The Stress-Killer Taboo for Grown-Ups

03/22/2011 08:50 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Joe Robinson Stress management, productivity trainer, speaker, author, 'Work to Live''

Adults have a few problems, as I'm sure you've noticed. Some three out of four doctor visits are stress-related. A doctor in Wisconsin told me that 90 percent of her patients have depleted adrenal glands, the result of the stress response pouring out adrenaline around the clock. American businesses squander $344 billion a year on stress-related costs, according to data from Middle Tennessee State University. Yet grown-ups insist on unilateral disarmament when it comes to one of the best stress buffers there is: play.

We would rather ruminate on troubles -- which fuels them -- than use a resource that's right at our fingertips and cheaper than the last trip to the pharmacy. Turning your back on play makes about as much sense as swearing off laughing and has about the same effect: locking in the overseriousness that reinforces that you are too busy, besieged or important to let your hair down.

I don't see the upside of being miserable when the science shows that strategic doses of fun can shred the awfulizing and irrational thoughts that are at the root of most stress. Stress hijacks the higher brain, handing the controls over to a primitive part of your gray matter that distorts stressors and setbacks into life-and-death affairs. Play has a remarkable ability to interrupt the anxiety cycle and restore sanity. It builds coping resources by increasing positive mood and breaking up the mental set that locks in obsessive associations. Play reboots your brain, as it recharges positive mood and vitality.

Brain surgeons have to carve into craniums to bring back healthy functioning. Play can do that without a scalpel. A host of studies we never hear about underscore why it's a good idea for grown-ups to lose the masochism and cut loose with regular bouts of task-less enjoyment. Engaged leisure experiences build coping mechanisms, increasing resilience by building confidence and connection with others. They increase life satisfaction more than work by satisfying core psychological needs, such as autonomy. And they help develop risk-taking skills that allow you to break free of habits that fuel stress.

There's no success like recess -- that once (and still) critical part of your day. A landmark study by Alan Krueger and Nobel-Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman analyzed how 4,000 Americans spent their time and found that people are at their happiest when they are involved in engaging leisure activities. Happiness, it turns out, depends more on how you play than on your business card or the car you drive.

That's not the message we get every day. We're led to believe we'll be terminal slackers and wimps if we dare to step away from the grindstone. But the produce-till-you-drop social norm is not only a fiction; it's also completely counterproductive to work effectiveness, particularly in the knowledge economy, in which the source of productivity is a refreshed and energized brain. Studies show that performance goes up after breaks and vacations. The best predictor of personal satisfaction is satisfaction in your nonprofessional life. So if you don't have a non-professional life, chances are you may not be too satisfied.

I met a host of satisfied folks on the road to the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," which details a piece of the happiness equation all but ignored: engaged play. Each of these life enthusiasts has taken a proactive approach to play, seeing it not as an infraction for adults, but as something that can make life most worthwhile. Karen Lynch, a breast cancer survivor, found stress relief and a lot more when she took up the sport of dragon boat paddling. It became her passion. "Now that paddling is in my life, and all these women, it completes my life. It makes me a better person," she told me. Play has taken her from a loop of fear and stress at home to a wider world of challenge, fun, and camaraderie. She's no longer alone, but thriving with a large support system of fellow cancer survivor paddlers.

For Nao Kumigai, badminton is sport, art, refuge, teacher and friend. "When I'm depressed, or don't have confidence, or fail at something, I know I can get over it with badminton," says the Los Angeles restaurant and hotel product salesman. "In business you have to have confidence, or you can't sell. Badminton gives me that." When he's on the road for business and has a spare hour, he's on a local court, blasting shuttlecocks.

Physical exercise and the act of learning or practicing a skill cause massive changes in the brain that result in improved health, memory and problem-solving. Engaged play interrupts the flow of stress and builds up emotional resources to help you cope, such as a sense of mastery and social support.

You would think that if there were a source of happiness as reliable as engaged play that riot police would be posted outside martial arts studios or pottery classes to hold back the hordes. But mythology, stress and, no doubt, a plot by antacid makers prevent an outbreak of sanity. You can override these forces of life denial by opting out of stress and rumination with the transformative power of play. You don't have to take the pounding of work and stress without letup to be a valid performer. You are entitled under current law to actually live your life, no matter what the social pressures say. And when you do so by playing more often, you're happier, healthier and more connected to the authentic life beyond the obligational yoke.

I recently saw a man in his forties walking down the sidewalk on my street -- head down, lost in thought, doing the adult shuffle. Suddenly, he broke into a series of hops, straddles and jumps. Local kids had chalked in a hopscotch pattern on the cement, and he leaped right in. After his last hop, he straightened himself out and continued walking, never once looking back to see if anyone saw him. He had a bounce in his step.


Joe Robinson is author of the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the missing link to happiness, life fully lived. He is founder of Work to Live, and is a work-life balance and stress management trainer and coach.