Renewing Yourself: Work vs. Play

Too much fun at work: That is something I rarely hear these days in my work coaching people.  Yet, I wonder if we don’t discount the value of enjoyment for high performance on the job. There is power in play, even for the most serious of careers.

Studies show that play has a survival advantage in the wild. When young animals engage in rough and tumble play-fighting, they are learning skills and social rules. Those that play the most, grow more neurons, and have more robust mental as well as physical stamina.

Humans also benefit from play during their entire life span, not just as children and adolescents. In older adults, those who engage in the most cognitive activity (doing puzzles, reading, engaging in mentally challenging work) have a 63 percent lower chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease than the general population.

Adults who continue to explore and learn throughout life are less prone to dementia and less likely to get heart disease. The people who stay sharp and interesting as they age are the ones who continue to play and work.

When we stop playing, we stop growing, and we begin dying.

According to Stuart Brown, MD, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul (Penguin Books, 2009), the opposite of work is not play. Play and work are mutually supportive. Yet most of us have learned to be serious when it comes to our careers. We squelch our natural drive to have fun.

Play is not the enemy of work, in fact, neither can thrive without the other. We need the newness of play, the sense of flow, imagination, and energy of being in the moment.

We also need the sense of purpose in work: the economic stability it provides, the sense of meaning and competence. The quality that work and play have in common is creativity. In both we are creating new relationships, skills, and making things happen.

Often an overwhelming sense of responsibility and competitiveness can bury our inherent need for variety and challenge. If we deny our need to play, we will eventually fall to stress and burn-out. Recognizing our biological need for play can transform work.

Play helps us deal with difficulties, handle challenges, tolerate routines and emotions such as boredom or frustration. Play provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery, and is vital to the creative process.

Do you ever incorporate play into your work? How would your organizational culture change if you did? Let me know what you think here or on LinkedIn.

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