutely everything, as it turns out.

    Of course play is good for our health. A lot of play involves exercise, which is a good thing in and of itself, but there’s more to it than that. Play relieves stress, easing relaxation. Play releases a whole range of feel-good chemicals in the brain, which not only make play fun but relieves tension across the whole of our bodies. Feeling pressure? Get up and dance!

    Advertising

    Play’s good for our brains, too. Play lights up the entire right side of our brain like a barrel of Light Brites, creating a state of hyper-creativity that quite literally changes the way we see the world. In this mind-set, nothing is just what it seems – things take on new forms (is that an empty Red Bull can next to your trash can, or is it a marooned space capsule on the Lost Planet of Garbagania?), problems seem not just solvable but trivial (wrap a towel around your neck and fly over them!), and we feel empowered to take on the world. Dum dum DAAAAAHHHH!

    Play unites our mind and bodies. In play, the gap between physical sensation and mental sensation is bridged – transforming random movements into acts of derring-do. See Charlie Brown raking leaves. Feel body hurtling through air. Sense whoosh of leaves scattering beneath your body. Hear old Chuck’s plaintive “good grief!” It just feels good. Leave your detachment at home (praise the Great Pumpkin it’s detachable!)

    Play creates social bonds. There’s evidence that the earliest social bonds we make – those between our infant selves and our parents – are primarily playful ones. The newborn infant doesn’t encounter other people as people but just as extensions of self that are more-or-less reliable. As the infant develops a sense of its own identity and begins to recognize other people as beings with identities of their own, it begins to learn play and sociality at the same time. Enter mom or dad, leaning down and making googly-eyes at the smiling baby – bam! Sociality achieved.

    Advertising

    That doesn’t go away as we get older – play is still a rock-solid foundation for social behavior. It’s why people who can’t stand each other can bond over a company softball game or round of pick-up mud football in the park. Tomorrow might be back to the same old everyday loathing, but for today… (And maybe tomorrow will be different, after all!)

    Can You Come Out and Play?

    When’s the last time you played? I mean, really played. Not just a half-hearted round of Minesweeper during a meeting, or a couple of Sudokus in a magazine at the dentist’s office.

    When’s the last time you plopped yourself in front of a mirror, turned your eyelids inside out, stuck out your tongue, and made Chewbacca noises? The last time you grabbed your kid, threw her up in the air, and laughed with her in glee? (And hopefully you caught her on the way down!) Or chilled with family or friends over a board game? Or just went all wiggly all by your lonesome?

    Advertising

    We get to feeling so darn serious, it’s hard to play, to let ourselves play. You know your life has gone down an evil, evil path (the Dark Side is strong, but… well, it’s Dark. Duh!) when playing makes you embarrassed. Even when you’re alone.

    I’d suggest you fix that.

    Fortunately, there’s an easy and proven effective remedy for play deprivation and seriousitis: go out and play! Come on, you know how! That’s right, shake your booty, do a gold miner dance, flail your arms around your head like a squid-person, tell your secretary you love her but you’re not a cannibal and interfaith relationships are so difficult – do something downright goofy. That’s an order, soldier!

    And here’s the thing: spending some profoundly non-serious time with yourself or with others may well make you better at all that serious stuff that’s been sucking at your soul and preventing you from playing in the first place. You’ll feel better, be more relaxed, and enjoy more creativity – which unless you’re a drill sergeant in a Vietnam-era coming of age story, can’t help but make the rest of your life that much better.

    See you out there!

    More by this author

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion How to Become an Expert (And Spot out One Nearby)

    Trending in Featured

    1 The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) 2 How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life 3 How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques 4 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 5 50 Businesses You Can Start In Your Spare Time

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

    Advertising

    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

    Advertising

    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

    Advertising

    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

    Advertising

    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

    Read Next