Play: Why It’s Essential For Creative Work That Matters

Daily work without play can be an intense sterile place that breeds anxiety and depression. Here’s how to counteract that

young boy playing ball in the yard for article by Larry G. Maguire

Photo by Wendy Aros-Routman on Unsplash

Daily work without play can be an intense sterile place that breeds anxiety and depression. Here’s how to counteract that.

Back in 2000, I began working for myself. I was turned on, engaged and enthusiastic. As far as I was concerned, working as a self-employed contractor and getting paid well for it was like getting paid to play. I enjoyed working with my hands, designing and creating solutions to people’s problems. So, work and play were very much combined for me back in those early days.

By 2008 all that was changing. In the pursuit of success, I took on too much debt, hired too many staff, and bought too many things the business couldn’t afford. I was extrinsically driven, albeit in the wrong direction. The number of staff, vans on the road, turnover, high profile clients; they were all illusory measures of success. I was hypnotised to such a degree, that I didn’t see the economy taking a turn. Or I ignored it; I can’t tell which.

All the fun had long since disappeared from my daily work — and life in general. I looked forward to Friday’s and two bottles of red and dreaded Monday mornings. I had stopped playing sport, put on weight, and I was drinking too much. Every ounce of my effort was in my work, and I made no time for play of any kind.

I tried hard for several years after to make things work, but given that the thrill, anticipation and enjoyment had gone, the inevitable was soon to pass. I was constantly anxious and couldn’t sleep. Every day was a slog, and the burden of debt that I had accumulated became heavier. Collection agents, banks, Revenue Commissioners, they all wanted a piece of what I hadn’t got to give.

By January 2014 everything would come to an end. Work dried up, and I was faced with no other option to close the business after almost 15 years of hard work.

On reflection, what I needed most back then was not more intensive focus on work, but more emphasis on play. Even a couple of hours per week would have been enough, but I couldn’t see the benefit. I fell out of contact with friends, my social life was non-existent, and I went deeper into what I now realise was a depressed state.

It took two years to snap out of the rut.

“Far from standing in opposition to each other, play and work are mutually supportive. They are not poles at opposite ends of our world. Work and play are more like the timbers that keep our house from collapsing down on top of us” — Stuart Brown M.D., Play

In his book titled Play Stuart Brown MD says that an overwhelming sense of responsibility can bury our inherent need for variety and challenge. On reflection, this was my experience. I felt obliged to follow through on my commitment to myself, no matter the expense. Brown goes on to suggest that over the long term, with the spice-of-life elements missing from our experience, what remains for us is a dulled soul.

He suggests that far from being at opposite ends of the spectrum, play and work can be mutually inclusive elements in our daily activity. It seems to be that a combination of seriousness and playfulness combine in a dialectical exchange to create magical outcomes and optimal life experience.

In other words, to have primarily one or the other in our experience rarely if ever bring about high-quality results. Too loose and playful, and there can be a lack of focus and attention necessary for success. Too much seriousness and we can kill the thing we’re trying to grow.

Brown says we have a biologically integrated need for playful expression and we must respect that. When we do, excitement, thrill and full engagement with daily work can ensue. The meeting point for play and work, Brown says, is creativity and this can only happen when there is an openness to traverse both aspects of human experience.

New ideas flow when we’re in a playful mood in work. There is energy, and there is aliveness that is simply not present in dull, grey, monotonous work. The feeling is infectious, like when someone smiles at us, and others around can’t help but catch the bug.

In my experience, the opposite is also true. Grey-faced negatively charged people, especially those in charge, can have a detrimental effect on the work environment.

This is what I have learned. After all, I was that person.

Stuart Brown refrains from definitions of play because he feels it means something different for every human being. But he does offer a particular process that he believes are present generally in all forms of play.

He says this process is what makes play the essence of freedom. The things that tie us down the most that make us follow the rules and please other people, that require us to be measured and practical are eliminated through play.

Play, he says, is a reward in and of itself and requires no justification or external measurement of value.

The apparent process evident in play, he borrows from Scott Eberle from The Strong National Museum of Play.

  1. Anticipation — Waiting with excited expectation, wondering, curious, perhaps with a little nervous energy about what will happen next. All of this happens while we have a smile on our face, energised to the point not exceeding overwhelm. This usually leads to the following feelings.

  2. Surprise — The reveal of the unexpected. The delight at a fresh discovery. This is what produces pleasure.

  3. Pleasure — An enjoyable positive feeling like that experienced at the punchline of a joke. In a non-competitive sport where winning is not the object, it may even be losing that brings this about.

  4. Understanding — It is the acquisition of new knowledge, the synthesis of separate concepts into a new one. It is an incorporation of before unknown ideas.

  5. Strength — Eberle says that this is the mastery that comes about from constructive experience and understanding. It is like coming out the other side of an unnerving experience unscathed and knowing more about how the world works.

  6. Finally, we have Poise — Grace, contentment and composure. It’s a sense of completeness and balance within the right now experience. Once poise is reached, we are ready to start the process once again.

This is merely one professional’s view of how play manifests for human beings. It may be different from person to person and from domain to domain. But I can certainly see parallels between this account and that of, say, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory for example.

Play is about getting lost, allowing the self to disappear into the work. From the outside, these aspects may be apparent, but when we’re in a flow state, we hardly recognise them.

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What is a life well lived if it’s not the happy memories of good times? They are times when we smiled, times we spent with family and friends, times when we were immersed in work we loved to do.

However, the shitty times are critical too for how would we know the good without the bad? The bad times will hardly make us smile, unless maybe if we’re considering how naive we were, but that’s not the same thing.

On the whole, I think balance is required. That’s why I’m an advocate these days of taking the middle way. That is, to allow the balance to form our experience rather than trying to force results.

As such, I believe that a combination of hard, challenging work and playful, detached intent is required. Too much hard work without play and we burn out. Not enough challenging work and too much frivolous enjoyment, and we become limp and lack complexity.

Nobody knows the way, or what level of each aspect is right in all cases. So the only thing to do is to get stuck in and see what happens.

With any luck, you’ll end up smiling.

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters

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