07/27/2012 07:48 am ET Updated Sep 26, 2012

The Four-Letter Word That Will Change Your Life

That's a catchy and bold title for an article, isn't it?

Maybe -- hopefully -- you are sitting there wondering, "What is it? What is this four-letter word that's supposedly going change my life?" Perhaps you are stewing, or rapidly scanning the article to see if you can just quickly find this four-letter word that will change your life so you can get on with your life.

What do you think it is? Any ideas? Is it "money" -- oh wait, that's five letters, isn't it? Hmm...

All right, I've teased you long enough. I'll stop playing around and end the suspense. Actually, I've already told you -- and showed you -- the word that will change your life, but in case you missed it, the word is "play."

Does that feel like a bit of a jip? If it does, perhaps the reason it does is that you don't know what I mean by play, or how it can change your world. But before you click over to that enticing link to your right, take a moment to consider what play is and why it is so vital.

It's Not About Monopoly

I want to be clear that when I say "play," I am not talking about Monopoly, Pictionary, or even football or basketball. By "play," I mean the kinds of play you do or can do inside your mind -- imaginative play.

Unfortunately, most adults think of play as something that's just for children. And it often is -- though it should not be.

Play is an essential part of life at every age. Let me rewind that back and turn up the volume to make sure you hear it -- at every age. Play is a way of experiencing and exploring the world that allows you to open your mind to fresh ideas and experiment with new ways of being. It is about process and discovery rather than goals and achievement. Imaginative play is open-ended. It does not follow a linear path. There is no correct way to play, no right answers. It is exploration without judgment or consequences.

Play requires so little, yet it gives so much, and it's actually fun. Although play is not necessarily about achieving specific objectives, you actually accomplish a lot through imagination and play. Playing in your mind allows you to come to terms with the past and forge ahead into an uncertain future through being in the present. It is your natural stimulator and simulator.

Play and imagination are imperative for our development, yet even people who idealize imagination and creative play as important values to instill in their children, are often willing to ignore it in their own lives. I've met people who wouldn't send their children to a school that lacked an arts program, yet they never even consider that they themselves should be spending time playing and imagining. How does something that is so vital at one point in life suddenly become irrelevant at another? If we value play and imagination in the early years because they promote healthy minds and contribute to a strong sense of self, why are they not an essential part of adulthood? Do we not need an outlet for self-expression or a sense of emotional well-being as adults?

Actually, we do. Most of us just don't know it.

How Will Play Change Your Life?

If you've been running in place in one or more areas of your life -- whether it's in a job situation, a relationship, or a pattern of behavior -⎯ it is natural to narrow your focus and energy to just getting by or getting through. The problem is that getting by and getting through have nothing to do with getting better. The way to "better," the key to unlock the door, is play.

Imaginative play allows you to open your mind and heart to new possibilities for your future and yourself. Play allows us to try out different ways of understanding new and frightening situations without experiencing our terror head-on. By using our imaginations and playing out different scenarios, our minds run through various possibilities and outcomes so that we can teach ourselves how we might handle them. Play is a natural form of problem-solving that gives us the chance to make sense of the world and our roles in it by letting us try out new identities, strategies, and possibilities for how to move ahead. It gives us access to ideas that never before existed, allows us to experience the world in a safe way, and helps us envision the road ahead with less fear and more faith. It is these aspects of play that make it a critical step on our journey to what's next.

Convinced that you need to play? Good. Now the next thing you are probably wondering is, well, how do I play? A very good question indeed, and one that I promise to answer in this column next week. For now, I've got to go back to work.

Until then...

Play on! Play on!

Oh, and if you have any thoughts about play, please share. I'd love to hear them.

For more by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., click here.

For more on the spirit, click here.