Want to live a healthier, more successful life? Play more!

Play is more than just fun. It’s essential to overall wellbeing across the lifespan.

A woman playing on a toy scooter with a child.
Photo: Pexels.com/Gustavo Fring.

Have you ever noticed how often people respond with the word “busy” when you ask them how they’re doing? Being busy all the time has become a modern day badge of honor, and research suggests that people often perceive being busy as a status symbol and measure of self-worth.

Indeed, being busy is not all bad, as it can signify productivity and getting important things done. However, being overly booked from responsibilities, work and other obligations has been tied to undesirable emotional and physical health outcomes including headaches, insomnia, heart disease, anxiety, depression and loneliness.

It can be hard to know how to disconnect from the pressure to be in a constant state of doing - working, running errands, and doing chores - especially when we live in a culture that values and reinforces it with a steady stream of shame-based messages we hear throughout our lives. These messages connect our sense of self-worth to how much money we earn, what schools we get into, what material things we acquire and other things external to us. One strategy to break the cycle of busyness, and to avoid stress and burnout, is to play more. Research suggests that more play leads to a healthier, more balanced life.

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brené Brown, Ph.D., draws from her research on shame and shares guideposts that contribute to living a healthier, more balanced, and wholehearted life. One of those guideposts focuses on the importance of cultivating play and rest and “letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.” Brown connects her research with the work of Stuart Brown, M.D., who stresses that play is as essential to our overall health and wellbeing as nutrition and rest.

Stuart Brown is a psychiatrist, researcher, and founder of the National Institute for Play. His research has found that humans are hardwired for play, and that play throughout our lives is essential to our survival and success. Neuroscience shows how the brain lights up during play, and this research illustrates how essential play behaviors are to overall brain development including cognitive abilities, memory, and emotional regulation.

Brown contends that the opposite of play or being playful is not work – it is depression. He urges people to infuse more humor and play into their lives and into the lives of children. Here are several elements or patterns of play that are essential to our overall physical, cognitive and emotional wellbeing:

  • Attunement play. Beginning in infancy, human brains are nurtured through eye contact, sweet cooing and smiles with parents and caretakers. This kind of attunement play is essential to brain development and research shows that healthy, playful and connected relationships nurture and heal our brains throughout our lives.
  • Body play and movement. Play-driven movement lights up the brain and fosters learning. Body movement for the purpose of play – such as jumping, dancing and safe, rough and tumble play with children and pets – fosters innovation, adaptability, flexibility and resilience.
  • Object play. Using our hands to play with things (such as toys, arts and crafts, skipping rocks) teaches important manipulative skills and also builds competencies in problem-solving and fosters overall brain development.
  • Social play. In childhood and throughout our lives, spending time with others in relaxed and playful ways fosters feelings of friendship, belonging, social awareness, connection, compassion, altruism and fairness.

The work of Drs. Stuart Brown and Brené Brown tells us that being too busy, too exhausted and too over-scheduled takes a toll on our overall health and wellbeing. These professionals strongly encourage us to dismiss the messages that play is a “waste of time” and unproductive, and to infuse our lives with a variety of forms of play including being more playful. Play in childhood – and at any age – makes us smarter, more joyful people, and is basic for brain development and for our very survival.

Michigan State University Extension offers programs and resources that support mental health and well-being, such as Stress Less with Mindfulness, Mental Health First Aid, Managing Farm Stress programs and RELAX: Alternatives to Anger. 

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