The Balance of Play and Work:Four Reasons to Make a Shift

by Diane Berenbaum

We spend a lot of our time at work; for most of us it's about 30% of our lives, if we assume an average person begins their working life at age 21 and retires at 65.  That's a career that spans 44 years. If everyone works the same 40-hour week, that means we've all spent 91,250 hours working. That's a huge amount of time and, accordingly, it's a huge proportion of our lives.

The average human life expectancy in developed countries is 78 years, which means that we sleep for about 205,000 hours. And, we tend to focus our time on the demands, deadlines and all the things that need to be done each day. So, chances are we're not thinking enough about time for play and the activities that make us most happy. You might be thinking, "Play"?! Who has time for that? I barely have enough time to eat some days."

What is Play?

Dr. Stuart Brown, co-author of the book, "Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul," defines play as a "voluntary activity that can take us out of time or at least keep us from tracking it carefully. It is spontaneous and allows for improvisation."

For most American children in the not-so-distant past, "going out to play" was the norm. Today, according to a University of Michigan study, children spend 50 percent less time outside than they did just 20 years ago — and the 6.5 hours a day they spend with electronic media means sitting in a room, in front of a TV screen, instead of any connection with nature.

Now, many of us love our jobs and the people we work with or connect with during our careers. We might just need a little reminder to have some fun in the process. The question of happiness comes down to a personal choice. As Shakti Gawain once said,"When you're following your energy and doing what you want all the time, the distinction between play and work dissolves."

Why Play?

1.  Play provides the capacity to "elicit diminished consciousness of self," according to Dr. Brown. In other words, it gives us license to be goofy. In an interview, Dr. Brown provided the most familiar example: how almost every person makes faces and sounds when meeting an infant for the first time.

He noted that, "If you take a look at relatives looking at the bassinets, turn your camera back on their faces. What you see is nonsense. There is this deep, innate proclivity for nonsense, which is at the core of playfulness."

2.  Play is purposeless, at least in the moment. Dr. Brown finds himself playing storyteller for his grandchildren as he ages and the tricky double black diamond ski runs in Colorado become more of an effort. He also noted that we should not underestimate its importance for grown-ups. In a New York Times's Opinionator blog, he noted that playfulness was not an escape. Done well, it is a pause that refreshes and helps us innovate.

3.  True play may seem pointless, if it is done for its own sake because it's fun. But, ultimately it is also very useful. Play reinvigorates us because it gets us in touch with our core selves and the joy of life.

4. The benefits of play come not from "rest" for the brain, as if play is just a time-out from life. Play is an active process that reshapes our views of the world.


Putting More Play in our Lives

So should we just vacation more? Not exactly. Financial Planner, Jude Boudreaux, asks clients where play is in their budgets. They usually have a hard time answering. Often, they fall back on pointing to their spending on travel, without stopping to think whether this form of recreational spending allows them to actually recreate themselves or at least be at rest.

Plus, many of those trips were focused on seeing and being with family. "People spend a lot of time going back home to see family who do not live nearby," he said. "But families are complicated. Those trips are not always a lot of fun and not play for a lot of people." He will sometimes label the line items for that kind of travel as "family obligation," "money," or "raised with guilt" funds.

"And if there is no space for recreation there, then you have a choice to make."

So by all means, go out and play more in 2016. You may find you're having more fun and spending less money as a result.

Note: Stuart Brown, is founder and president of the National Institute for Play and author of "Play, How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul."
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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