Why play is important to us all

Play In Fountain

Life is a serious business. But new research shows that the way to get the most out of it is to be more playful. So get out there and have some fun

I’ve always been the playful type. Honestly, my Wildean it’s-too-important-to-be-taken-seriously view of life has not always gone down well. Convent school was a nightmare. Then I got really into music, but didn’t fit in at Radiohead concerts. Now social media (where only binary emotions are permissible) is problematic.

Nonetheless, I choose to remain experimental. We are all explorers. I must pursue adventure my own way, even if Twitter sometimes makes me feel like Ferdinand Magellan, lowering himself crotch-first into a river of hungry piranhas. How cheering, then, to discover that neuroscience supports my approach. Play and a playful attitude are not just enjoyable, they’re an essential ingredient of good mental health.

Let’s define our terms. In English, “play” is the opposite of “work”. But the act itself is more complex. As psychiatrist Dr Stuart Brown puts it: “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.” Dr Brown has spent decades taking “play histories” from patients, after discerning its absence when studying a group of homicidal young men. He believes that play (of any kind – there are seven different types, from “object play” to “narrative play and storytelling”) is essential to brain development. “Nothing,” he says, “lights up the brain like play.”

We know this instinctively when it comes to bringing up children. But research shows that adults need to play, and be playful, too. Prioritising it might seem frivolous – we live in a planet-sized tangle of problems and injustices, after all. But problems need creative solutions. What if play could help us find them? What if play was one of them? Dr Brown is just one scientist who suggests it is. Einstein was another. In his words: “Play is the highest form of research.” There is, the theory goes, a reason Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” in the bath, not the laboratory.

We’re all convinced we’re too busy to do it, and that’s no accident. Our culture values busyness – it is how we measure goodness. Take political language: the Victorians distinguished between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor along religious lines; these days politicians differentiate in terms of productivity: “jobseekers”, “the hardworking poor”, “hardworking families” – busyness has replaced godliness, but the new language is just as unhelpful as the old.

Play isn’t slothful, it’s useful. It is recreation with the emphasis on the last three syllables. Play is indispensable to human progress and good for individuals. A culture that encourages it will enjoy cumulative benefits. Denmark – officially the happiest country on earth – is an example. Flexible work and affordable childcare are the norm, which means more free time. In addition, there is greater gender equality and a work-to-live culture that includes the expectation that people should pursue private interests (even – gasp! – mothers).

In the workplace, an experimental approach – to tasks as well as the structure of the working day – can boost productivity and profits. Forward-thinking economists, scientists and employers know this. Google and Pixar led the way with their infamously groovy work practices, but other employers are joining in. Last week Richard Branson announced unlimited holiday for his staff at Virgin Group. “Smart” not “hard” is the new way to work. (For more on the benefits of play, see Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time).

We all need to play, especially those of us who think we are too busy. Five minutes a day will make a difference. Why not start now? It is the weekend, after all.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Lauren Laverne, for The Observer on Sunday 5th October 2014 06.00 Europe/London

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