Working Smarter

The Missing Link to Life Satisfaction: Play

Posted by Joe Robinson

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It's a vision problem that no laser surgery can cure that keeps us from seeing the central source of happiness right next to us. The problem is called adulthood. Those afflicted with this condition have trouble focusing on nearby objects of amusement and the realm that delivers the most enjoyment per square inch: play. Adults are oblivious to what they knew as kids—that play is where you live.

Grownups aren't supposed to play. We have problems. We're too busy. We have important things to do. It turns out, though, that there are few things more important to your happiness than frequent doses of play. As a study led by Princeton researcher Alan Krueger found, of all the things on the planet, we're at our happiest when we're involved in engaging leisure activities. Why not do more of that?

LAST TABOO?

Play isn’t just for kids. It’s the source of engaged living for adults too, and a whole lot more. It's an essential component of work-life balance and stress management. Play has been shown to be one of the best buffers against stress and setbacks. It increases positive mood, which helps build resiliency.

Playfulness at work was found by a study in Taiwan to increase productivity and innovation. Energy increases when we approach something in a playful way. Play also breaks up the mental set when we get stuck. It shakes up associations in our brain that keep us stuck and allows new ideas to come forward.

Why don’t we play more often? In a performance-oriented culture, it's a kind of taboo. We think it's a waste of time or that we could be more productive doing other things.

Play doesn't operate on the output metric. It's about input, the experience of life itself. It's precisely the lack of a quantifiable result that allows play to tap a place that satisfies core needs.

THE TRUE SELF

When you're engaged in activities of "personal expressiveness," ones that are self-chosen and that reflect intrinsic goals, you're operating from the "true self," says Alan Waterman of the College of New Jersey. 
This leads to optimal psychological functioning (i.e., happiness). We're talking about something far from tangential to your existence. Play scholar John Neulinger called passionate play pursuits none other than the "central life interest."

Play brings you back to life—your life. "Adults need to play because so much of our life is utilitarian, the University of South Alabama's Catherine O'Keefe explained to me. "We need to reconnect with the things of our lives that ground us in who we really are and why we like our lives."

When a 40-year-old goes headfirst down a water slide, that person is not 40 anymore. A few decades have been knocked off, because something inside has come alive again. It should be pretty obvious that the animating spark of play is the fast track to happiness. There is no quicker transport to the experiential realm and full engagement than through play, which brings together all the elements you want for the optimal moment.

  1. Play is 100-percent experience.
  2. It's done for the intrinsic pleasure, for the participation.
  3. With no judgment or outcomes needed, play grounds you in the now.

BACK TO LIFE

Researchers say that the more absorbed we are in activities we like to do, in work or life, the happier we are. Abraham Maslow and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pinpointed the power of full involvement in the moment to produce optimal experiences. Maslow called optimal moments the time when we are most attuned, "more integrated and less split, more perfectly actualizing." 

Contrary to stereotype, engaged play is the gateway not to time-wasting but to times that let you contact deeper realms. When you paint a canvas or play volleyball, you're in a creative improvisation that calls on inner fortitude and commitment and that reflect your values through self-expression. Play satisfies core self-determination needs, such as autonomy and competence, as little else can, connecting you with your mandate to explore and challenge yourself. Play relieves you of the burden to be someone you're not. There's nothing on the line; it's just play.

When it comes to beefing up your happiness, it's hard to do better than engaged play. Not only does it align you with your deepest needs and deliver fun in the moment, but the social component of play is a huge predictor of increased daily well-being, the research shows. Participating in recreational activities has been connected to increased positive mood and experiencing pleasure. And play increases the odds that you're going to have more fun in your life because it kills stress, reducing strain and burnout, boosting your immune system and pumping up vitality and energy.

When you're stressed, the brain's activated emotional hub, the amygdala, suppresses positive mood, fueling a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity. Play can break you out of that straitjacket. It’s the brain’s reset button.

This tonic we write off as trivial is a crucial engine of well-being. In its low-key, humble way, play yanks grownups out of their purposeful sleepwalk to reveal the animating spirit within. You are alive, and play will prove it to you.

Tags: happiness, passions, life balance, optimal experience, work life balance programs, play,, play and productivity, play and stress

The Hidden Key to Happiness and Work Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Experiences, like dancing, make you happier

Fifty percent of your potential happiness is genetic, say researchers. Sorry about that. You can't do much about that. Another 10 percent comes from your circumstances (geography, family, health). Sorry again. That leaves you with 40 percent you can actually do something about. This falls into a realm known as "intentional activities."

It turns out that your happiness depends on the proactive choices you make to participate on this planet, your experiences.

The participant experience is one of the most potent and least known paths to happiness and a thriving life beyond the office. Engaged leisure activities gratify core needs, such as competence, autonomy, and connection with others like nothing else.

Researchers Leaf van Boven of the University of Colorado and Cornell's Thomas Gilovich have found that we're happier when we choose experiences over items you can buy at a store. Whether it's a vacation, painting a canvas, playing chess, taking a dance class, or walking a park trail, these moments of full engagement contact a deeply personal realm that feeds core self-determination needs. 

Researcher Thomas DeLeire examined nine categories of consumer goods and found that only one was related to happiness: leisure experience products, from vacations to tennis rackets and sports products.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

ALIVE TO THE MOMENT

We spend most of our time caught up inside our heads, locked in perpetual analysis. Direct experience gets us out of the thought factory and into the life-participant column, alive to the moment.

That's a good place to be, since most anxieties and stress come from the two tenses we're not in. Experiences are the nexus of now and a great work-life balance equalizer. The road to life satisfaction runs straight through engagement.

Experiences don't get on our radar, because we are conditioned to go for tangible rewards. Experience is an intrinsic affair, done for internal goals like learning, fun, and growth. But here's something that may make it easier to make the leap to a more experiential life: People actually like you better when they see you as someone with interesting experiences.

Van Boven and his colleagues Margaret Campbell and Thomas Gilovich found in a 2009 study that people were very interested in the doings of experiential people. Experience is two mints in one: a direct route to your own happiness, and an admired path by others.

Why is this realm so potent? Experiences can't be compared to anyone else's experience, so they don’t lose their value through social comparison like objects do. They are your personal event. Also, you don't habituate to experiences as you do with a new car or phone. The new car smell won't last, but the memory of a vacation or a dance lesson will.

MEMORIES PRIME MOOD

The interactive nature of experiences sets off multiple neuron firings in the brain that form memories that stick with you, creating the positive memories that remind you that you like your life.

The more positive and novel the recent experiences you can recall, the higher your life satisfaction, report researchers Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky. Another reason experiences are so fulfilling is that they tend to be done with others, satisfying our core need for social connection.

There's a different skill-set needed to activate a participant life. Unlike the work side, which is about outcomes and results, the point of life experiences is simply to be in them for the inherent learning, fun, challenge, or growth. Some of the most important skills are those that open the door to direct experiences, from attention-directing, to risk-taking (not worrying if you look like a fool in the dance class), to the pursuit of competence.

FULL IMMERSION

The magic of direct experience comes from its ability to root us fully in the moment of living. You can't be anywhere else than where you are when you're immersed in your experience, which makes it a great stress management tool. There’s no room for self-talk about the past and worries about what's going to happen tomorrow. The ego gets benched, allowing the authentic self to step forward to enjoy, learn, or try without the judgment killjoy of the external agenda (How am I doing? What am I going to get out of it?). The experience itself is enough.

When you're in an activity where your skills meet a challenge, you're vaulted into the higher realms of optimal experience, or flow, a state of absorption so complete that your thoughts and deeds are one. This is as good as it gets on the third planet from the sun, as close to anything that can be imagined to what we know as happiness, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of flow, has put it.

And it’s out there, if you are.

If you'd like to explore the keys to a happy life, click the button below or check out our Work-Life Balance program and online classes page.

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Tags: happiness, life balance, happiness and experiences, life fulfillment, life satisfaction, optimal experience, work life balance

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