In the early 1980s, my grandfather was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The surgeons told my grandparents that they were confident in their skill, but it was still brain surgery (in the early 80s!) and not without risk. Still, if he didn’t have the procedure, he would lose his eyesight.
The night before he went under the knife, his nurses were surprised to hear music coming from his hospital room. His four adult children had driven from far and wide and gathered with their mother by his bedside. Instead of worrying or weeping, they were singing hymns.
Were they nervous? Of course. But on the eve of what could be their last morning together, they chose to express their love through play. There were tears, but there was also the joy of voices lifted together—the very same voices that had been blending since my grandparents first set their tots around the piano decades earlier. My grandfather has always espoused the words of one of my favorite hymns: “Heart of my own heart, whatever befall / Still be my vision, O ruler of all.”
I wasn’t at that bedside; I hadn’t even been born yet. But the story has echoed down through our family for decades and changed the way we live, even on the cusp of potential tragedy.
While the influence of play can scarcely be overstated, its importance is commonly overlooked. We are often far too focused on completing the necessary tasks of life to spend time pursuing frivolity. Put another way, who has time to play when the challenges facing us are so very, very serious?
As Thomas Hobbes famously wrote, life can be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Scripture describes our lives as fading as quickly as “the flowers of the field” (1 Pet. 1:24). We don’t have much time here on this earth, and the time we do have overflows with obstacles, tedium, and heartache. The paradox of play is this: We engage in whimsy not because life is easy but because life is difficult.
Playfulness begins with a first, simple yes. When a smile is offered, do you smile in return? When music plays, will you dance? When the ball is thrown, do you hold out your hand to catch it? Playfulness follows a simple pattern of invitation, permission, and release: We are invited into play (or we invite ourselves). We receive permission to play (or we grant ourselves permission). Finally, there is the release of falling into playfulness—the moment of joy itself.
This pattern takes place all over, from Broadway theaters to kitchen tables, from college classrooms to apartment balconies, from nursery schools to assisted living facilities. It is visible in every human age group, culture, and society, as well as the higher tiers of the animal kingdom. Otters, anyone? Dolphins? Dachshunds? According to play expert Stuart Brown, the more advanced the species, the more it plays.
Playfulness is good-natured and a little mischievous. It lives with open hands, not worried about controlling each little detail, but instead available for spontaneity and discovery. Improvisation is playful; so is wonder. Playfulness helps us embrace even mistakes and failure as opportunities. It is a way of moving about in the world ready to be surprised, excited, enthralled, and blessed. Playfulness is key to understanding ourselves and the God who created us, and key to living into the freedom God gives to us in Christ.
I use playfulness rather than play because we tend to think of play as a limited activity. Play can seem binary—we are either playing or we are not—but it’s possible for playfulness to infuse nearly every minute and area of our lives. We can playfully wash the dishes, even if few of us would describe that activity itself as play. It’s possible to be playful in our relationships, our work, our recreation.
We can keep a house playfully and raise children playfully. We can run a meeting playfully, sew a button playfully, and shop for groceries playfully. Even sex can be an inherently playful act. All playfulness involves play, though play is not always playful. For example, an NFL quarterback losing a big game will still be playing football, but likely with grim determination rather than playfulness. When I do speak of play, it will be in reference to undertaking activities of any kind with a spirit of playfulness, rather than engaging in specific play activities.
Playfulness is essential to human flourishing. Abraham Maslow recognized it in his hierarchy of needs, situating it just under physical needs—food, water, shelter—and safety. Play helps meet the deep human need for love and belonging, for esteem and self-actualization (the pursuit of growth, transformation, and wholeness). It is the oil that helps the engine of life run more smoothly. It’s the glue that holds people—and cultures—together. It brings a lightness to the otherwise often heavy tasks of living.
One of best definitions I encountered was from Registered Play Therapist Malaika Clelland, who told me what play does, rather than what it is: “Play is anything that brings us joy and connection,” she said. Bingo.
Playfulness lights up the pleasurable areas of our brains, increasing levels of serotonin, dopamine, and a host of other happy chemicals. It deepens our bonds with one another, increasing trust and rapport. It opens our eyes to new possibilities and ways of thinking, helping us discover new ideas, perspectives, and solutions. When I asked Clelland how play helped in her counseling practice, she smiled and said, “It doesn’t just help. The play is the therapy.”
Some of the best, most successful work is underscored by playfulness. Why else would billion-dollar companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon feature corporate offices with ping-pong tables, creative seating, botanical gardens, and game rooms? Apple’s headquarters include a thousand bicycles for its employees to get around its vast campus. Sure, a shuttle might be more efficient, but would it be more fun?
Playfulness also helps us innovate. According to Free to Learn author Peter Gray, play “underlies many of the greatest accomplishments of adults.” Working hard, without breaks, whimsy, or creative reset time, can be the enemy of working well. Before Sal Khan founded Khan Academy, a brilliant—and free!—online educational program, he was a hedge fund manager.
“I gotta stay here and look for more investment ideas!” he told his boss as his workday neared its end. His boss told him to go home. “Okay!” said Khan. “I’ll go home and look for more investment ideas!” Finally, his boss clarified his expectations:
You’re not going to help anybody by just … having the appearance of motion. [If you tire] yourself out, then you’re just going to make bad decisions. … When you’re at work, have your game face on … but in order to do that, you’re going to have to have other things in your life. You should read interesting books; you should recharge. That recharging is going to … keep you creative.
This reframing not only transformed Khan’s experience as a financial manager; it sowed the seeds of innovation that later helped him create a brilliant and equitable educational resource. Play can, quite literally, change the world.
While a playful spirit can help our minds flex into new ways of thinking, it also helps shield us from the fear of failure that can cripple true innovation. Playful people trust that mistakes have lessons to teach and missteps can turn into surprising wins. After all, everything from super glue to penicillin was created by accident: Inventors noticed something new and interesting while in pursuit of designing something totally different.
Creative thinkers are often masters of play. Albert Einstein described himself as untalented but “passionately curious.” Thomas Edison loved reading and reciting poetry. Martin Luther King Jr. sang in his church choir. Marie Curie kept a sample of radium on her bedside table as a nightlight.
When we begin reembracing playfulness, approaching our work, rest, worship, and recreation with whimsy, incredible transformation is possible. We become less bound by the fear of failure and more open to transformation and ingenuity. We solve problems faster and with greater ease. We sleep better and experience less stress. We connect more easily with others and more readily see ourselves as part of a team. Most importantly, we are happier.
So if playfulness is really the answer—or at the very least, an answer—in our pursuit of happiness, how do we embrace it? Just trying to have more fun is rarely successful for long. In seasons of grief or exhaustion, when we’re under unrelenting pressure or facing health challenges, the instruction to just be happier can feel oppressive at best and downright cruel at worst.
My friend Kay reminded me of a truly horrific quote from Fiddler on the Roof: “God would like us to be joyful even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.” Ugh, no. Truly, he would not. Last I checked, Jesus is screaming psalms about God’s abandonment while in agony on the cross, not pre-quoting Paul’s admonition to “Rejoice always!” while whistling a happy tune.
Paradoxically, feelings of sadness, loss, longing, and even pain can—and often do—coexist with playfulness. Poet Ross Gay writes that “joy is the mostly invisible … underground union between us. … We might call it sorrow.” Playfulness doesn’t stuff emotions down or ignore them; it doesn’t will them away or tell them they’re unwelcome. It notices, nurtures, and grants permission.
Think of an Irish wake where tears mingle with stories of the beloved. Picture a dose of laughing gas taking the edge off a painful birth. Remember Jesus on the cross, reaching for the intrinsically poetic language of the psalmist to express his anguish.
Often it is suffering that breaks our hearts open to the human necessity of play. People who have it all together—or appear to—love to take themselves much too seriously. But those who know of their desperate need for God and their own fallibility and foibles can begin giving in to the release of playfulness. What grace! What relief! It is perhaps for this reason that Jesus speaks so strongly of the place of sinners in the kingdom of God and the struggle the self-righteous will have in entering it.
As Jesus puts it in Matthew’s gospel: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (9:12).
And here is what I love about the gospel: Wherever there’s pain and difficulty, ache and sadness, grief and fear, and just getting through the day, there is also hope. This hope tends to show up when we least expect it, shining through the gloom, illuminating the darkness, flitting about like a lightning bug.
Happiness doesn’t have to be earned. If we are looking for playfulness and open to its magic, it will start to break in everywhere, performing its fantastic work on us and in us and through us.
Courtney Ellis is an associate pastor at Presbyterian Church of the Master, a speaker, and an author. This article is an adapted excerpt from Happy Now: Let Playfulness Lift Your Load and Renew Your Spirit (Rose Publishing).