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Rich Dafter

Play Your Way to a Better Life

From eDiets - The online diet, fitness, and healthy living resource

It’s that time of year for... the beach. Say the words and they conjure the image of the gentle tickle of waves against shore, the tease of spray against warm skin.

For most of us the place where Earth meets ocean is the very essence of play... a place full of novelty and joyful abandon. At the beach we are all children exulting in the sheer lightness of being.

As welcome as those feelings are, play’s value among adults is vastly underrated. We would all agree that play lifts stress from us. It refreshes and recharges us. It restores our optimism. It changes our perspective, stimulating creativity. It renews our ability to accomplish the work of the world. Those are remarkably worthy achievements.

But there is also evidence that play does much more. It may in fact be the highest expression of our humanity. Play appears to allow our brain to exercise its flexibility, to maintain and perhaps renew the multiplicity of nerve connections that embody our human potential to adapt to meet the challenges life throws at us.

Play is an activity distinguished by having no goals at all. But the irony is that play has the power to re-energize our life and motivate us afresh to meet whatever goals we set. We are made for play. And we are most human when we play.

Like art, play is that experience that is almost impossible to define because it encompasses infinite variability. But we all recognize play when we see or experience it.

Despite our readiness to play at the beach, and occasionally other places, Americans have a particularly deep ambivalence toward play. Yes, we want to get out and play, but we have also created many ways that keep us connected to work. Partial evidence: all those cell phones and laptop computers at the beach.

Some observers contend we have a love/hate relationship with our vacations. We want to take them yet we fear the consequences. Our distrust of leisure is a legacy from our Puritan forebears, who saw work as the key to their success and a way to glorify God. In their view play threatens to undermine both our success and our salvation.

"We still play but much of it seems to lack a playful quality," says Penn State University anthropologist Garry Chick, Ph.D. "Playfulness has been replaced by aggressiveness and the feeling that more needs to be crammed into less time."

The big question is why we bother to play at all, since most animals leave playing for the young. Humans are among the very few animals that play as adults.

  • We play because it protects us. When men play, says Dr. Chick, its a sign that despite their testosterone-fueled aggressiveness they are not dangerous.

  • Through play we get control over the world. Psychologists who work with children traumatized by physical or sexual abuse clearly see how play provides the sense that we can master life. In the aftermath of trauma, children lose their flexibility; they stay stuck, repeating the traumatic episode endlessly. Play helps them find a way out of difficult situations.

  • Play is essential to mental health -- it allows us emotional discharge in a way that carries little risk. Play is, according to some observers, a simulation of an anxiety attack, an emergency without the adrenaline response. In the simulated explosions and aggressions of play we get to explore and experiment with feelings in a controlled manner. So our thinking frontal lobes win out over the more primitive fear centers of our brain. Perhaps for that reason, adults who play live longer than those who dont.

  • We play because it reflects the brains we have and the cultures we live in. We now know that the nerve cell connections in our brains fade away unless used. But because it is make-believe and all over the map, play stimulates those connections, strengthening synaptic possibilities. Studies show that when adults play video games their memory is better and they are cognitively more capable. To say nothing of happier.

    Although we all need to play, we don’t all play the same way. We differ significantly in play style. Some folks play to win. For others a draw is just as good. Some of us like to play in ways that test physical skill. Some prefer games of pure strategy, like chess. Others opt for word games or jigsaw puzzles.

    How we play is related in many ways to our core sense of self. Play is an exercise in self-definition; it reveals what we choose to do, not what we have to do. We play the way we are. And the ways we could be. Play is our best connection to pure possibility.

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