I first became interested in the study of play (oxymoron alert!) almost a decade ago. I was a new dad, desperately trying to figure out how to connect with my daughter, Ava. That desperation turned into a book called The Art of Roughhousing, which explored the benefits of parent-child physical play, especially how it helps parents nurture a lasting bond with their children. Maybe you have some joyful memories tucked away of playfully wrestling or pillow-fighting with a parent or child.
More recently, however, I found my life blurring into a frazzled mosaic of busyness, perfectionism, and exhaustion. Perhaps you’re bearing witness to a similar montage of chaos in the lives of your own middle-aged children! What I came to realize was that the playful parts of my personality were slowly being overtaken by the intensity and seriousness of adulthood. And I wasn’t happy about it. So I went on a quest to learn how playfulness actually affects adult life in today’s age. I thought that if I could wrap my head around the benefits of playfulness, then I might be able to restore it as a balancing force in my life.
I started observing, studying, and interviewing people who live with a lighter step, who live a little more on the playful side of the coin. Many of these people—probably not surprising to you—were older adults. I also searched across a range of disciplines—like psychology, sociology, history, neuroscience, and economics—to try to make sense of how playfulness truly operates in adult life.
The result became a book called Playful Intelligence. And the big punchline of what I found is that playfulness in adulthood is best understood as a function of playful behaviors. What’s more, these behaviors affect our adult lives much differently than they did when we were kids. The book centers on the five playful behaviors that proved in my research to be of highest value in adulthood: imagination, sociability, humor, spontaneity, and wonder.
One interesting subtheme that emerged during my work was that older adults have tremendous wisdom to offer younger folks when it comes to how playful behaviors help us live our best lives. I think the reason for this is that older adults, by definition, have survived the craziness (and sometimes superficiality) of life’s middle years. You know better than anyone what is and isn’t important in life—and the rest of us need to be listening closely.
In my research, this wisdom surfaced most when it came to how playful behaviors affect our relationships. It is well known that as we get older one of the most important things we do is shore up our social capital. In other words, we make sure, often subconsciously, that our social connections and relationships with others are mutually beneficial and meaningful. We do this, in large part, because our life experiences have helped us fully appreciate and understand the value of genuine human connection and also the sting of loneliness.
In this sense, there are several important ways that playful behaviors help us optimize, enhance, and preserve our relationships. Take, for example, the playful behavior of imagination. Many years ago, our imaginations powered our backyard adventures, dress-up sessions, and puppet shows. Now they serve as primary vehicles for our expressions of empathy, allowing us to travel imaginatively in another’s shoes, and gently walk alongside anyone in a supportive way. Or the playful behavior of humor, which, when we were young, was more about having fun than anything else. But now, when practiced in a healthy and playful way, becomes one of the most powerful tools we have for connecting with others and building relationships.
Our playfulness is a muscle that needs to be exercised to keep it fresh and useful. Here are a few ways to keep it fit and ready for action:
- Practice daydreaming. Choose a time when you can put your responsibilities on hold for a few minutes. Early morning or just before you fall asleep might be when your mind is most relaxed and there are the fewest distractions.
- If you are a nonfiction reader, add some fiction to your nightstand. Reading fiction is a great way to activate your imagination.
- When you are playing imaginative games with younger children (maybe grandchildren!), try to actually imagine yourself as one of the characters for a moment or two. Are you the hero or the enemy? Are you overlooking your enemy’s longing for peace?
- Develop and nurture a low threshold for laughter. Laughing more easily can take some practice and even require forced laughter at times. But eventually a low threshold for laughter will become second nature.
- Make a deliberate effort to spend time doing activities that involve humor, such as watching a funny movie or going to a comedy club.
All in all—with thanks to the playful older adults that I’ve come to know—I’ve learned that the playfully intelligent don’t act goofy all the time or take life less seriously. They just take themselves a little less seriously. And when this happens, playfulness has the power to affect our lives in profound and unexpected ways.
Anthony T. DeBenedet, M.D. is a practicing physician and behavioral-science enthusiast. He is author of Playful Intelligence: The Power of Living Lightly in a Serious World (Santa Monica Press, May 2018), a book about the hidden ways that playfulness affects adulthood.