How I Found the True Meaning of ‘Play’

Read how this author is learning how to play as an adult.
It’s perhaps never been easier to have fun, but how often do we pause to consider what kind of fun we gravitate to and how it shapes the kind of people we are?

Consider some of the varied ways many of us seek amusement: YouTube is home to over two million cat videos, which collectively have received more than 25 billion views. Nearly three out of four Americans report having taken on an average of $1,100 in debt for a vacation. More than 20 percent of Fortnite players report gaming more than 16 hours a week and missing work at least occasionally in order to continue playing. Among millennials, men spend nearly an hour and a half every day perusing dating sites; women spend close to 80 minutes a day.

This much is clear: in this digital age, we place a premium on having a good time. I admit, though, I was late to the party.

The rule in my mom’s house growing up was to finish your work before you could listen to music, which somehow managed to make the phrase “whistle while you work” sound a touch irresponsible. I tend to approach many things in life like the lifelong distance runner that I am: if I work harder, I’ll get better; and if I run faster, I’ll finish sooner.

Oddly enough, now with four kids ages 6 and under and with the most grown-up job I’ve ever had, I’m just now learning the power of fun.

In the last year, I’ve started playing in a pick-up soccer league over the lunch hour instead of working out on the track or in the pool. (There’s a revealing detail even in the semantics of that sentence: I went from work-ing out to play-ing soccer.) It can be difficult to carve time out of the middle of the day when there are pressing work demands, but after a good game of soccer with new friends, I return to my office re-energized and focused. Scientific research even suggests social sports such as tennis and soccer contribute more significantly to longer life expectancy than solo aerobic work such as running or hitting the gym.

Also in the past year, three friends and I started a band in which we write all our own music. So far, we’ve written 10 songs in about as many months and have started playing (there’s that word again!) shows for friends. I’ve found that songwriting has made me more introspective as I channel some of the joys and struggles of my current state of life into lyrics and instrumentation. It has been so affirming to then see how friends have connected with our music — they feel a part of their own stories come to life through listening to our songs.

My wife and I recently have started going on weekly date nights. We like to joke that we’ve done our relationship in reverse: we met, got married, and then started dating. It’s fun, of course, to try new restaurants together while our kids are home with a babysitter, but we’ve also seen how good it has been for our relationship to clear away everything else for an hour and a half each week and just concentrate on each other and how we’re doing.

As a convert to fun, I’ve begun to think in new ways about the value of good recreation versus the toll of less-productive diversions. As with the difference between working out and playing, we can detect another distinction in the very words themselves: recreation and diversion. Diversions divert us; we cede to them a degree of power over our attention. Recreation, on the other hand, is a matter of re-creation. We come away feeling re-created — that is, refreshed and renewed — and capable of bringing new energies and insights into whatever we spend our days creating, be it new products or deeper relationships or positive change in our communities.

Here are a few questions we might ask ourselves about how we choose to have fun so that we might feel more satisfyingly re-created:

  • Does this activity positively re-energize me for my work and relationships?
  • Does this activity contribute to learning about myself/others/the world?
  • How would I describe this activity to my grandma and how would I feel while I was describing it to her?
  • How much of my recreation involves spending money?
  • After finishing the activity, do I feel a sense of satisfaction — like after eating a delicious, well-balanced meal — or do I feel more like I do after mindless snacking?
  • When I look back on my life, if I had a tally of all the hours I spent doing this activity, would I be proud of the time I spent?

You might consider printing out one or two of these questions and putting them somewhere you’d see them before or after doing something for fun. Try it for a week and keep track of how you answer your questions after different kinds of activities.

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