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The Opposite of Play is Depression

March 14, 2022

Take a good look at this picture. What feelings and sensations does it evoke?

This image of a dad and baby in a playful moment is the starting point of play, according to play veteran Dr Stuart Brown, of the National Institute for Play. Take another look and above all resist the urge to compare yourself.  Can you delight and share in the moment being enjoyed by this parent and child? What thoughts and emotions do you notice? 

Perhaps you feel sadness that there aren't more moments like this? There may be the temptation to judge yourself as not 'playful' or relaxed enough, maybe you're just too tired. Perhaps you're arguing with this image, dismissing it as a fantasy 'social media' moment. If you're a mum, you might be telling yourself it's easy for dad to always be the 'fun' one. Or perhaps you are parenting on your own and it's just too much, or too painful, to indulge in moments like this one. 

All those emotions and thoughts are valid. And at one point or another I have felt them all. Sometimes all at the same time.

As I look at that image now, I find myself reflecting on my recent bout of anxiety, sleeplessness and low mood. I started the year adding another unit onto my 40s and determined as ever to pursue purpose and ‘make a difference’. Around me, were the equally single-minded and time-stressed who were working long-hours because 'they had to', squeezing productivity out of every moment of the day, and night. They seemed to be coping. But I wasn't. My mental 'to-do' list was making me sick and depressed. 

Granted my children are that bit older now and between homework, sports and all the taxi-driving, there is less time for silliness and play. But as I reflected a little further, I realised how many 'moments' for just looking and responding playfully, I'd bull-dozed over in the past few months.

Somehow I'd thrown the baby out with the bathwater. This post-pandemic return to the rat race has come with some losses - we've had to temporarily put away the knitting needles (lest they be taken up as weapons!) the slow cooking parties have come to an end, dance-offs and protracted bedtimes relegated to the holidays. But there are many 'playtimes' I could have chosen to hold on to - a walk in the park with my puppy, a toilet-joke or humorous exchange with my 10-year old, impromptu chats with my neighbour, sitting in the garden under a night-sky or in the morning breeze with a cup of coffee, choosing to respond to my husband’s flirtations - always inconveniently timed. 

The research shows that not only is play - in all its manifestations - a valuable component of wellness and healthy functioning, but ‘play’ fosters empathy, helps us navigate social groups, and is the core of innovation and creativity. Studies by anthropologists reveal humans as the most playful of all species, even the grown-ups among them. What I finally came to discover, and what seems to be true in animal play research, is that play serves a variety of survival functions pertaining to stress-management and overall competency. 

Play doesn't have to be big – though engaging in hobbies that make us come alive are important. The key thing about play is that its purpose should not be more important than the act of doing it - otherwise it's not play. 

That said, being playful can simply mean taking a momentary step-away from the 'seriousness' of life and all its responsibilities, allowing rest, humour and spontaneity to break in even in the hum-drum of everyday life. And rather than being so focused on our children getting enough play - they are naturally very good at it - perhaps we can focus our attention on the things that restore our sense of glee and delight? 

We might just begin by focusing on the people around us, or delighting in their delight. Like my husband, who erupted into laughter as he watched a 7 year old boy eating toast. For a few minutes, this child sat staring, transfixed on the honey slowly trickling into the holes of his bread before snapping back into primal mode and taking a greedy bite. Once you start looking, play comes much more naturally.

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