As you watch your grandkids soar on the playground swings, you think how great it would feel to be transported like that again. But such fun is just for kids…or is it? Studies show benefits of play as an adult such as helping to tame stress and improve relationships.
“Play is a lot like love in that it’s hard to define, but we know it’s intrinsically motivating, meaning we do it for its own sake to bring us joy,” says psychiatrist Stuart Brown, MD. And like love, play triggers feel-good brain chemicals.
“Not only does it make us more innovative and optimistic, it also brings down our guard, helping us form stronger bonds,” reveals social psychologist Brooke Feeney, PhD. While play boosts relationships of all kinds, it just as easily can be a fulfilling solo activity. Read on for simple ways to play your way to a better, more delightful day.
Sad? Break out Wordle.
The buzziest word game may also be the best way to lift the blues. That’s because strategy games significantly decrease feelings of sadness by engaging “future thinking,” freeing us from the rumination we tend to struggle with when we’re feeling down. Not a Wordle fan? Try anything from mah-jongg to Monopoly. Feeney explains, “Games promote ‘self-expansion,’ the learning of new things, that combats sadness and promotes well-being.”
Anxious? Enjoy an ‘awe walk’ insight.
Spending just five minutes in nature evokes a sense of wonder shown to decrease stress and help us think more clearly. “Admiring beauty can itself be a ‘state of play,’ ” says Dr. Brown, explaining that being outdoors taps into a core ingredient of play: spontaneity. When your brain can’t predict what will be around the next bend in the trail, “happy” brain chemicals are unleashed. “Being playful doesn’t necessarily mean scheduling a game of ping-pong — it’s anything that immerses you in the present,” he explains. Indeed, we can’t be anxious about the future when we’re savoring the moment.
Stuck in a rut? Pump up the volume.
Listening to upbeat music enhances “divergent,” imaginative thinking. Music may, in fact, be called the “language of play” because it triggers activity in brain regions responsible for innovation. And because play needs to be interactive, you can easily boost the mood-enhancing benefits of your music therapy by singing along to your radio or dancing to your favorite song in your kitchen — the more movement involved, the more brain regions light up. Just take inspiration from 90-year-old Dr. Brown, who melds music with movement when he sings tunes from Oklahoma! while cycling!
Lonely? Share ‘cooperative’ fun.
Nothing cements bonds faster than cooperative play. This involves teamwork in the pursuit of a goal, says Feeney. You can do it in-person or remotely, whether it’s a game of charades in your living room, a virtual scavenger hunt with your grandkids, or 20 questions with your best friend over coffee. Can’t schedule a playdate? Quash loneliness on your own with “generative” play, which simply means nurturing something either literally, by say, gardening, or figuratively, by creating something new like a craft. By “playing” in this way, we instantly feel more connected.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.