How Do You Play?

Is it purposeless, spontaneous, an antidote to boredom or loneliness? Does it involve risk, excitement, pleasure or freedom? If so, you play like a child — and that’s good news.

Childhood play has recently become a target of our attempts to help kids be more physically active, but children themselves have a very different idea of what constitutes play. And their perspective could help us help ourselves as well as them.

IMGIn a child’s view, playing has no goal. It is the ultimate in present moment awareness – there is no desired end result – it is an end in itself. That’s one of the take-aways from a new study conducted at the University of Montreal. Other important findings are that risk-taking is pleasurable for children, helping them learn how to cope with life’s unpredictability; that play doesn’t necessarily have to be active; and that they feel ambiguous about scheduled play activities. For both kids and adults, this is a reminder that the social and emotional benefits of play are every bit as important as the physical benefits.

According to Stuart Brown of the National Institute of Play, being playful helps us be more adaptable, leads to trust and benefits brain development. He has studied the rough-and-tumble play of animals, as well as babies’ early play with their mothers. Play is driven by curiosity about the world and each other, and social play is often the glue that holds us together. Brown says that “The opposite of play isn’t work — it’s depression.”

Play can help us be more creative. John Cleese recommends using humor to enhance creativity, because it makes us more playful and relaxed. Brown says that play is a mediator between the brain and the hand. He has observed that design students who can’t creatively solve problems haven’t worked with their hands enough, doing things like playing and tinkering.

In order to “infuse” your life with more play, Brown recommends spending time with children, surrounding yourself with playful people, and looking back at your “play history“. What kinds of play did you enjoy as a child? Can you make an emotional connection between your childhood play and your life now? What is the story you tell about playing?

When I was a child, much of my play was unstructured. I grew up in a big family, and there was always someone around to play with. Because I didn’t have any brothers, our play often involved dress-up and make-believe rather than physical play. We had a music box that played the wedding march, and we would take turns putting on a bridal “veil” and playing wedding. We would take our large collection of “Little Golden” books and make paths around our bedroom with them, or build a fort or tent with a blanket thrown over a clothesline or picnic table. I also enjoyed solitary activities like reading, paint-by-number and crocheting. Our physical needs were satisfied with bike riding and occasional games of softball with the boys next door.

I’m still a fan of make-believe in my preference for dramas and fiction, and my dislike of reality TV. My exercise most often comes in the form of activities I do by myself (running, biking) rather than “team” sports, since I had little of that during childhood. But I try to keep myself open to ways of playing that I’m less comfortable with — partner yoga with my husband expanded my ability to trust; snorkeling and stand-up paddle boarding have helped me enjoy playing in the water; taking more opportunities to laugh and be less serious about life has helped me relax.image

Play is whatever feels like fun and freedom to you: sports, games, puzzles, playing with a pet, laughing at a movie, acting in a play. Play is what makes you feel like your child self again. As George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Daydream believing

My daydreams aren’t what they used to be. I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing, though. It all depends on what we mean by daydream.

Type “daydream” into Google, and this pops up: “Pleasant thoughts that distract one’s attention from the present.” That’s the way I mostly daydreamed for many years. I would use my daydreams as a tool for imagining some future event – usually something that was definitely going to happen, like a vacation. Fantasizing about the future event got me out of the mundane day-to-day life and into something happy and pleasant. After all, who doesn’t like to think about vacation?

But I realized recently that I don’t daydream like that much anymore. I think it’s because I discovered that life is better when I find something satisfying to experience each day that I awake, rather than off in the future. As Daniel Gilbert has written, “When we imagine the future, we often do so in the blind spot of our mind’s eye.” We don’t really know how the future will turn out, and over-fantasizing about it can make it disappointing when it finally arrives.

The definition of daydream is “a reverie indulged in while awake,” a reverie being a “state of dreamy meditation.” This seems like a better way to describe the kind of daydreaming that leads to creativity, problem-solving and fulfilling goals. There’s a saying that ‘where your thoughts go, your energy flows’. In that sense, daydreaming can be uniquely valuable as a way to come up with new ideas, figure out what to do with your life, create a piece of art or music, or imagine a different world.

Sitting in my backyard listening to the birds chirping, watching the butterflies flit around the flowers and losing myself in watching clouds, is the kind of daydreaming that occupies me more now. That “dreamy meditation” invites ideas and images into the conscious mind. It’s the daydreaming that leads to new blog posts, and poems, and learning about nature. It’s the daydreaming that allows me to act on what I imagine.Butterflies_03

On the Psychology Today website, there’s an article by Amy Fries called “The Power of Daydreaming.” It’s an extensive overview of all the ways in which daydreaming is good for us, as well as the ways that daydreaming can be negative, such as if it is too “worry-based”. While it’s helpful to use daydreaming as a way to role-play a situation ahead of time, or assess its risk, it becomes maladaptive if it causes anxiety or obsessive negative thinking.

Daydreaming is essentially what we are engaging in when we use positive visualization or guided imagery to relax. We take ourselves away from the present moment (which might be stressful) and into another place that is beautiful and calm, a place that has meaning for us. Daydreaming becomes a short-term tool for getting through a difficult moment.

Does it seem like there’s a disconnect between present moment awareness and daydreaming, which takes us out of the present moment? Fries doesn’t believe the two have to be in conflict, but thinks that we can find the balance that gives us the right amount of each. She says that we need to be able to imagine art, philosophy, spirituality and progress in order to bring them into existence for ourselves.

So I welcome my daydreams as a respite, and try to be present to the serendipitous ideas that come up in them. Who’s to say what the difference is between daydreaming and just thinking? Albert Einstein once said that, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” Could he have been talking about daydreams?

Change: always hard, never too late, start now

The good news this week came from a study showing that if you stop smoking by age 40, you get back all the years of life that you had lost by smoking. Even if you stop smoking after 40, some of your longevity deficit is made up.

The bad news is that it is still just as hard as ever to quit smoking.

We can hear and believe all of the benefits of eating healthy, exercising, getting a new job or ending a relationship, and still find ourselves unable to make the changes we need. Sometimes change is too frightening, and sometimes it’s just overwhelming; either way, we stay stuck where we are. Changes on the outside come more easily – we might change the color of our hair, the way we dress, or the car we drive on a whim. But making changes to our habits of mind, belief and behavior is so much harder.

So we swat away the thoughts about changing, as if they were gnats buzzing around our heads. “It’s too late for me”, “I’m too busy right now”, “Maybe I’ll think about it tomorrow, or next week, or next month.”

You know what? The time to change is now, and it always has been.  The promise of a longer, healthier, happier life might seem like a distant dream, but what about the certainty that the action you take today is your first, necessary step? You cannot be different in the future if you never start. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” Close your eyes, visualize launching yourself on that wave, and start believing that you can change.IMG_0851

I attended an amazing concert a few nights ago, called “Sing the Truth,” featuring singers Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright. They sang songs of empowerment, freedom, truth and love, by great female artists. Their rendition of “Both Sides Now” brought me to tears. At one point, Kidjo spoke to the audience about peace and freedom in the world, reminding us that it is up to each of us to do one small thing every day to make the world a better place for each other. In that moment, I know that everyone believed that possible.sing the truth

That’s how change will come – little by little, with one small choice each day. That’s how change happens for us as individuals, and for the world we live in. So whether it’s the choice to skip one cigarette today, or the choice to be kind today to someone you dislike, or the choice to speak out today about injustice you’ve ignored, look to today. Today is when we change.

Stories we tell

Every family has stories – usually a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Some stories are told over and over, and others get hidden away like skeletons in the closet. But all the stories shape us and our life stories.

Sometimes I stare at the old photos of my great-grandparents, or my dad with his army buddies, and try to figure out who they were. Were their lives mostly hard work and disappointment, or did they experience joy and possibility? How does the answer to that question explain who I am? Did I just inherit my blue eyes and brown hair from them, or does their legacy also include patterns of behavior and ways of looking at the world?

Carl Jung wrote that, “The more intensively the family has stamped its character upon the child, the more it will tend to feel and see its earlier miniature world again in the bigger world of adult life.” In other words, our perspective can be profoundly shaped by our early experience.

People in my family have been farmers, miners, autoworkers, soldiers, teachers and cooks. One was a blacksmith, one a postmaster, and another a mayor. One person has a library named for him, while others lived and died in anonymity. Their stories include poverty, abandonment, infidelity and suicide, as well as pioneering spirit, public service, loyalty and courage.

While I want to embrace many of the values I inherited from them, such as a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility, I sometimes find myself stuck with some of the others, such as a tendency to think small and play it safe – characteristics that probably result from generations who always had to struggle. Can we change our lives enough as adults to establish a broader legacy for our own children? Is it possible to get past the negative self-talk, the family dysfunction, and the habitual patterns of behavior to grow into a more satisfying life while still building on the positive aspects of the past?

Just tuning in and becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings, then being able to label them, are good first steps. In their book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves define emotional intelligence as “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.”

Understanding emotions and managing behavior require us to pay attention to them. Sometimes we are so caught up in daily life that we act and react without thought. Keeping a journal (or writing a blog) can help focus the attention on what we are doing and feeling.  Formally practicing mindfulness can also help develop the ability to slow down and pay more attention to our emotional lives. A mindfulness practice can be as simple as sitting quietly and observing the breath for a little while each day. In his book, Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about mindfulness that it “enables us to be in touch with life, which is wonderful in the present moment.”

So perhaps that is the legacy I can give my children: a consciousness of my actions, a smile shared in joy, an awareness of how awesome life is right now. If I can do that for myself, and for them, what stories will they tell?