The Science of Play: Reconnecting to Our Aliveness
Posted on November 3, 2021
My journey of becoming a Co-Active executive coach started as I was lying in a puddle of tears, on the fancy carpet of a 5-star hotel in Abu Dhabi, 7,000 miles away from home, on Day 6 of a 2-week business trip across 5 countries.
My tears were a blend of “missing my kids” and sheer frustration. I was thinking, “there has got to be a better way for me use my people skills, other than flying around the globe, chronically jetlagged, helping people sell and market software products!”
At one point, she asked a question that stuck with me: How can you add more fun and play into these trips?
I really had to ponder that. What would that be for me? Because these business trips were grueling. The days were long. I usually got picked up at the hotel by a driver at 7 a.m. We spent countless hours in traffic jams, attended long meetings, and continued with business dinners. By the time I finally crawled back into my hotel room, it was easily 9 or 10 p.m. There was no time for the gym. The next day was rinse and repeat.
So, how the heck could I add “play”? There are so many different types of play. What would I find fun? And what could work for me and my insane schedule? Well, I FOUND IT and it saved me!
How Play Saved Me — and Why You Should Play More
For me, play came in the form of a ukulele that fit into my carry-on luggage. So, after those long days, after I’d finally made it back to the hotel, I’d play and sing — quietly — for about 15 minutes and then fall asleep with a smile. From exhaustion to smiling in 15 minutes — not bad!
Seems so simple — somewhat silly even — but why was it so powerful?
Play helps us become present. It gets us out of our typical headspace. It’s multi-sensory. For example, while I’m playing the uke, I’m definitely not thinking about the meetings I just had. My fingers move and feel the chords. I listen, hear sounds, harmonize with the music and sing. Most of all, play connects me to my true self, my playful, curious, happy self.
So, playing helped me survive stressful times!
Besides the ukulele, I also began incorporating more play with my colleagues (so bonding)!
Working with a Co-Active coach was powerful, both professionally and personally. Professionally, it made me a more effective leader, and the performance of the teams I worked with became exceptional. I even won the MVP International Award for this Fortune 500 company.
I soon realized that becoming a Co-Active coach would be a natural evolution for me to use my people skills, in service of others — in a meaningful way.
So I became a coach — with a passion for play.
Fast forward, and now I’m the one who works with executives who feel stuck or stressed while juggling work and life. Quite often I hear them say, “What I really want is more play, more fun in my life.”
In working with clients worldwide, I have learned a lot about the science of play and how it reconnects us to our aliveness.
Here is what I discovered:
Fun and play is good for you — and good for business.
Play reconnects us with our aliveness, the part of us that’s fully alive.
Play is vital to our overall well-being, and the effects of play reach far beyond the immediate moment.
This is true for business too, because “teams that aren’t having any fun rarely produce good results.” — David Ogilvy, advertising legend
Studies show that play puts us at our cognitive best, leads to better thinking and decisions, increases performance and accelerates learning.
But how do you bring more fun and play into your life, your work, and your relationships?
If you’re finding it hard to even get started, know that you’re not alone. As Co-Active coaches, we work with people all the time who are great at the DOING: they’re driven, successful and accomplished. And they’re also stressed, worn-out and, on some levels, almost numb to life.
Sometimes, when I’m deep in a coaching conversation with a client and ask them “what do you REALLY want?” I often hear them quietly reply, “I want more joy, more play, more fun.”
They need a little gentle encouragement to get back into the spirit of play. We worry that it’s a waste of time, or that we’ll feel stupid or look silly. We stress out about the tasks we need to accomplish and the deadlines that are whizzing in our heads. We are scheduled in back-to-back meetings and believe that productivity is more important than taking a play break.
Researchers who have dedicated their lives to studying play have discovered that:
Play makes our brains bigger, boosting our prefrontal cortex, making us think better.
Play promotes new connections between disparate brain centers.
Play for adults is critical in managing stress and aiding resilience in our go-go-go lives.
Play releases endorphins, improves brain functionality, and stimulates creativity.
Play is one of the most advanced methods to allow our complex brains to recreate itself, over and over again.
Play helps us learn faster. Even animals that play learn faster. One study found that a group of otters that mixed it up and had fun learned FAR more than those who just did the “same old thing.”
Zoologists say that when animals feel safe, they play. When they’re stressed, they’re busy just staying alive, meeting their basic needs. But when they are well fed, feel safe, and feel secure, all mammals play spontaneously. That’s true for us humans too.
So, how much have YOU been playing lately?
Have you played at all?
Stop for a moment, and think about a time that you played. Can you think of one? It might be a recent memory, or it might be something conjured up from childhood.
What did you do? What did that feel like? Was there a sound? A scent? A taste?
More than just static recollections, we know that the strongest memories involve the senses. Your whole brain lights up when you recall the sound of laughter, as you throw a ball for your dog to chase. You recall the scent of the grass maybe, the feel of warmth in your legs as you ran and played. Or maybe a board game with family came to mind. The feel of the dice in your hands, the sound on the table when you rolled them. You might recall the black tea you were drinking as you played, the cookie you snacked on.
When you recall these memories of play, your whole brain lights up. Sound, sense, and memory all combine. You are, for that moment, wholly alive.
If it’s taking you a long time to remember the last time you played, then maybe it’s a sign that you need to play more.
In fact, we all need to play more. Not just this year, but all the time. Commit to making a conscious effort to make space for play in your daily life. Pick up your instrument again, sing a song, or build a model airplane. Get down with your kids and make something out of Lego that doesn’t make sense at all. Go play tag. Go play.
Seriously, go do it!
(Are you doing it?)
Still stumped? Here’s something to get you started.
What are two things that are fun for you to do? Write those down. Commit to doing those two things in the coming week. If you can only think of one thing, or if there’s a reason why you can’t access one of those fun things, then commit to bringing more play into your life. Commit to becoming more aware of opportunities for play. And let’s not just play and have fun; let’s commit to laughing more.
When was the last time you cracked up and laughed out loud to the point of where your belly hurt? Did you know that the body doesn’t know the difference between fake laughter and real laughter? Even if you fake a laugh, you’re actually generating the same healing hormones just as if you laughed for real.
Laughter from deep within your belly stimulates serotonin, the good-mood hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. This hormone affects your entire body, but if you live in the northern hemisphere, you might be a bit short on sunshine and serotonin. Still, you can stimulate it with this quick, fun, laughter exercise:
Tap your belly, breathing out Ha, Ha, Ha.
Tap your chest, breathing out Ho, Ho, Ho.
Tap the top of your chest, He, He, He.
Google laughing gifs and look at the images.
Google laughing baby and look at the images.
Do you feel silly doing this? Great! When it comes to your brain, fake it till you make it totally counts. Consider starting a daily laughter routine, first thing in the morning, or whenever you feel stressed, or just when you need a boost. Let go of your worries and try it.
So, what’s next?
Decide to add more play into your life. Taking care of yourself is taking care of the world. And play is an underrated secret to living a full and prosperous life, no matter what play is for you. If you don’t know, find out. Explore and have fun.