To Detox Your Brain, Have Some Fun

Career columnist Liz Bentley digs into the importance of play for refreshing your creative juices.

Published: Aug 30, 2019

Last year, hard work was the number one quality I saw push people to the top of the pack in their careers and companies. The people who worked the hardest and smartest outpaced the others. This year it has turned into a norm, and while we promote and value a person's skills and ability to work hard, that should not come at the cost of enjoyment and fun.

In a world where many jobs never turn off, it can be difficult to find time to rest and recover, play and be creative, and nurture all the other aspects of our lives. But it's critical that we do so, because our wellness and mental agility rest on it. After all, the famous slogan "I'll sleep when I'm dead" seemed trendy until research came out showing we actually will be dead if we don't get enough sleep. One such study linked sleeping less than 5 to 7 hours per night to a 12% greater risk of early death.

Far from being frivolous, play helps us create imaginative combinations, which spills over into other realms of our lives such as work.

Here's what you can do to move from simply taking breaks from work to having fun that will actually rejuvenate your brain.

Have real fun, not fake fun.

Fun is participating in a leisure activity for pure enjoyment with no other objective. It's when we lose track of time, have deep belly laughs, feel our face hurt from smiling so much, and allow our brain or body feel engaged and alive. This is when we experience real happiness. Of course, this can be tough to achieve when we are singularly focused on goals and results, and pride ourselves on being busy. Weekends and personal time turn into time to catch up on personal to-dos-errands, organization, and home projects. Because of this, I find that many adults have lost the ability to have fun; either they're out of practice or they were never really good at it to begin with. Worse, they are surrounded by people who are also not fun, making that fun even harder to find. We need to recognize when we are falling into these traps and be sure to seek fun in its purest state.

View play as a form of prevention.

Contrary to instinct, the opposite of play is not work-it's depression! That's according to Brian Sutton-Smith, a pioneer in play research. Play is critical to bringing joy to your life and reducing various forms of mental illness and emotional struggle. In children, a decline in play leads to dramatic increases in depression, narcissism, feelings of helplessness and suicide. For adults, one in five of whom deal with anxiety disorders (a proportion that's still on the rise), play is just as pivotal, and more important than ever.

Play also grows the brain. Emotionally, it builds relationships, creates forms of intimacy, and makes room for innovation. It's the perfect detox to work and technology. This is especially critical when it comes to driving creativity. As Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play, explains it: "During play, the brain is making sense of itself through simulation and testing." It's here that we can "imagine and experience situations we have never encountered before and learn from them."

Far from being frivolous, play helps us create imaginative combinations, which spills over into other realms of our lives such as work.

Make fun and play a priority.

Play can be tricky for adults, since many of us don't know how to play authentically. I see a lot of people pretend by doing activities that they don't really find fun; instead they are just checking another thing off their to-do list-a date night, dinner with friends, or a movie. That's not to say that those activities can't be fun. Surely they can! But only you know the truth of what level of enjoyment you receive from them.

To re-engage in play:

  • Do a couple of really fun things every week and weekend.
  • Don't be afraid of failing the first time. It may take practice.
  • Surround yourself with fun people. Fun looks for fun.
  • Lean into what you love to do with no barriers. Fun is a judgment-free zone.
  • Try new things to push your brain to grow and develop.
  • Say yes instead of no. By saying yes, you will get more chances at fun and stepping out of your comfort zone. If something isn't fun, don't overthink it.
  • Take risks. Don't let logic get in your way, just do it.
  • Participate instead of watching. It's much more fun to be involved and playing the game than watching it.
  • Be the fun one. Don't count on others to create it for you.

We all need a brain detox to be our best at work and in our life, and play and fun are a big part of that. Know that fun people find each other (and the opposite is true too), so be on the fun side. While you can have fun doing solo activities, true happiness comes from playing with others. As Mark Twain wrote, "To get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with." Refresh your outlook and make it a top priority, and you will see dramatic shifts toward the positive.

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