We've all had those moments when we know we need a time-out from life or else we'll start acting really irrational. The last time that happened to me, I fled to the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in the Berkshires, for a weekend of R&R. It was there that I found myself in a class called JourneyDance. And boy, was it challenging--not physically so much as mentally. The instructor guided us through dance sequences in which we were asked to imagine ourselves as trees, then as cats, and at the pinnacle of silliness, we all engaged in a brief "bumper butt" dance with our neighbor. I felt like I was violating some unwritten law against grown women engaging in loony behavior, and had to work hard not to bolt out of the room. But then something shifted, and by the end of the "journey," I was enjoying myself. I was engaged, I'd lost track of time, I'd shed some of my self-consciousness. In other words, I entered into what experts call a state of play.
Never heard of it? "As a society, we're so removed from the concept of adult play that we don't even know what it is," says Brené Brown, Ph.D., a researcher and professor at the University of Houston and the author of Daring Greatly. "Yet there's a clear relationship between play and how much joy and fulfillment people experience in their lives." In fact, when researchers followed the routines of more than 6,000 people, they found that play deprivation can have consequences similar to sleep deprivation: Without it, our overall wellness and happiness, our creativity and relationships, all begin to droop. "It's a health issue, as important as exercise or taking vitamins," says Brown.
So what is play, in the adult world? (Note: Do not be tempted to Google "adult play," especially if you're reading this at the office.) As the experts define it, it's something you do for the enjoyment alone. It requires that your mind or your body (or both) be wholly active--as in watching a movie with a plot that fully engages you versus mindlessly clicking through Facebook. Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College who studies the evolution of play, also points out that "true play is done for its own sake"--so you really can't care if you lose the tennis match, or if your bike ride burns off a single calorie. In other words, it's better if you don't give a damn.
A CURE FOR STRESS?
As women, many of us have difficulty making space for some frivolous downtime, needed or not. Besides sex--which happens to be the one ideal playdate both sexes have got covered--"women generally won't play until we address the gremlins in our heads that tell us: Play is for kids; don't be a slacker; stop piddling around," Brown notes. It seems that men typically don't have that issue. (Just picture your husband, guiltlessly waving as he heads out for a little low-key touch football with the guys.) Women, on the other hand, will allow themselves to cut loose only after they've crossed every item off their to-do list--and how often does that happen?
Consequently, we miss out on a regular source of happiness. Play boosts the mood because it forces the brain to relax. "The mind at play is active and alert, but not stressed," Gray notes. In fact, Tobin Quereau and Tom Zimmermann, coauthors of The New Game Plan for Recovery, believe that remembering how to play is essential for people who tend to reach for outside fixes, such as food or alcohol, to escape life's problems. Says Quereau: "It can be hard to play when you're depressed, but it's just as hard to stay depressed when you're playing."
Even if scheduling play--an hour to go for a hike, or dabble with watercolors, or indulge in a shout-at-the-screen marathon of Revenge--sounds as carefree as scheduling sex sounds romantic, you gotta do it. "Considering how important it is, we should protect that time as fiercely as we do our doctor's appointments," says Brown.
PLAY MORE, THINK BETTER
Besides making us happier, more relaxed people, play can also help us innovate, adapt, and master challenges. No surprise, then, that some of the most inventive companies out there have designed their office buildings to give employees access to "recess" during the workday. If you worked at Google, for example, you could take a twisty slide down to the cafeteria. And at Pixar, your lunch hour could be spent on a soccer field, in an outdoor pool, on a volleyball court, or in a painting class. Maybe by the time you got back to your desk, you'd have an inspiration for the next blockbuster. At least that's the idea.
For the rest of us who toil in more traditional offices, having toys around can help. Sasha Rosen, 24, the editor-in-chief of an industry website for theme-park designers, keeps Legos in her desk drawer. "When I'm feeling stuck, I'll pull them out, often when I'm on the phone," she says, "because I can't think my way out of a problem, or into being creative. Play gets the juices flowing."
Pixar and other forward-thinking companies promote play for its bonding power, too. "In an elevator, you're allowed to be antisocial," says Craig Payne, the senior design project manager who oversaw the design and construction of the Pixar facility along with the late Steve Jobs. "But that's not the case when you're playing a pickup game of basketball with a colleague during lunch."
IT'S RELATIONSHIP SUPERGLUE
Turns out that play is a bonding agent that works whether you're in an office or in your 12th year of marriage. According to Arthur Aron, a research and social psychologist at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, couples who play together--doing things that are fun, slightly out of the norm, and challenging--will stay closer over the long haul. His team of researchers found that after an hour and a half of playing together each week for 10 weeks, couples reported being happier in their relationships than those who didn't. The reason, Aron speculates: "When a relationship is new, it's very exhilarating. Over time, that excitement fizzles. Play can restore those early feelings and give people a sense that they are expanding and growing as a couple."
Also, one wants to remind some of these researchers, play is just fun. Thanks to Internet games--available anywhere, anytime, on iPhones and computers--couples can play together even when they're time zones apart. Kristen Rosado, 30, a stay-at-home mom to five kids, says she and her husband, a private first class in the Army, got addicted to Zynga's Words With Friends when he was training for his deployment to Afghanistan. Taking turns building words is a totally un-loaded way to reassure themselves that all is well. "When he isn't allowed to speak to anyone outside the training camp due to a communication blackout, there is nothing more exciting than that brief connection," says Kristen. "Seeing that the other person has made a move is a second of sanity for both of us."
A second of sanity. We could all use one (or--dream a little--a few thousand) of those. It's the message I finally got at Kripalu, happily bumping my heinie against a total stranger's. And it's not just my funky little group in the Berkshires: JourneyDance is having a major moment, with classes filling up everywhere from New York to Nairobi. Maybe it's because people are realizing that play is only one tiptoe-step away from therapy. In its best moments, play feels like putting your grown-up self in a tutu bikini and running through the sprinkler on a hot day--freeing, exhilarating. And if you start to think you're too busy or too mature, remind yourself of this: The play police exist only in our minds.
HOW REAL WOMEN PLAY
Take a cue from smart readers who don't waste time not playing.
"Play for me is always somewhat removed from my normal reality. I like running through the mountains with a camera, stopping to take photographs along the way, or doing karaoke. The more active the experience, the more playful I feel--and it enables me to get out of my own way." --HYLA MOLANDER, 38, Tiburon, CA
"My girlfriends and I organize game nights. We play games like Bananagrams, Scrabble, or Celebrity. We also have BBQ parties with our guys, where we get together and play Frisnoc, a Frisbee game we learned in college, but we created our own rules. It's a staple of almost every party we throw!" --ASHLEY SCHWARTAU, 27, Nashville
"When I'm having a moment or find myself overwhelmed with life, I pick up a coloring book. It sounds silly, but it helps me tap into my inner kid--we're talking Disney princesses, after all--and relax a little." --TOLA LAWAL, 29, Mount Vernon, NY
Reprinted from Redbook.com. See original article here.