You Have to Play to Win

I am fresh off an epic Chicago Blackhawks win last night in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Watching hockey is an exciting experience for me - it's fast, fun, and engaging. My other favorite sport is baseball - I'm a tried-and-true Chicago White Sox fan - which my husband likes to point out is a much slower and [his words] "boring" game. I prefer to think of baseball as an enjoyable pastime for my introverted side - a bit quiet, nuanced, and strategic. Baseball is a subtle game for my thinking nature. Hockey is a fast and furious game for my outward side. I love both of these games and watching them brings me joy. It's a way to bring play into my life and don't we all need more of that?

I had lunch with a friend recently and we talked about the seemingly insanely high salaries that professional sports players earn versus those of a teacher or a nurse. We have all heard this chorus before. I suggested to her that the deeply unbalanced gap between compensation in professional sports and other professions suggests that we are overcompensating for something missing in our every day lives: play.

The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.
— Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith, author of "The Ambiguity of Play"

Dr. Stuart Brown, head of the nonprofit organization The National Institute for Play, suggests there are four important reasons why we (adults) need to play in a 2014 interview with NPR's All Things Considered. They are: 

  • to build community and connect with others;
  • to maintain memory and cognitive skills;
  • to increase intimacy and keep partnerships healthy; and
  • to boost joyfulness.

Despite the science behind the need for more play in our lives, society generally brushes play aside as something indulgent and unproductive. Even when we move past the dismission of play in adulthood, who even has the time to play? Everyone everywhere is busy, busy, busy. Last December, The Economist declared that "the American is always in a hurry." This seems like a modern problem (everyone blame the smartphone!), but even 2,000 years ago, Seneca wrote about the Badge of Busy-ness noting that "everyone hustles his life along." His advice: "Life is long if you know how to use it."

It might be a couple of millennia later, but I think we can start taking Seneca's advice right now in small ways. These little ways have the potential to create a groundswell of joy in your life (and others) through play. 

  • Just show up. Every other day I read a lament about how we give children participation ribbons in sports and I say: bring it on. Showing up is a big deal, whether we show up for ourselves or to support someone else. Only one hockey team is going to take home Lord Stanley's cup, but without both teams (including those on the bench that never hit the ice) showing up, there wouldn't be a match to play. You can show up for five minutes or a half hour or as long or as little as you want to that happy hour, volleyball game, or even an extended game of Risk. Just show up. Get the ribbon.
  • Spare a square. Of course, I am not talking about Elaine's memorable bathroom scene in the television show "Seinfeld" - but, did you crack a smile at the memory? Mission accomplished. What I'm suggesting here is that we can all spare something small and simple - a minute and a half. This is all it takes to find a cute, funny animal video on YouTube, watch it, and share it on social media or in a text message with others. The animals play, You play. Everyone plays. It is joy multiplied. Let's all make joy go viral, shall we?
  • Make it personal. I have always kept art supplies in my office and in my living room. Of course, by art supplies I usually mean crayons, markers, and a large collection of coloring books. The finest arts are the simplest ones. It might take me a good week or two to finish coloring a page of Snoopy and Woodstock's latest adventure because I take a few minutes here and there to "zen out" and play with colors. There is always time for three minutes with a crayon and paper - make it yours.

You have to play to win, regardless of the barriers - the invisible and the visible - that impede your ability to experience joy. Whether your play is subtle or fast and furious, your ability to show up and make it yours, even just a little bit, will increase your ability to connect with people, keep your mind sharp, strengthen relationships, and experience bliss. Grab your crayons, collect your ribbons, and let's go.