THE BLOG
09/16/2013 10:52 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Why Scheduling Play Can Make You Happier

Play is something we take for granted and yet rarely have time for.

Even when we're out enjoying ourselves, thoughts of work creep in, or we worry about that laundry list of stuff to do at home. We find it perfectly natural when children play house, run around outside with their friends and master computer games. Yet as adults we can feel guilty doing an activity that isn't productive or doesn't make us money.

In his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown, play researcher and psychiatrist writes that humans are hardwired to play through millions of years of evolution. What is more, he believes this biological necessity -- as vital to us as sleep and dreams -- can lead to increased happiness.

"When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?"

Scheduling play just as we would schedule a workout or meeting could make us happier, more joyful.

Daily play -- be it for one hour or 15 minutes -- gives us permission to escape our worries and be present to others and to ourselves. Kicking around a soccer ball, playing an instrument or going to a museum clears the mental clutter that builds up when we're swamped, overbooked, and urgently in need of a spiritual reboot.

There may be other lasting benefits to scheduled play.

Positive waves -- before and after -- could result from play. Gretchin Rubin, author of The Happiness Project writes that there are four stages for enjoying a happy event: The anticipation of looking forward to it, playtime once you've scheduled it, sharing that pleasure with others -- either during the event or when you tell someone about it later -- and reflecting on the enjoyment you had. Rubin suggests scheduling regular time for play otherwise we won't do it.

Rules could help our ability to play.
In his TED talk, "Tales of Creativity and Play," Tim Brown the CEO of IDEO, an award winning design firm says his workplace makes play mandatory. IDEO uses toys such as a finger blaster (foam rocket), which employees shoot at each other for fun. "Playfulness gets creative results and helps us feel better," he explains. Whether it's designing an Elmo iPhone app for kids or a new shopping experience for adults, IDEO puts play at the center of their creative process.

Yet IDEO isn't the only company that takes play seriously. Google headquarters has pink flamingos and Pixar's animators work in wooden huts and caves. But what does this mean for the majority of us who don't work at these cool, fun places?

If you go back to moments in your life where you were happiest, Stuart Brown writes, you'll find that they were most likely those times when you were engaged in play.

"If adults can begin to reminisce about their happiest and most memorable moments, they can capture the emotion and visual memories of those moments and begin to connect again to what truly excites them in life." Brown uses the example of a woman who felt little joy in her present circumstances. Then she remembered that her earliest joyful memories involved horses. She leased a horse, began to ride once a week and was able to recreate that joy she was missing.

Penciling in daily bouts of play throughout the week -- whether it's sitting down with a good book, playing ping pong with a friend or daydreaming in a well-loved park -- can create poignant moments that light us up and replenish us. When we think of playtime as a must-do, we make it possible to approach our lives with greater joy and happiness.

For more by Lissa M. Cowan, click here.

For more on happiness, click here.

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