Play isn’t just for kids, and we need to get better at it. These days, instead of playing, most of us watch. Football. Tennis. Soccer. A movie. They may be interesting, but they’re nowhere near as therapeutic as doing something yourself. Being totally immersed in fun for a few hours can be as soothing as going on vacation for a week if you can get totally absorbed in it. “Watching” allows way to much room for distraction.
The concept of play is not simple in our culture though. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary uses over 600 words to define “play”-and that’s just as a verb. (In contrast, the same dictionary uses less than 80 words to define “god” in its various uses.) How do you know that what you’re doing is the kind of play you really need to stay healthy and happy?
Do the things that intrigue you. The best clue about what’s good play for you is that it piques your interest. You may notice something about it in a magazine and read the whole article instead of just flipping on, as you usually do. You may get into a conversation about it with someone you don’t know or have barely met-and discover an hour has passed while you were learning more. You may find yourself in an unusual section of a bookstore or sporting goods outlet “just to see.” It’s usually not something you do because a friend suggests it would be fun.
Sometimes, you don’t even know what will intrigue you. That’s fine. Just honor it when it shows up. You don’t have to plan out how you will attract it, post progress as you search for it, or otherwise beat it to death with rational input. Play just needs to get beyond “should.” What you like to do is where the sweet spot of your life exists. Honoring that makes what you have to get done a lot easier.
DO something. Play is not simply “not working.” Play is an active verb. Play involves personal engagement. Watching a baseball game is not play-being out on the field is. Play honors who you are at your core with highly enjoyable action.
Sometimes play involves unpleasant circumstances. On one particular hike, it rained so hard I had to wring out my socks when I finally got to take them off. It was still fun to be out on the trail. Even when the physical situation is less than ideal, play feels good because what you’re doing resonates as part of the real you. That’s why fishermen are on the lake at dawn in the fog and kids on the track team run laps in the dark. If it’s something you really want to do, conditions will not deter you.
Get all you can-in small pieces if necessary. Waiting “until I retire” or for “after the kids are grown” just makes you less of yourself in the meantime. You don’t need massive blocks of time to play. Maybe you don’t have time to learn all there is to know about watercolor. Putz with it for an hour or two on a Friday night. Plant a few pots of geraniums when you don’t have time to re-landscape the whole yard like you want to. Go for snack size bits of play if you don’t have time to become totally submersed. Those little treats can change your entire perspective on life.
There’s another reason to get little bits of play in now. Often, what we think we love is really just a stepping stone on the path to the real thing. Little steps will help you get into what you want to explore without spending tons of time and money on stuff you might not need once you see the whole picture.
Play is not an all or nothing thing. Grab all the little bits of it you can when life is busy. In the short term, play helps you deal with the stress of having too much to do. In the long haul, it makes for a rich, longstanding list of stuff you want to spend more time on when you have it.
Mary Lloyd specializes in resources to better use talent over 50. She’s the author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love. For more, see her website at http://www.mining-silver.com.