I first saw the ravages of mental illness when I was a third-year medical student on my psychiatry rotation. As I watched destructive thoughts and feelings conduct their coups on undeserving minds, I remember how sad and angry I felt. Mental illness is brain chemistry gone awry, in the most heinous of ways. And it strikes, without reason, anyone, at any time.
As students, we memorized the diagnostic criteria for various mental illnesses and were tested repeatedly on them. When it came to learning the criteria for anxiety and depression, my mentor, thankfully, encouraged me to keep an open mind. In other words, just because someone doesn’t meet criteria doesn’t mean he or she isn’t battling anxious or depressed feelings. The truth, of course, if we are being honest with ourselves, is that we all experience anxiety and depression from time to time. In fact, sometimes we have some awfully bad streaks. And sometimes we even need professional help, help that we should never be afraid to ask for, accept, or gently and lovingly encourage.
Over the past several years, I have been on a quest to learn how playfulness actually affects adult life in today’s age. What started me on this quest was everything in adulthood, especially all of the decisions that come with being an adult, began to feel real serious, and, frankly, overwhelming. As I look back, what was really happening was I was quickly spiraling towards personal and professional burnout. For those unfamiliar with burnout, it’s basically the tornado from The Wizard of Oz, wrapped and warped with many different hard emotions, and it can take down anyone in its path. I thought that if I could wrap my head around how playfulness works to better our lives, then I might be able to restore it as a balancing force in my life.
I began my quest by observing, studying and interviewing people who live a little more on the playful side of the coin. I also searched across a range of disciplines — like psychology, sociology, history, neuroscience, and economics — to sort through the nuts and bolts of how playfulness helps us in our day-to-day lives.
The punchline of what I found is that playfulness in adulthood is best understood as a function of playful behaviors, and these behaviors affect our adult lives much differently than they did when we were kids. The five playful behaviors that proved to be of highest value in adulthood were: imagination, sociability, humor, spontaneity and wonder.
When it comes to anxiety, the playful behaviors of imagination and spontaneity are particularly well-suited to helping us reduce anxious feelings. Anxiety in our lives often arises when we are working through hard problems or simply when life doesn’t unfold how we expected it to.
A playful imagination can help us reframe problems. At first glance, the link between imagination and reframing isn’t obvious. This is because we don’t usually think about imagination as a coping or problem-solving tool. But our imaginations are at play when we are reframing a situation to experience it in a different way. This doesn’t mean that we are trying to escape the situation or problem. It just means that we are trying to think differently about it. In the short term, imaginative reframing helps defuse — but not dismiss — hurt, pain, and anxiety that may have been present from the experience. In the long term, it helps expose growth and learning opportunities.
While it’s helpful to mold our imaginations during childhood, we can just as easily shape and strengthen them in adulthood. The imagination is similar to a muscle needing attention and care: for it to be strong, it must be exercised. What I found to be true in the lives of the playful people I interviewed was that spending time exercising one’s imagination — by doing things that may seem nonproductive or just plain old fun — makes a big difference when we need to reframe a stressful situation or solve a challenging problem. Simply put, activities that exercise the imagination (such as reading fiction, painting, or playing imaginative games) strengthen our imaginations for when we need them most.
When it comes to spontaneity, when I first started exploring what it truly looked like, I expected to see how spontaneous actions — doing unplanned things outside of routine — led to fun experiences. And I certainly did see this. But as I gathered more data, I also noticed something that I didn’t expect to find: spontaneity often reveals itself in our lives as psychological flexibility. Essentially, what I was finding and observing in people living with a little lighter step was not only a high regard for spontaneous actions, but also a consistently flexible mental response to the often unplanned and unpredictable nature of life.
We traditionally think of spontaneity as something we can see or experience — a spur-of-the-moment vacation, or an out-of-the-blue phone call we make to an old friend. Psychological flexibility, on the other hand, is the spontaneity that we don’t always see in front of us. It acts within our minds every time things don’t go as expected. It allows us to mentally ricochet in fresh directions when the unplanned happens. It eases us through disruptions in our daily routines and helps us learn how to value them. In all of these ways, it helps reduce anxiety. And what’s really amazing is that when we are sprinkling our lives with a little more spontaneity, we are also training our minds to be more psychologically flexible when our day decides to fall apart.
So the next time it feels as though streaks of anxiety are piling up, consider thinking about the playful behaviors of imagination and spontaneity, and the ways they work behind the scenes in our lives to help us reframe problems and bounce in new directions. If this practice becomes a habit, you will have two secret weapons that you can consciously tap into at a moment’s notice.