Every year it seems to happen. I go through autumn and winter telling myself that I love all of the seasons. That I enjoy the changes in colour. That the changes in temperature make me appreciate different things in life. That the shorter days are cosy. Then the first day of sunshine arrives and, as the rays of the sun hit my skin and I experience a moment of primal happiness, I say to myself “Wow! I never realised how much I missed this!” Every year it seems I’m not troubled by the gradually declining absence of sunshine until the moment I re-experience it in its fullness.
It seems the same is true of play. George Bernard Shaw once famously said “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” And when I experience adults giving themselves permission to play for the first time in many years they seem to have a similar experience to my spring re-wakening and say “Wow! I never realised how much I missed this!”
In Waking the Tiger, Peter Levine compares how animals and humans learn to deal with stress and trauma. He observes that many mammals use play both as a way of discharging nervous energy and as a practice for rehearsing life to keep themselves agile and responsive. He suggests that human beings are the only mammals that stop playing in this way as we grow older because we use our highly (over) developed intellectual capabilities to override our natural instincts. Having numbed out of the importance of play as an ongoing life practice, we convince our selves and each other that it is an indulgence that we should only partake in where there isn’t anything important to do.
And, over time, this lack of play has an effect on us in the same way that a lack of sunlight leads to a deficiency in Vitamin D. (“Vitamin P” deficiency?) We can lose interest in our work, get stuck in loops of common sense where change and novelty are difficult and generally experience a lethargy and staleness through repeating the same routines over and over again. And quite often we don’t notice this gradual decline unless we find an opportunity to give ourselves permission to play again. In my own work, I only realise that I have become less playful with it when I begin playing with it once more.
Sadly, developing a practice of play in the modern adult world isn’t easy, particularly in the world of business. In a similar way to recharging vitamin D through spending time in the sunshine we probably need to ensure we don’t suffer sunburn through getting totally shamed and rejected by playing in places that are highly intolerant of it. Developing our own unique form of protective social sunscreen is probably a good idea. If, over time, we are able to give ourselves and each-other permission to be more playful with even the most important and urgent of things then, like the playful tiger cubs Levine observed, we are better able to dance with the unexpected things that life throws at us, liberate our natural creativity and burn off a lot of stress and tension at the same time.
The idea of a work-life balance has always troubled me. It implies that when I am working I am not living. It seems to me a more helpful metaphor might be the idea of a work-play balance. Life is the constant across them both.