I was on my regular walk in the park, when I spotted two little boys get into a scuffle, pushing each other in anger. I was just wondering if I should intervene or let them sort it out when I spotted a little baby, possibly just over one year of age, pad up to them, gaze at them for a moment or two. Then with a chortle, she pushed one of them hard, who caught offguard, went crashing to the ground taking the other one down too. Both the boys looked at her clapping in glee with her toothless, drooling smile for a moment, and as I watched (by now holding my breath), they broke into peals of laughter and in no time they were going round in circles, chasing each other, falling on the ground and laughing some more.
As I resumed my walk reluctantly, joining all the adults in their daily march, around the pathway — no eye contact, earphones on, no smiles — the metaphorical poignancy of the situation hit me. We are going round and round in the journey of our life missing what matters the most — playfulness. As I trudged along, it struck me yet again, that when we grow up, we believe we have to do away with all the silliness, and what we perceive as flakiness and get serious about life. But why? As a passionate playfulness campaigner, I would strongly recommend that what we adults need more than anything else is just that — more whacky, crazy fun. In our grown-up world, it does seem a little ridiculous to talk about playfulness. It sounds frivolous, juvenile and inane. But do hear me out.
Playfulness is the best de-stressor
Have you noticed how when you have to give your dog a bath or make him do something that he dislikes, he reacts by slowing down, cowering, ears and tail down? But as soon as the ordeal is over he jumps up and is springing around the house as if shaking off that suffering. In a moment or two, the whole experience is behind him, and he is as playful and frisky again. It is very similar with little children. After a painful experience like an injection or taste of a bitter medicine, they are back on their feet and running up and down, giggling with an extra spring in their step. Again, it seems they are shrugging off the negative energy residue through their playful activity. That is what makes children resilient. Resilience is the ability to bounce back after an ordeal. It is our playfulness that can help us spring back after going through difficult times. There is a fantastic body of evidence which indicates that playfulness brings down the cortisol levels (the stress chemical) and enhances happiness chemicals like endorphins and oxytocin.
Playfulness is good for the brain
In his wonderful book — Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul — psychiatrist Dr Stuart Brown talks about how important play is to our growth and survival and how it is more than just having fun. He cites research on rats where they found that when deprived of play, their brains did not grow! Forget about adults, it is outrageous and appalling the way we are cutting down on playtime in our children’s lives. Long school hours, tuitions, homework, excessive screen time (not play at all) means most children are not getting much time or opportunity to play and build their brains.
Playfulness enhances creativity
Playfulness is one of the most essential ingredients for creativity. Bring a spark of play, imagination and fantasy into your life and see your creativity juices flowing and make even the dreariest household work more fun. It is fascinating to see how many companies like Google encourage creativity through their adult play areas, with slides and poles, taking the employees from one floor to another.
Playfulness is essential in parenting
Kids respond best to play. Words, orders, reminders, instructions, “have to”, “should” or “must” do not make sense to them at times. Add a dash of laughter, silliness, song, dance, fun element and see the monotonous day-to-day activities become such a breeze. So brushing teeth could be about declaring war on the germs with heavy toothbrush artillery, a war song ending with a “yoohoo” of victory. Colouring could be about feeding different colours to the hungry flowers who shout out “thank you” as they are fed happily.
Well, more than anything, we should not need a reason to be more playful. We are so burdened by the seriousness malaise and what we all need is high doses of playfulness to make life more enjoyable. When I talk about being playful, I mean getting in touch with the free, spontaneous child within each one of us and just being uninhibited. Think about a child totally absorbed in her play. It could be just the gleeful giggling as she swings up in the air in the park, or merrily chasing the butterfly in the garden. Living totally for the moment. Extracting every bit of joy from it. I read somewhere that adults laugh only four times in a day on the average whereas a kid child laughs 300 times. No laughing matter, this!
That’s why I think concepts like IQ (intelligence quotient) EQ (emotional quotient) are overhyped and what we actually need is PQ (playfulness quotient) — a practice of shaking off our grownup-ness, being light on our toes and spirit and being funny, spontaneous, whacky, absurd and free. Now I used this term PQ in half jest so please do not start Googling for it, as this is a term I have coined myself with the help of my kids. But really, notch up your PQ and see how it to enhances the quality of our life, work and relationships. And, unlike IQ and EQ, we all are wired for playfulness and it is tucked deep down there somewhere buried in all the layers of adultickness — adult + sickness — get it? (no point Googling this one too). As George Bernard Shaw reminded us, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
Notch up Your PQ
Start by keeping 10 minutes a day for a nourishing PQ diet. Isn’t it great that you do not need a nutritionist for it and that all you have to do is to roll up your sleeves, loosen that tie and let your hair down. Crawl with your toddler, jive with your spouse, dance as if nobody is watching, laugh for no reason (those wise oldies you smirked at in the parks know the magic of PQ). Anything that has no hidden agenda (losing weight, practising dance steps). The only agenda you need to stick to is sheer fun and only thing you have to lose is your adultickness.
We have grown up hearing, “Don’t be silly” for so many years that to do the opposite might be a little tough at first. However, do not give up and start with baby steps. It could start with dancing to your favourite Bollywood number behind closed doors (move those hips), belting out an old favourite while driving (just ignore those stares), goofing around with your kids and feel the tension slipping away, leaving you with more capacity for joy.
Culture of silliness
What we need is safe spaces where we are allowed to be playful and silly, especially in our homes. Your teen might roll up her eyes and dismiss your nuttiness with, “So lame!” but actually she will love it as you are definitely more relatable and fun despite your annoying “un-coolness”. At home, we have a deal with our kids that they will let us be weird as long as we do not embarrass them in front of their friends, and it works. Well, most of the times. In fact, I would strongly recommend that workspaces need to build spaces for a culture of silliness. It could be once a month, “silly dress code,” silliness breaks of 10 minutes or team away days with a focus on building PQ. Make a proposal to your boss and convince her with a trial phase. As Dr Suess very wisely said, “If you never did you should. These things are fun and fun is good.”