“Play is the meaningless moment that makes the day memorable and worthwhile.” – Stuart Brown, MD, author and founder of the National Institute of Play
In the first three months of the pandemic there was a lot of COVID-humor in our inbox. We laughed online at ourselves as we coveted toilet paper, binged on everything nearby, and showed up for work in pajamas. We chuckled as clever new words entered our vocabulary offering a “quarantini” with an olive at the end of a monotonous “blursday.” By July, however, the entertaining emails had dwindled to zero. Did we lose our sense of play?
The endless stress of seemingly endless problems makes it hard to find humor in anything. But, as counterintuitive as it may seem, cultivating our innate sense of playfulness might be just the ticket for making it through these tough times in one piece. You see, there is a link between our ability to play and our ability to adapt, survive and get along. Conversely, as we’ve all experienced, too much work, responsibility, and seriousness results in a negative outlook, short temper, and grumpiness. Or, as my son admitted to my grandson recently, “I’m tightly wound and easily provoked.”
Even though we have the ability to seek and benefit from play all through our lives, when circumstances feel threatening, oppressive, or upsetting, the first thing to disappear is our sense of playfulness. Of course, there are situations that require serious attention, but getting stuck in serious mode is both exhausting and depressing. As any emergency room nurse knows, even in the darkest times, finding a bit of levity is a good way to rekindle energy and refuel optimism. You experience a bit of this every time you smile, even if you’re faking it. Research has shown that simply pulling the muscles of the face into a smile triggers a release of mood-boosting neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. And, when a humorous moment is shared, it not only gets you out of the funk but it increases trust and decreases anxiety all around. So, when you bring your sense of playfulness to the gym, supermarket, or dinner table, it’s not just fun, it’s therapeutic.
In order to invite a little play therapy into your life, just remember what makes you laugh. Everyone doesn’t laugh at the same thing. My husband thinks slapstick is hilarious; human foibles make me smile. What’s your preference? The humor of John Cleese, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, or Hasan Minhaj? Do riddles or practical jokes or dirty limericks tickle your funny bone? Are you amused by the writing of David Sedaris, Dave Barry, or P.G. Wodehouse? Do you crack up over The Simpsons or Schitt’s Creek? Whatever makes you smile, trust your playful instincts and make it happen!
Play has a wide range of possibilities. From storytelling to sports to doing a crossword puzzle. Just ask your smart speaker to play an old rock and roll favorite, boogie a bit to the beat, and notice how your mood changes. Go ahead and browse The New Yorker cartoons or listen to a fun podcast like Comedy Bang! Bang!, My Dad Wrote a Porno, or WTF with Marc Maron. Or, stay closer to home and check out the clever videos embedded in this paper’s Morning MoJo. You can pull up an animal-friends video on YouTube or, even better, go outside and throw a ball for your own dog. Singing “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” with hand gestures never fails. Water fight in the backyard, anyone?
Lately, I’ve been pondering the playful antics of my friends. Like Dan Frank and Tim Schultz tossing hilarious puns back and forth. Or, Otto Laula and Tom Moore creating a poster to spoof New Agers, titled “How to Manifest a Refrigerator.” Or, Linda Mason with her social commentary cartoons. It still cracks me up thinking of Thom Steinbeck biting Cosmo’s foot at a picnic saying, “I think I’ll just have a hot dog.” And, I can’t help but chortle remembering the holiday party that Sally Chiu, Laurie Zalk, and I hosted in matching pajamas. There’s a bit of magic in all these memories that makes my heart smile.
Give play a chance in your life and let it do its magic. For no reason except being playful, meander a bit on your bike ride, play a video game with your kids, and doodle on your appointment book. Do something unexpected like make a fart noise or a goofy face. Why not share a humorous anecdote with a buddy or wink at your sweetheart across the room? Break into a little two-step singing a few chords of “Sunny Side of the Street” on your next beach walk. As you swing along, your spontaneous exuberance will lift everyone’s mood. And, be ready to respond to the possibility of playfulness wherever and however it shows up. For instance, when asked how the day went, after a slight pause, my son-in-law responded, “Swell.” We both got a laugh from his perfectly timed wry delivery. In these serious times, a good laugh can turn everything around.
“Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worry on the doorstep
Just direct your feet
To the sunny side of the street”
– Billie Holliday, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”