5 Reasons Why Play Needs to Be a Part of a Happy Life

06/09/2015 05:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

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Last summer Thom and I rented a condo in Rosarito, Mexico. For a month we enjoyed the temperate climate, mixed up our routine, spent time outdoors, and hung out with new and old friends. It was fun -- pure and simple. And while playing and having fun might seem to be frivolous and extravagant in times of climate crisis, a struggling economy and political and social unrest around the world, play is much more than that. In fact, playing just might be the antidote to all those problems, plus much, much more.

Outrageous claim? Maybe. But the idea first came to me after reading a chapter in the book Essentialism -- The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Surprisingly, McKeown makes a case for the importance of play in the lives of anyone wanting to live a more simple, fulfilled and meaningful life.

Defining Play

McKeown's definition of play is defined as "anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather than as a means to an end -- whether it's flying a kite or listening to music or throwing around a basketball..." Author Susanna Millar, in her classic The Psychology Of Play says that play, "is an attitude of throwing off constraint." In fact, play and having fun is usually an inner-motivated and voluntary activity independent of traditional goals and outcomes.

Benefits To Play

Here are five of the biggest reasons to include fun and play in our lives:

1. It improves personal health. Dr. Stuart Brown, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates The Soul, says, "research suggests that play is a biological necessity." His short list of improved health benefits for both adults and children include:

• Weight maintenance
• Reduced risk for cardiovascular disease
• Strengthened bones and muscles
• Decreased risk from some cancers
• Improved balance and agility
• Increased chances of living longer
• Counteracts depression and can prevent recurrence.

2. Play leads to brain plasticity and higher function. Dr. Brown states in his book that play actually makes us smarter. Brown believes that there is a positive link between brain size/frontal cortex development and play. During play, the brain engages in simulations and grows connections that did not exist before. Also interesting is that play deficiency can lead to ill health and mental illness. Brown's research shows that severe play deprivation was evident in the lives of studied homicidal males in Texas.

3. Makes us adaptable and resilient both personally and in business. Marty Anderson, an educator and business analyst, wrote an article in Forbes magazine in 2014 entitled, "The Power of Play... How to Revive the Largest Economy in the World." In it he wrote, "With very few exceptions the truly sustainable organizations are ones that Play. They have fun. They make life fun for their customers and suppliers." Anderson emphasized the benefits of play along with many other outliers who are saying the same these days. Sadly he admitted that on a national level we have "almost completely outlawed play ... we measure our social activity in billable hours and money." Innovation suffers and so do we all."

4. Enhances learning and creativity. Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, CEO of the LEGO Foundation said in an interview by Forbes magazine, "Play allows us to test our capabilities, as all forms of learning should. It stimulates children's learning abilities by fostering creativity, building critical thinking, sparking intellectual curiosity, and facilitating learning by doing." But it isn't just children who benefit -- we all do. The famed Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once wrote, "Play is the answer to the question: How does anything new come about?" Even better, Albert Einstein said, "Play is the highest form of research."

5. Improve personal relationships. Simply put, play helps us get along with others. Premier child researcher and play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith believes that play is essential for social development, a sense of equality, connectedness, and concern for those around us. Play also allows us to work as a team, compromise when necessary, develop trust and accept differences in others, empathize, become generous, and to cooperate automatically with those around us.

What Stops Us From Playing?
As I explored the value of play and fun in our lives, it became evident that the mechanistic focus of our culture colors how we view play in the first place. Think about it. Machines can't play -- only living beings play. If we think of our lives, our schools our businesses or any part of it as machines that must be fed and are lifeless, play becomes trivial and irrelevant. Only by embracing our human nature and the fact that our biology, including our connection to mother Earth, is a living, breathing entity, can we reap the full benefits of a playful life.

Our aversion to play is also evident in our distrust and fear of leisure. In many ways that is a throwback to our Puritan forebears who say work, not play, was the key to success. Perhaps worse is the idea that work is the key to eternal salvation. Nowadays, economic forces keep our noses to the grindstone in an effort to trivialize play and keeping us ironically working hard to buy more and more stuff so we can enjoy ourselves and have fun.

But Dr. Stuart Brown reminds us:

Our adult biology remains unique among all creatures, and our capacity for flexibility, novelty and exploration persists. If we suppress this natural design, the consequences are dire. The play-less adult becomes stereotyped, inflexible, humorless, lives without irony, loses the capacity for optimism, and generally is quicker to react to stress with violence or depression than the adult whose play life persists. In a world of major continuous change (and we are certainly facing big changes economically now) playful humans who can roll with the punches and innovate through their play-inspired imaginations will better survive.

A Few Ways To Play
So what's the solution? Play! Here's a VERY short list of ideas:

• Go dancing for the shear joy of movement. (No goal-like exercise in mind!)
• Find kids or pets to play with!
• Act silly and improvise. (Refuse to care what others think!)
• Play a game without caring who wins or loses. (Competition is a play-killer!)
• Laugh and tell jokes.
• Go outside and just wander at will. Again -- agenda seeking is a play-killer!

According to McKeown, play opens up our imagination and give us the mental freedom and space to go beyond our normal routines and limitations. The benefits are enormous. And while I hope I have shown that active play is critical for the physical and emotional health of us all, the biggest benefit is increased and sustained happiness on a daily basis. In fact, doing something fun just for the sheer pleasure of doing it, may be one of the SMARTest things you could do for yourself today.

Kathy Gottberg believes in living healthy, authentic, fearless and SMART. This post originally appeared on her blog with a number of related comments. For new posts and more SMART ideas go to SMART Living 365.