5 Benefits of Play (for Men) That Will Make You Happier and Live Longer

Dudefluencer: 5 Benefits of Play

My wife’s been waking up earlier than normal lately, and thus, I’ve been waking up early too.

Rachel doesn’t just open her eyes to start her day. No, no, no. Rachel jumps on top of me, her bright eyes shining: “Garrett, wake up! It’s morning, it’s time to wake up!” She wiggles her bum and pounces me with a cuddle. I’ll slowly roll over until I realize resistance is futile: I am now awake. At 7 A.M., Rachel understands the benefits of play.

By 7:20, I groggily start to see its benefits too. 

And despite my early morning grumpiness, that’s part of why I love my life and my wife. She’s never forgotten how to play, or how to be goofy and have fun. It’s just wired into her: this childlike wonder for adventure that’s inspired me over the past five years to refocus my outlook on play as an adult.

Too often, we find ourselves stuck in the grind of work without recognizing the benefits of play. That’s why, as a men’s community, Dudefluencer emphasizes not only the importance and benefits of play as an adult, but also having the confidence to play as well. The idea that adults and men need to be serious as soon as we grow up affects our happiness, personal growth, and strengthening relationships. 

It’s easy to fall into hustle culture, but you should read about the benefits of play as an adult.

Why don’t we play as adults?

Somewhere between elementary school and adulthood, we lose the ability to play. I personally blame middle school, but that’s just my opinion. Weirdly enough, I remember the moment that I first lost a piece of that play mentality. Seventh grade, I, like most other teen boys, had a crush on Britney Spears. 

Hormones were raging and body changes galore; I had a dream that I was on a cruise ship accompanied by Spears. And before you even go there, it wasn’t one of those dreams. I dreamt we were a couple, nothing scandalous about it. But when I woke up, I felt different. Like it was time for me to be a man, to grow up. To, specifically, be man enough for her. 

So I put away all of my wrestling figures (and never played with them again), did six push-ups, and went about my day as a new man. The reality was, at that moment, I lost a little bit of that childlike wonder, that play attitude. And slowly, as I graduated from college and moved into the workforce, those days of play turned into moments of play turned into…well, no play whatsoever.

A 2011 article in the American Journal of Play found that while children are designed to play, “over the past half-century or so, in the United States and in some other developed nations, opportunities for children to play, especially to play outdoors with other children, have continually declined.” Not surprisingly, at the same time, children are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness. The researchers believe that there is a causal relationship between the two. And as those children grow older, those mental health effects from a lack of playtime are causing more significant levels of unhappiness in adults.

So why do we continue to remove recess and playtime from our children’s lives in spite of research telling us we should be doing the opposite? Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, in an interview with Pacific Standard, believes that our hustle culture mentality is partially at fault: “It’s a problem of our modern, work-obsessed society: We’ve lost play in the hustle and bustle of our lives. We spend our time between our jobs, our kids, being on Twitter and Facebook to catch the current trends. Who has time to breath, let alone to be outside and be active, right?”

The reason why we lose our confidence to play as adults is two-fold. As children, playtime has been significantly limited and changed from the mandatory recess that once filled school playgrounds of yesteryear. And as adults, we prioritize everything but play. We never receive the benefits of play on our physical and emotional wellbeing.

How much play do we need?

An issue people face when trying to schedule playtime is, well…we shouldn’t be planning playtime. Often, when put on a calendar, we lose spontaneity and miss out on many of the play’s benefits. Play doesn’t have to be a full-on vacation away from work, but play should at least fit into your day. Simply put, for a happier life, and to truly attain all of the benefits of play, we should find time throughout our day for fun. That could be as simple as throwing the ball around with the dog or going for a short walk.

Gina Dingwell, the coordinator of the Mind-Body Program at the Tzu Chi Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, highlights some questions we should ask ourselves before suggesting an activity for play: “Is this going to energize me? Is it going to be putting me in a place where I’m going to feel better? Or am I just going to feel more like this is a duty?” If the answer is yes, this activity will energize me and make me feel better. You’re on the right track towards achieving all of the benefits of play.

5 types of adult play

Amongst types of play, there is more than one style or form. Identifying each of these will enable us to better focus where we might be lacking.

Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, identified five Play Archetypes. His Ted Talk features a lot of information about these archetypes, and a bit more from his research, so definitely check it out when you’re done here.

1. Rough and Tumble

Sometimes our cat will swat our dog. His claws won’t be out, his tail will be wagging, and the cat will have play-face. Our dog, well, she always has play-face. But sometimes they’ll wrestle on the ground, roll around, even hiss/bark at one another. But they aren’t fighting.

That’s what Brown would describe as “Rough and Tumble” play. Brown said, “And rough-and-tumble play is a great learning medium for all of us. Preschool kids, for example, should be allowed to dive, hit, whistle, scream, be chaotic, and develop through that a lot of emotional regulation and a lot of the other social byproducts — cognitive, emotional, and physical — that come as a part of rough and tumble play.”

2. Spectator Play

I grew up in Western New York, so that means I’ve been obligated to be a Buffalo Bills fan for all of my life. I can’t say that I miss most of the mid-’90s, 2000s Bills’ squads, but you know, hometown pride.

But a few years ago, on New Year’s Eve, my best friend Scott and I stood at the bar watching Andy Dalton and Cincinnati Bengals with bated breath. If the Bengals somehow pulled off a miracle and won, the Bills would make the playoffs for the first time in over 15 years. Fourth and 12, Dalton dropped back to pass, hurled it to Tyler Boyd. Boyd caught it, made two Baltimore defenders miss, and strolled into the endzone. Scott and I erupted at the bar, the only two Virginians in this place which gave a shit. But if you looked at our face, that joy, that happiness, that’s spectator play. It’s the joy we get watching something or someone else. Some people experience it while watching their pets, others with their children. For Scott and I on that fateful New Years’ Eve, it was the Bills making the playoffs. Spectator play is the most common form of play adults experience because all it requires is us 

3. Imaginative Play

Remember all of those cartoons you drew as a kid? Or maybe the wild stories you enjoyed making up? Regardless of the medium, Imaginative Play is about embracing the creative side of our mind. As an adult, this can take the form of improv classes or those wine art nights we used to have before the country shut down.

It is this creativity and imagination that fuels us the pushes us towards personal growth. Without ingenuity, well, we’d end up with a lot of Nickelback cover bands. We need to continually spark our Imaginative Play functions because happiness comes from growth. And growth doesn’t always have a linear path. Find yourself a healthy outlet and let your creativity flow.

4. Body Play

I’ve mentioned the benefits of meditation, exercise, and hiking numerous times, but did you know that’s one of the best ways to explore the benefits of play? Recently, I started swimming lessons (because I didn’t want to drown on our honeymoon), and there’s just something spectacular about moving your body and feeling the dopamine kick in.

Brown tells the audience in his Ted Talk, “If you’re having a bad day, try this: jump up and down, wiggle around — you’re going to feel better. And you may feel like this character who is also just doing it for its own sake. It doesn’t have a particular purpose, and that’s what’s great about play. If its purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play.” That’s similar to how Tony Robbins emphasizes physiology and egoscue at the beginning of his seminars. Sometimes just jumping around, being physically goofy, is all that you need to increase your happiness.

Don’t believe me? Try it out the next time you feel down.

5. Object Play

When we were kids, we had Legos. Children now have things like Minecraft. Either way, the use of physical objects is precisely what Object Play is. Using our imaginations and tactile skills to build something, even a sandcastle or snow fort, are essential elements of play.

“The human hand, in manipulation of objects, is the hand in search of a brain; the brain is in search of a hand, and play is the medium by which those two are linked in the best way,” said Brown. We might be a little too old for Play-Doh (but who cares, if you like Play-Doh, do it up), but there’s a ton of different options made for adults. Heck, take a look at this 7,000+ piece Lego Millenium Falcon. No matter your fandom, there are options available for you to enjoy the benefits of play.

5 benefits of play

We know and understand the importance of play. But we need to have the confidence to know that it’s okay to play, that men don’t have to be focused on just work and the seriousness of life all of the time. And if you’re looking for someone to tell you to go out and play, consider this your permission slip.

When looking at the benefits of play, I wanted to focus on the issues that adults struggle with the most due to our overworked lives. Listed below are the 5 best benefits of play.

1. Play is a stress-reliever.

Who couldn’t use more stress relief in their lives? A study conducted by Lynn Barnett identified that adults who play reported less stress in their lives. Barnett said, “Highly playful adults feel the same stressors as anyone else, but they appear to experience and react to them differently, allowing stressors to roll off more easily than those who are less playful.” And the science of our minds backs up that one of the most significant benefits of play is stress relief.

According to research, “Though real-life stressors trigger the release of both epinephrine and cortisol, play does not increase cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that helps us in genuinely dangerous situations by redirecting resources to the most urgent needs, such as repairing a wound or fighting an infection.” If your play involves an increase of cortisol, you’re probably not doing something right. Instead, whatever action you’re doing to fulfill your need for play needs to be something relaxing and calming.

When thinking about play as a stress reliever, you’d likely focus on something such as meditation or art. Still, it actually doesn’t matter whether or not it’s a high-intensity or low-intensity activity. To achieve the benefits of play and relieve stress, all you need to do is find an activity or hobby that you love (and of course, it doesn’t make you more stressed).

2. Play promotes healthy development.

As children, play is essential to healthy brain development. Research by Kenneth Ginsburg said, “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development.” We learn so much about the world through our play interactions as children, but can those benefits of play transfer to adults?

Of course. Repetition, no matter what the activity is, makes you improve. Let’s say you pick up basketball as a hobby, and it’s a form of body play. As long as you continue taking shots, it’s inevitable that you’re going to get better. The same goes for every other potential activity you choose to pursue.

There is evidence that personal growth is key to our emotional fitness. As you grow, the happier you’ll become. So rather than choose an activity that stresses you out for development, instead choose one that has lower stakes to make sure you get all the benefits of play.

3. Play keeps you young and feeling attractive.

No one wants to spend the rest of their life with someone who takes life too seriously. Part of the joy in spending our lives together with someone else is having the ability to play all of the time. That’s why it makes perfect sense that those who enjoy play’s benefits tend to feel more young and attractive than those who do not.

According to research conducted by Pennsylvania State University, the more you play, the more appealing you are to the opposite sex. Researcher Garry Chick said, “In men, playfulness signals non-aggressiveness, meaning they’d be less likely to harm a mate or an offspring, and in women, it signals youth and fertility.” Traditional masculinity often views aggressiveness as a positive, as it means you know and are willing to go after what you want. And inherently, that’s not a bad thing. But that’s not all you should be.

In our attempts to craft the man we’ve always wanted to be, we should strive to be well-rounded. And well-rounded men are more attractive and more likely to enjoy the benefits of play than those who do not.

4. Play boosts creativity.

Remember how I mentioned Legos earlier? I mean, isn’t it evident that playing around would boost our creativity? One of the most significant benefits of play comes from the fact that we are utilizing our minds for creative thinking exercises. In fact, studies have shown that games and puzzles often fight off degenerative brain diseases.

As children, play develops cognitive and social skills, and as adults, we need to continue to flex those muscles. And the best part of using play to boost your creativity is the number of options available to you. You can draw, you can write, heck, you can design websites.

Instead of feeling stuck in the mundane 9-5 work cycle, take time for yourself to pursue your creative outlets. As someone who loves sports, I found playing soccer (in real-life and video games) to boost my creativity in that I was always focused on creative runs. And I get the same enjoyment out of writing or film editing. Your options are truly endless, from cooking to Minecraft, use your playtime to boost your creativity.

5. Play builds community.

It wouldn’t be a Dudefluencer article if I didn’t mention the importance of male friendship. Arguably the biggest benefits to play revolve around building a community of like-minded people who share interests. Doesn’t matter if your choice to play involves sports or something solo like knitting; there is a community of people out there just like you waiting for you to meet them.

As children, our community grows through playing outside or recess. And the less time we spend playing, that’s the less time we expand our current relationships or build new ones. That’s one of the tragedies of removing recess from schools: young people lose opportunities to build bonds with other children.

It’s hard to make friends as an adult; there’s no way around it. Apps like Serendip help, but those are far and few between. We have a community here at Dudefluencer that emphasizes having fun and finding commonality. But the truth of the matter is that we often need to seek out these groups rather than find us.

Conclusion

Finding time to play is essential towards enjoying the benefits. Take some time to enjoy life today, find an activity that you love, and prepare to live longer and happier.

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