Remember when you were a kid and time seemed endless? Remember losing yourself in playful activities, roaming in the woods for hours on end, building a fort with no plan, dancing?
Remember doing things just for the sake of doing them?

Although play is not reserved for children, we seem to lose the right to play when we move into adulthood.
In our high speed world of today, everything we do seems geared towards something: a goal, an achievement, a level to be reached, someone to impress.

Studies have shown that play can help relieve stress and improve brain function. It is however often seen as silly, selfish or even useless. But that is the whole point: the uselessness of it makes it so much more valuable. A certain joy appears when you simply engage in a playful activity. As soon as you get focused on a target or goal, you are no longer focused on the experience and it loses its benefits.

Philosopher Kieran Setiya calls pursuits that have no end goal ‘atelic activities’.
Of course you need ‘telic activities’ (activities you can finish, that have an end goal, like projects) but as we get older we have finished a lot of projects already (got a degree, got married, built a house, started a family or business, etc). As Setiya writes “locating the majority of life’s meaning in the telic will leave you unfulfilled, and often precipitates a midlife crisis. It is at midlife that the telic character of one’s most cherished ends are liable to appear, as they are completed or prove impossible.”

So it becomes more and more important to do things that bring us joy and that fill us up. Often that means getting back to something we enjoyed when we were younger. Or starting something completely new to just ‘try it out’. Allowing yourself to ask the question ‘wouldn’t it be fun to…’ followed by whatever takes your fancy!

Another roadblock on the way to trying new things is that we usually are not very good at them. And we don’t like to be bad at something because we have heard our whole life that we need to improve.
In her book “It’s great to suck at something’  Karen Rinaldi says: “By taking off the pressure of having to excel at or master an activity, we allow ourselves to live in the moment.”
Ironically ‘living in the moment’ is apparently something we all suck at as well 😉

Giving ourselves the freedom to pursue the futile, to suck without caring opens up so many possibilities! As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki says: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.”

Years ago, when I started running, my first goal was to simply to ‘get fit again after having kids’. Then it became ‘get better and go further’. This turned into running a 5k, followed by a 10K followed by a semi-marathon.
After that, I stopped setting goals. Which led to running less, becoming less fit and less good at it. It also stopped being fun.
This year I started running again. Slowly, without a goal. The only purpose was to get outside, clear my head and just run (or walk, or sit and breathe).
It wasn’t until I revisited my word of the year, OWN, that I realized that by owning my experience of running, it had become fun again. No more goals, just fun. And you know what? I have a great experience each time I go now. And often enough, some great idea pops into my head, exactly because I wasn’t looking for it.

Although vegging out in front of the tv for an afternoon may sound like fun, it hardly is as satisfying as you thought it would be.
Play (or atelic activities) is different as it has limits or constraints. Board games have rules, runs have a route, yoga has positions.
Playfulness may therefore need some planning.

So here’s how to start your own playfulness:

  • Pick a new thing do you want to try
    • Join a choir
    • Play board games at a bar
    • Start a class: a new sport/musical instrument/art /dance/gardening/cooking
    • Go hiking/running
    • etc
  • Sign up (maybe with a friend)
  • Do NOT set a goal (except to have fun)
  • Agree to ‘suck at it’!
  • Enjoy!
  • Repeat.

And learn a lesson from any toddler: The reason to play is to play.