The Role of Play and Exploration in Human Happiness
Happiness is a topic that provokes much comment and advice. The search for happiness has become more central in many people’s lives as they satisfy their survival needs in our society and start to seek actualization along the more altruistic parts of life. Despite the rise in living standards across Western society as a whole, and in Australia as a notable change in lifestyle since WW2, many people are still manifestly unhappy.
It is not uncommon to meet adults who appear to either live life from fear or from a place of seriousness. They may be materially comfortable but yet you notice how they observe life rather than engage with it, or they are ever-vigilant as if something is out there about to ruin their life, or evoke a disaster. They may even have thoughts like this in their private reality.
Yet still other people cocoon themselves away from external life and surround themselves with technology, or devote their time online in virtual realities on computers and in social media. They go inside rather than outside into the physical world where objective and subjective realities await them and their bodies.
In many of these types of people we find that they are basically living from a type of “fight or flight” mode of living. Something happened to them along their journey in life that made them unsafe, or overwhelmed, or dictated their learnt reality. In some cases they were traumatized somehow and retreated to one of these ways of being in order to survive. Now even years or decades later we find they are stuck in their mode of living in a way they have normalized and find acceptable, even if it robs them of the joys and true happiness of life.
What you often find in these types of people is that they have lost curiosity in new stimulus in real life. They may compulsively go to “safe” stimulus and ways of being which do not threaten them, but they are not really exploring new and novel forms and experiences in life anymore.
The loss of curiosity has an impact on their ability to explore and to play. Psychologists now note that traumatized and people with issues have often lost the ability to explore, play and have fun as adults. This may be thought of by some as a small loss to incur in adulthood but the facts are very different. Psychological health has part of its foundational basis in the ability of adults to retain their ability to explore, play and seek fun via new stimulus.
Curiosity has been noted by behavioural psychologists as giving rise to mental states of fascination and exploration. This has been found by Neuroscientists to engage two critically important parts of the brain function known as the Social Engagement and the Play Action systems. These systems are critically important for the ongoing evolution and development of the emotional intelligence of adults, as well as the continuing adaptation we undergo all through our life as we reflect, change and flow with the changing external world.
When we are unable to engage with those parts of ourself we are left with an impaired social engagement system where we are prone to rigidify and possibly either freeze or withdraw in the face of life changes and evolution. We also lose our happiness and joy that comes from being playful, curious, exploring and open minded to investigate what new and novel stimulus we encounter.
In a sense we mummify and die when this occurs and our bodies tend to show the rigid constrictions and chronic holding postures and tensions that accompany this fearful or deadened stance toward life. One can note the chronic muscular tensions in the body of persons who no longer view life as safe. Their eyes may also have a dilated or permanent startled effect, or show a frozen terror or trauma in the fixed eye posture that may appear dull and still.
Neuroscience has demonstrated how playfulness and play activities are linked to the increase in resilience of a person to shocks from their environment, and increased tolerance of stressors from within and outside the person. Play has also been shown to promote learning and stimulate creativity, whilst also allowing non dominant brain and motor co-ordination skills to be exercised.
It is also thought that the integration of newly learnt information is assisted by playful acts after wrote learning and skill formation involving new competencies. Play is also now being linked to the overcoming of trauma driven tendencies, and the breaking up of the rigid actions linked to past trauma.
A person with an immobilized tendency can start to “rewire” their perceptive driven defense reactions via playful activities such that enable social engagement, exploration and a reduction in cognitive thoughts of “life as unsafe” to be achieved. As play is only actionable in humans where the threat of danger and fear is inhibited then by initiating play we in turn inform those areas of brain that trigger safety and fear that all is well and so dampen their arousal.
Humor is also a facet of play and laughter and spontaneous noises and words can elicit a positive bodymind effect in the same way that play and exploration does. Laughter has been linked to a boost in the immune system, increased Serotonin and Dopamine levels, and enhanced positive moods. Laughter is considered a natural medicine for these reasons and the evoking of laughter with another is the basis for the creation of strong social and emotional attachment bonding.
One of the key unexpected outcomes of becoming a father is the permission it has given to myself to play, laugh, and act as a child again. I often run around the garden of my local café with my 3 year old daughter playing “chasey” where I act as a gorilla!! I am surprised at the number of disapproving stares I get from adults as I meet my daughter at her age and roll and play and scream and laugh with her in the café garden near but not disturbing café users.
What is sad is to see the looks on the faces of the children who sometimes are with their parents and who you can tell long to join in the play and fun. Unfortunately some of the parents have their children “under control” and disapprove of any frivolity. The serious adult looks and stiffening postures tell of disapproval and an uncomfortable reaction to our fun and play.
I lament for both the parents and the children of such families where they miss the opportunity to find that pleasure and abandon of innocent play. My child has taught me how to find my own child again and to be in a child space with her.
It has deepened our bond and I have noticed that in my sessions with clients afterwards, or with my wife or other adults, I can peak perform or be intuitive or sensitive to dynamics. I now look forward each day to that time together as it is healing, relaxing, fun, bonding and when my wife can join us it goes up to another level again.
If I went to the café alone and ran around the gardens as a gorilla I would no doubt be committed to some psychiatric assessment facility before long. Some café customers wish that I were.
But at the end of the day I go home with a smile on my face, a warmth in my heart, and a song on my lips, even if it is the Wiggles or Dora the Explorer. I am not so sure that some of the other café users go home resonating with life and their loved ones in the same way.
I recommend you all look to find your way back to play, exploration and fun where you have lost it in your adult lives, and where adult conventions would see you adopt a serious social mask. The benefits are wide ranging and can heal a person in a number of ways across their bodymind spectrum.