From The Archive: The 7 Properties of Play
Psychiatrist Stuart Brown on the importance of play over and within work for a happy and fulfilled life
What is play and why is it so important to wellbeing? What are the properties of play and how can we bring these aspects into our lives more? In today's Sunday Letters article, I'm taking a look at these questions within the context of daily work and offering a framework of understanding of the importance of play promoted by psychiatrist Dr Stuart Brown. He says that for human beings, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation. Without it, life would hardly be worth living.
When was the last time you went into work with a smile on your face or at least a pleasant feeling of anticipation? My guess is that it doesn't happen too often. It doesn't seem to matter whether you are a small business owner, a freelancer, CEO of a large corporation, direct employee, artist or otherwise. When work becomes serious there's no room for play. In fact, being playful at work is often considered flaky and a sign of disorganisation and lack of focus.
You might work for a large tech company, one that has pool tables, foosball and brightly coloured walls. But these things are merely distractions designed to lull you into a false sense of relaxation. Corporations are contemporary workhouses and their modus operandi is profit above all else, and profit is serious business. Because if that corporation fails to be profitable, creditors come knocking and it won’t be long before the liquidators follow.
So you'd better take your work seriously.
Work is work and in it, there's no place for fun. It's the place we go to make money to live and, more accurately perhaps, buy shit we don’t really need. We'd rather not work so hard and give so many of our hours towards it, but we have to–we are compelled. So we endure work for our best years, we toil under duress to make time for fun that we hardly have time for.
Kind of screwed up isn't it?
Life Without Play
A couple of years ago, I was introduced to a TED talk by Dr Stuart Brown. Brown is a medical doctor, psychiatrist, founder of the National Institute for Play in the US, and author of Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul1. He says that play is critical, not only to happiness, but also to sustaining social relationships, being creative, and finding innovative solutions to problems. What would the world be like without play? Life without play, Stuart Brown says, is not merely an absence of sports or games. Without play, books, art, movies, music, dancing, jokes and stories life would disappear. There would be no flirting, no irony, no comedy. Play adds colour to what would otherwise be a dull and boring place. And unfortunately, this is what work has become for many people.
As we transition from child to adult and enter the reality of modern life, we at some point develop the idea that play is something we do only when we have spare time. Now that we are all grown up, productivity is key to living a worthwhile life. Stuart Brown says that we seem to strive constantly for efficiency. If the activity doesn't bring about measurable and advantageous results, make us money, for example, then it's not worth the effort.
That's a sad state of affairs, and it is no wonder that our relationship with daily work has become adversarial, transactional and soulless.
Once people understand what play does for them, they can learn to bring a sense of excitement and adventure back into their lives, make work an extension of their play lives, and engage fully with the world.
Stuart Brown, MD
The 7 Properties of Play
Like digestion and sleep, Brown says, play in its most basic form proceeds without a complex intellectual framework. Attempting to attach ideas and concepts to play almost defeats its purpose. And so, Brown avoids defining play. He says defining play is like explaining a joke. However, through the need to express his thoughts and feelings about it, he recognises that there must be some kind of framework by which we can understand its importance to our lives.
Or rather, apparent purposelessness, as Brown refers to it. Apparent purposelessness reflects the absence of practical value in the activity. It may not necessarily earn money or bring about material advantage.
Play has no obligatory aspect. It does not force us to take part through duty or external requirements. In fact, through obligation, the activity loses its play component.
3. INHERENT ATTRACTION
Play is fun, and it makes us feel good. From a behavioural science perspective, it is said to bring about psychological arousal. In other words, it gets us excited and is a cure for boredom.
4. FREEDOM FROM TIME
When we are playing we lose track of time. It is freedom in its truest sense and provides an escape from the constrained world of demands and commitments.
5. DIMINISHED SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS
When we are playing, we drop the need to look good. There's no concern for what others think of us. There's no thought about thought and we become lost in the activity. It's what Maslow referred to as peak experience, and what Csikszentmihalyi called flow.
6. IMPROVISATIONAL POTENTIAL
Another aspect of play, according to Stuart Brown, is that it has improvisational potential. There is no specific system of doing things. Instead, we are open to serendipity and chance occurrences that can lead to creativity and the discovery of new things.
7. CONTINUATION DESIRE
In play, we desire its continuation and will invent new means to make it last. It is the pleasure of the experience that drives the desire, and from this, we make new rules so the game need not end.
Brown says that it is these properties of play that make play the essence of freedom. He says that the things that tie us down and constrain–like a job we hate doing for example–the need to meet demands, follow rules, and please other people, are what makes us miserable.
In play, these things are eliminated. Play is its own reward. The activity is inherently enjoyable.
Bringing Play into Work
The opposite of play is not work, Brown says, and I'm inclined to agree. He says the opposite of play is depression. The demands of modern living and the inherent responsibility of holding down a job and competing in a dog-eat-dog environment are exhausting and ultimately damaging to health. Instead of play and work being opposites, they should be seen as mutually supportive and must be integrated, Brown says. This can be difficult when we work for a company that has no appreciation for the value of play at work. Or indeed if we work for ourselves and use the number of hours worked as a measure of success.
We must find a way to incorporate play into work, otherwise, work becomes merely a means towards an end. We shouldn't endure the constant pressure and demand of the workplace in exchange for the release of Friday night–if it comes at all. For many, there is no escape from workplace demands. But we've got to find a way because happiness is not payment for unhappiness. There is no pleasant end to an unpleasant journey.
In these strange times, where many of us find ourselves out of work, albeit perhaps temporarily, we are afforded time to reassess. We've been spending more time with our kids, exercising more and doing things we often neglect. I think we might refuse to go back to how things were.
Originally published for Sunday Letters, 10th May, 2020.
Brown, S. L. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Penguin.