There’s an invisible social stigma almost to making light of things. Having fun or literally playing games can even feel like an indulgence, as an adult.
Science actually says the opposite! Being playful is both important and beneficial even as adults. Dr Letizia Mugnai, clinical psychologist at OPENMINDS Psychiatry, Counselling and Neuroscience Centre, Dubai says, “Play is an experience that enriches existence, putting us in contact with parts of us that we don't usually use in everyday life, leaving us a space of inner freedom, which favours creativity and self-expression; it relieves tensions, keeps our childhood part alive, the desire to explore, curiosity and creativity.”
How do we define it, though?
A scientific breakdown of playfulness
“Playfulness, as defined by Proyer, is an individual differences variable that allows people to frame or reframe everyday situations in such a way such that they experience them as entertaining, intellectually stimulating, and/or personally interesting,” explains Dr. Sreenivasan Vazhoor Ramsingh, specialist psychiatrist at Ahalia Hospital, Abu Dhabi.
“To put it in simple terms, it is the tendency to see the bright side of life, to joke with others and not take matters too seriously.”
Playfulness, as defined by Proyer, is an individual differences variable that allows people to frame or reframe everyday situations in a way such that they experience them as entertaining, intellectually stimulating, and/or personally interesting.
In a 2017 study, René Proyer, psychology professor at Germany-based Martin Luther University, had created a new structural model for playfulness with four facets:
1. Other-directed – When you are playful in social situations to cheer people up and ease tension.
2. Lighthearted – Being carefree and improvising.
3. Intellectual-Creative – Like puzzles and crosswords? You might be intellectually playful, and enjoy playing with ideas, words and creative problem-solving.
4. Whimsical – Having a preference for odd or unusual objects, situations and people; you might have flights of fancy.
According to the study, there are also seven basic factors to playfulness – cheerful-engaged, imaginative, impulsive, intellectual-charming, whimsical, lighthearted, kind-loving.
So, even if you’re not loudly funny or boisterous, you can still be playful; you may be the silent one with the mischievous twinkle in the eye. What is your way of being playful?
9 benefits of playfulness
“Playfulness encourages the experience of positive emotions and can influence potential biological processes, such as the activation of hormones and certain brain circuits,” says Dr Mugnai.
According to Dr Mugnai and Dr Ramsingh, these are some benefits to playfulness:
1. Building better relationships
According to Dr Mugnai, it also affects how people communicate and interact with each other, for example – by helping to cope with stress and resolving interpersonal tension. She says, “All of this can impact satisfaction and trust in relationships, ultimately impacting the longevity of relationships.”
2. Increased life satisfaction and well-being
A 2013 study published in the European Journal of Humour Research, in which 255 adults undertook questionnaires about their psychological and health status, concluded, “Adult playfulness demonstrated robust positive relations with life satisfaction, an inclination to enjoyable activities and an active way of life.”
Another study published in a US-based journal Occupation, Participation and Health on the relationship between playfulness and well-being in Australian adults found: “Adult playfulness exhibited the most robust positive relations with positive emotion, engagement, while with others and during activities, relationships, finding meaning in one’s life and overall well-being.”
3. Stress and anxiety relief
According to Dr Ramsingh, studies have shown that playfulness has positive associations with improving coping skill and behaviours during stress and thus decreased anxiety.
Sound familiar? Amidst lockdowns, the world turned online to games like Among Us, Ludo, Skribbl, Pictionary and online pop quizzes for entertainment.
A 2013 study published in the journal Leisure Sciences also found that playful individuals reported lower levels of perceived stress, used stressor focused coping strategies and were less likely to have avoidant, escape-oriented strategies.
4. Better work performance and job satisfaction
A 2007 study published in the International Journal of Technology Management, surveyed almost 1,500 professionals across four fields – from agriculture and tech, to art – to find that playfulness is positively related to job satisfaction, innovative behaviour at work and job performance work outcomes.
5. Stellar academic achievements
Playfulness is robustly associated with better academic performance as per a 2011 study published in a journal, Learning and Individual Differences by Elsevier. You are more likely to do the extra reading and may even find playful ways of approaching the topic for better understanding – for example, somehow linking a topic back to a favourite band, or pretend-teaching it at home.
6. Boosted creativity
Previous studies have found a positive correlation that shows that playfulness facilitates creativity, as per a 2019 study 'Playfulness and Creativity: A selective review' by Germany-based researchers published in the journal Creativity and Humor.
7. Diversifying your identity
Playfulness helps you view the world from different perspectives, enhancing self-awareness – but also helping you to draw your identity from various factors, and not just your work, or an illness for example. A 2009 Harvard Business Review article terms this as ‘diversifying your self’.
Personally, I witnessed positive changes in patients inviting them to think ‘as if’, or ‘if I were...’ to allow them to explore their emotions and feelings in an alternative way, as if they were a different person with different characteristics in an imaginary situation. This technique enhances imagination and flexibility in self-awareness and emotional control.
Dr Mugnai recounts, “Personally I witnessed positive changes in patients inviting them to think ‘as if’, or ‘if I were...’ to allow them explore their emotions and feelings in an alternative way, as they were a different person with different characteristics in an imaginary situation. This technique enhances imagination and flexibility about self-awareness and emotions control.”
8. Leading an active, engaged life
Playfulness affects your physical health too! According to a 2018 study by Europe-based researchers titled ‘The Positive Relationships of Playfulness With Indicators of Health, Activity, and Physical Fitness, intellectual and other-directed playfulness positively correlated to cardiorespiratory fitness – and all types of playfulness positively related to measures of strength.
Dr Ramsingh says: “[Playfulness boosts] activity, physical fitness and specific health behaviours which lead to an active way of life.”
9. Supporting recovery from mental illness
“Different types of games and sports are often suggested to people as part of psychological interventions for mental health problems like depression. This has been shown to enhance recovery but it should ideally be used along with recommended psychotherapy or pharmacotherapy, depending on the severity of the condition," says Dr Mugnai.
9 ways to be playful
“There are several ways to maintain a playful attitude. It is important to practice activities that allow us to enjoy social connection and relationships, which stimulate our imagination and creativity which make us laugh and be grateful,” says Dr Mugnai.
However, there’s a catch. Dr Ramsingh says, “The problems with trying to practice playfulness is that a lot of adults can misinterpret these suggestions and engage in risk taking behaviours and also get addicted to certain games.” He recommends caution and seeking guidance from a trained mental health professional for individualized recommendations.
Even amidst daily work pressures, these are some ways to reap the benefits of playfulness:
1. Take a break and daydream
Take a small break, and fill the time with solitary imaginative play, daydreaming and playful thoughts – you’re free to be whimsical. Dr. Ramsingh says, “Making time in your schedule to even daydream might foster creative thinking.”
2. Ask yourself ‘silly’ questions
“For example, I could ask: ‘If you could choose a superhero or a famous person who would you like to be?’ and ‘What powers would you like to have?’ or ‘If you had the power to change things, what would you like to be different?’,” says Dr Mugnai.
Ask others too!
3. Try new things and practice a hobby
“Get out of your comfort zone and do something unexpected," advises Dr Ramsingh.
These can be learning a new language, trying a food that you are unfamiliar with, or challenging yourself with a hobby such as singing, dancing or painting.
4. Play games – mental and physical
Actually buying and playing games is the classic way, and the options extend from chess and basketball, to Call of Duty.
Dr Mugnai says, “Sports, board games, outdoor activities are some useful habits to practice playfulness; the point is not only the type of activity, but the atmosphere of well-being and connection that we experienced with others and with ourselves.”
5. Heartily play with children
It can give you a shock when someone you had thought was a grave individual dissolves into a goofy high-pitched puddle at the sight of a toddler. It’s also a great way to be playful – Dr Ramsingh recommends not only playing with children, but also learning from them.
6. Smile more
Why so serious? According to Dr Ramsingh, learning to smile more, laughing at yourself, and making jokes even in tense situations, can help. In fact, as far back as 2006, a study investigated that humour – specifically, self-enhancing humour could prevent depressive symptoms.
7. Spend time with your pet
An insistent tap on your knee, a wagging tail and questioning eyes mean it’s time to drop everything and play with your beloved pet. Chase around for tag, or find a new way of engaging them in play.
8. Surround yourself with playful people
Many studies have shown how the behaviour of our friends influences our own – including eating more when we eat with others who eat a lot. Hang out with your goofy, fun-loving friends to boost your own playfulness.
9. Get out the play diary!
Being playful can take practice – and why not approach this playfully by recording your progress in your diary?
Dr Ramsingh says, “Last but not the least, maintain a journal or diary in which you can document the things that you did on that day to make your life more ‘playful’.”