Being Playful

You want to go swing on the swings?
How about hang on the monkey bars?
No, then perhaps a nice game of four square will do the trick?

If you’re above the age of twelve these sound like ludicrous invitations. Yet the feeling that they can awaken within you – that feeling is anything but ludicrous. It is one of the great joys of living. I’m talking of course, about being playful.

In response to such a statement, some people might say, “what are you, ten years old?” By that they would mean that such things are childish. And the implication is that childish things have no place in the adult world where people get things done. Look no further than this bible quote:

“When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” – Corinthians 13:11

I agree that people should not shove each other, that they should share, and that they should not make messes that they don’t clean up. Playing, though, is something completely different. While playing is something you do as a child, it is not childish in the negative sense. In fact, playing is something that allows you to regain the innocence of childhood that so many people desperately seek. As odd as it sounds, playing can immensely increase your quality of life.

So now you’ve probably picked up some jacks and called your best friends to come over. While that’s all well and good (but slightly weird really) I’m not encouraging you to just engage in the act of playing, I’m encouraging you to become more playful in general.

What does that mean?

Like many things you want to change in your life, you would best be served by changing yourself first. Or a better way to look at it is, finding that part of yourself that already exists. So instead of thinking in terms of finding discrete external events in which you can engage in the act of playing, thinking of awakening that quality of playfulness itself.

This way you can be playful without needing external stimulus to do so. And this way you can be playful as often as you want in any situation. Really, being playful is beneficial in almost any situation. Perhaps not at a funeral, or when you’re being given a ticket by a police officer. Maybe not if you’re holding your friend as he dies on the battlefield. These are extreme examples, but I use them to show that more often than not you aren’t experiencing extenuating circumstances like this. But if there were a way for me to just take a reading of the subjective experience of the emotions in your brain while you were just going through normal parts of your life, I might think you were going through some grave circumstances. As the Joker would say, “Why so serious?” Playfulness allows you to regain the perspective that, all in all, things are pretty good in your life and on planet earth.

What is playfulness?

It is a quality of perceiving everything that happens in a way that is playful.

That doesn’t really say much does it?

If you were to dissect playfulness, what would be its core components? Put it another way, think of someone you know who is playful. What qualities does this person exhibit? What qualities do you exhibit when you find yourself in a silly mood?

What comes to mind for me is a lightness of heart, a feeling of engagement, and certain kind of connection. Perhaps even a certain exuberance. Think of a cat, chasing a string. Whether or not the cat knows its playing is up for debate, but the fact is that a cat acts very differently when a string is moving across their field of vision. A cat at rest might be laying down, grooming itself, sniffing around, or meowing incessantly. A cat at play however is bounding across the room, running into things, leaping and pawing, all after that elusive string. A cat puts the whole of their being into play. If the quality of seriousness is defined by how much of your attention is fixed on the object that you want to find you serious, playing is as serious as it gets.

Whether or not you identify yourself with cat-like attributes (I resoundingly do), the fact is you have a number of psychological and physiological changes that come when you shift into playing. They aren’t as pronounced to you as as an excited cat, but to the rest of the world they are. Playfulness is one of the key qualities that makes a person intensely magnetic. Because we all, at heart, want to be playful all the time. Adults envy children for their ability to see the world with such wonder. But this way of seeing the world is simply a devalued perspective in the larger societal messages we receive. It’s not actually impossible to regain, like some long lost friend. Yet many people think it is, because they are taught to believe it.

This is paradoxical, because while we’re taught to be serious and make something of ourselves, when we play we’re rewarded with better connections, more friends, and a much more positive and engaged outlook on life. If you consider the difference between these two ways of being, the serious way sounds insane.

So, when playing, you view things as less serious than you otherwise might, but you also engage more of your brain when interacting with the environment and in doing so, develop a much richer connection to whatever you’re playing with.

Myths of being playful

People will not respect you if you play too much.

This is completely untrue. When people want to be respected, they focus on developing confidence. But confidence by itself borders on arrogance which telegraphs to everyone an extreme lack of confidence. Have you ever heard someone say “that person is compensating for something”? While the saying refers to them having a shorter than average disco stick, the implication is that having this would cause them to have a dearth of confidence. Confidence itself is good, but what is it that confidence allows you to do?

Not be so serious.

When you’re confident a situation is going to go your way, you relax. And you might think that this was the exact cause and effect between these two events. The reality may be that the very act of relaxing causes the situation to go the way you want it to. Relaxing is just one of the many things that happens when you start being playful.

So a person who is in complete control exhibits many of the characteristics of a playful person. They are relaxed, less serious, less rigidly focused. And if you think of someone like this, what sort of feeling do you have towards them? For me, I have immense respect for people who shoulders immense burdens and stress and yet treats those situations with levity. A person who can remain playful even if things aren’t going their way. That’s the kind of person I want to be around if the world ever goes in to nuclear apocalypse. I don’t want to be around a bunch of glum uninteresting people who just want to survive. In fact, what are we doing this surviving stuff for, if not to enjoy life?

The point is that being playful generates all of the things that a person who feels powerless might like to feel. Things like confidence, respect, joy, connection, etc. And because so few people remember to be playful or forget it entirely, you stand out much more than the most authoritarian dictator. A person who can play has a foundation of a true leader.

You will lose control of your life if you don’t treat things seriously.

This is also not true. Think of when you’re actually playing something. I know it might have been a while, but can you remember a time you royally failed at whatever you were trying to do? Maybe you completely threw the basketball over the hoop. Maybe you drove that golf ball into a nearby house. What was going through your mind before this happened? I’m willing to bet it was something like “ok I’ve just got to focus here.” Something a serious parent might tell you. Then you froze up and failed to execute the thing the way you wanted to.

Contrast this with a time where you felt effortlessly good at something, the much coveted zone. What were you thinking about in that moment? Many people in this flow claim to not be thinking at all, but express more of a state of total experience of the now. This is a very attractive state to be in and it causes you to loosen up, be dynamic, think of ways of doing things you might not otherwise consider, and do this all at rapid pace and with perfect rhythm. Playing with your life in every way can make this phenomenon extend to anywhere. Is there anywhere in your life you think you might benefit from being more playful?

If you’re too playful you’ll lose focus.

First of all, that’s wrong. Second of all, this is really just fear of lack of control all over again. Third of all, what sort of focus are you talking about? The strained focus of which I’m speaking is one where you concentrate really hard on solving a problem or taking care of a situation. This only uses your conscious mind and takes up all of its available RAM. Playing, however, is much more deeply ingrained in evolutionary biology. People have played for centuries before they had to do their taxes. While its not good in many situations to default to a more primitive brain, the fact is that playing actually increases your focus. Not just the intensity of your focus but the amount that you’re able to focus on at once. So instead of laser focusing, you are focusing as the sun does on the earth. You are taking in far more stimulus at once when your’e loose and playful and you open up to more creative solutions to every problem. Playing engages you in a dynamic relationship with your environment. Living then, can become a dance.

How do you become more playful?

I said before that you should focus not on playing but on being playful. But how do you get there?

As loose as it feels to do, being playful does involve a structure. It involves either a goal, roleplaying, friendly competition, misdirection, or a combination of all of these things. Lets take the example something people do all the time to abstract the pattern that can then be applied universally.

What is the difference between running back and forth across a field repeatedly and playing ultimate frisbee? Well there’s a frisbee yes. So what is the difference between running back and forth and throwing a frisbee and playing ultimate frisbee? I find the latter far more engaging because there is a goal and rules. Being playful in conversation is very similar. When you make it like a game – how can I make this person laugh? How can we connect? How can I get them to experience positive emotions? How can I learn more about them? Now there is a goal. Now you can play in the field of conversation with the goal of getting to know them. Now it’s not about you at all. It’s about the act of playing and the quality of being playful. That is an end in itself.

Playfulness doesn’t just manifest as a game, but as a fun way of pretending your intentions are different than they are. One of the things i like to do to lighten up an interaction is to playfully misdirect someone. You may remember a time when you felt made fun of or made to feel gullible and found that negative. The difference here is your intention. The good intention to have is that you simply want to have fun. The bad intention to have is that you want to get something – particularly validation for your brilliant sense of humor or something like that. A person who feels hurt because you went too far is not going to indulge your ego.

If you can’t conceive of making this shift, you might have to first engage in playful activities in order to awaken that part of your brain again. This is always a good thing. You can’t play enough in your life. So, start playing. What do you love to do? For me it’s ultimate frisbee. Go wild, but now your opportunity is to recognize when you are playing and observe that quality independently of your activity. That quality is part of you and can be accessed at any time.

Then you can move on to engaging with people you already like to engage with in a more playful way. Ask yourself, “How can I make this interaction more playful?” “How can I playfully jab them or playfully misdirect them for humourous effect?” Playing with people is a two way street. If someone senses that you are playing, they should play back. If they don’t play back, then it’s nothing about you. Remember, society stopped encouraging everyone to have recess a long time ago.

When you do engage someone in a playful way, often times it lights them up, as it would a cat with a string. Now you’re off to the races. The content of what you’re doing doesn’t matter, but playing allows you to open up a connection with the other person that goes beyond words. This is useful in every aspect of life, from the most mundane to the most romantic. With people you know though, it’s a safe activity. You don’t have to worry about going too far. Someone you already have a lasting relationship with will forgive you. Especially if playing is not your modus operandi, people will allow you to do so since its an attractive quality. They may even, gasp, like being around you more.

The final step is to play with people you don’t know. The thing is, when people play, they usually only play with someone who has a common ground or someone they know really well. So when they do play, they assume that they must know this person really well. Playing is a way to connect with people effectively and quickly. It is used by all the best communicators as a way to not just break the ice, but to melt it.

You can then consciously access this way of being any time you want, using anchoring and NLP. If you don’t know how to do that or if you’re still too afraid, a good way to transition from playing with just your friends to everyone is to engage a playful group of people you already know in the context of a larger social situation, like a party or a bar. That way the vibe will be already playful and you’ll have backup if your invitations to play do not go as planned. As it was in the schoolyard, some people just don’t want to play.

At some point, you will realize that playing can be an entire lifestyle. It’s not just that you play, it’s that you move through the world in that mindset. I guarantee doing this alone will make a positive impact on your social life, your work, and your passions. You may find things that you used to think were drudgery taking on a different quality altogether. You may find you’re invited to more social engagements because people just love being around your kind of energy. You may find yourself less stressed out more of the time.

Or you may not. But there’s only one way to find out.

Many people have compared life to a game. If that is true, how often do you spend playing it?

3 thoughts on “Being Playful”

  1. Nice re-launch column. As Jack Nicholson wrote in “The Shining,” “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”:) Or a killer.

  2. Absolutely good re-launch. Saturday night, I had some women over who I know well, to celebrate a coming wedding. Their ages were from 50 to 90. One who recently widowed, several have serious health problems, and some who have had some other painful difficulties lately. The evening unexpectedly ended up pure play with much teasing and laughing. We were still laughing the next morningand are still laughing today. It was undignified and silly, and also very healing on so many levels. You can’t force that kind of playfulness, and we didn’t, but we all walked in open to the fact that it could happen. For some, it was a true oasis in the middle of tough times. For me, it was an unexpected realization of how much I love these both strong and playful women. Let’s raise a glass to playfulness!

  3. Glad you’re back.

    I know that being playful is missing in my life, big-time. I love the idea of being playful as a life-style. Seems like I have a long way to go, but I am going to start looking for opportunities to adopt a playful mindset. Thanks!

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