Remember what it was live being five-years-old. Neither do most of us.

by John McManamy


I AM one of those rare people who love my work. But I tend to fall into the dangerous trap of confusing work with play. Work - even when it's fun - is all about deadlines and responsibilities and no end of stresses. Play - even serious play - is not.

So what about hobbies? Beneficial, yes, but I tend to engage in mine in "adult" mode. I love to cook, but working a knife with four burners going and something in the oven is not the time to get in touch with my inner child.

Socializing? Getting out with others? Same thing. Adult mode, especially when I'm networking, even when I'm cracking jokes. Certain social norms are in play - or, more accurately, at work. Fart jokes, for instance, are off-limits.

Whatever Happened to Play?

Robert Putnam's 2000 book, "Bowling Alone," is a metaphor on our increasing social isolation and lack of community - from dwindling civic involvement to not getting together to have fun. Participation in organizations such as PTA is way down, as are bowling leagues.

Is bowling play? Close enough. Well - guess what? - we've just about eliminated it. Hardly anyone bowls in regular groups, anymore. It's as if someone said to us: You're adults now. No more recess.

Oh, and by the way, no more recess for your kids, either. We're gonna turn them all into humorless industrious drudges.

The pressure is always on. Our way of relieving stress is to work even harder. We experience temporary relief at nailing a deadline, only to face our next one with a worn-out brain, not a fresh one. Trust me, our brains weren't built for this.



Kay Jamison in her book "Exuberance" mentions the disturbing trend toward eliminating recess in schools. Play is critical in the development of kids and young mammals, she says, from ensuring a fully-functioning nervous system to acquiring the intelligence and skills they will later put to use as adults.

When I talked to Dr Jamison about this, she told me that over-regimenting kids' lives can have enormous consequences for our society.

Kids have the luxury of play under the protection of adults, Dr Jamison explained to me. Later, it becomes their turn to provide that same level of comfort and protection to their offspring. Nevertheless, some adults manage to retain their childlike capacity to respond in wonder to the world around them the rest of their lives, and Dr Jamison's book is full of these examples (such as Teddy Roosevelt).

But these are people who bring a certain lust for life to their work. Work! What about play?

A playful spirit is not the same as play, as I learned when I first started playing water volleyball a number of years ago. I recall driving home from that first outing with Paul, who introduced me to the game. "You know," I said, "I haven't felt like this since I was five."

For the past five years or so, I've been taking my didgeridoo to drum circles. Now I even get to play with five-year-olds.




I have more words for my depressions than an Eskimo has for snow. Play or fun or happiness is much more difficult for me to wrap my frontal lobes around, but I am able to tap into childhood memories. For instance, I recall playing ball on those summer evenings with the neighborhood kids. Or maybe it's hide and seek. Or maybe we're poking around in places we're not supposed to be in. Literally, we're enjoying ourselves so much that we can stay out there forever. Then, one by one, our moms call us in.



After all these years I've finally figured out that my state of mind on those summer evenings way back when Eisenhower or Kennedy was President is what I need to be shooting for right now. For me, it's more than just a life choice. When depression gets the upper hand, literally, life stops. With fun, we're talking the very opposite.

Looking back on my adolescent and adult life, I can attribute a lot of my loneliness and isolation and depressions to my own folly - failing to live in the present, fretting about the future and getting over-anxious. Instead of being the kid who could have played ball all evening with my friends, I was more like my mom worried about getting me into pajamas for the night. Mental illness thrives in these conditions.

So play is far from frivolous. This is smart living we're talking about here. More than smart - vital.

Five Steps to Have More Fun

First - Enjoy the peanut butter. Forget about the bread. Stick a fork in the jar and go for it. "Enjoy the peanut butter" is my metaphor for living in the present. It comes from an old Zen parable about savoring strawberries as tigers are about to rip you apart. The present is where life is happening, here, right now.

Second - Think small. Life is about the small things - such as peanut butter. Guess what? If I wish for peanut butter, I get my wish all the time. Okay, I think I've exhausted the peanut butter metaphor.

Third - Think big. Happiness is a very tall order, especially for those of us who are depressed a good deal of the time. We can't imagine it. We don't think we deserve it. We have to contend with a lifetime of negative conditioning. Turning our brains around is a mammoth undertaking, and it's simply not going to happen unless we're one hundred percent committed to getting it done.

So - if you've decided to work through the weekend to catch up on projects after a whole week of no lunch breaks, you're not serious. You're just a no-good slacker. The same holds true if you're vegging out in front of the TV. Either way - workaholic or couch potato - imagining a life that is different from the one you are leading right now can be the most difficult task in the world. Three words: Dare to imagine.

Fourth - Try new things. Chances are your concept of fun is all wrong. Maybe you're substituting other people's ideas of fun for your own. Maybe you're locked in old habits. Then you wonder why you're not having fun. People who are having fun are being true to themselves. The test: If you don't feel like a kid again, it's not fun. You need to try something new. And keep trying.

Fifth - Play for the sake of play. Yes, we can enjoy our work and other obligations, but work and play are separate. We often fall into the trap of trying to mix play with something "constructive" as if to justify the reason for play. When that happens, we are working and not playing.

We also tend to bring our ulterior motives into play, such as meeting new people, for whatever reasons. When that happens, we are no longer playing. We're out of the present moment and into a future that doesn't exist. To paraphrase the Buddhist masters, "When you play, just play."

Loving Your Work is Not Play

I love writing, and I'm one of the lucky people on earth who has turned my passion into my livelihood. Plus I enjoy the double-whammy effect of writing about a topic I am passionate about. But as much fun as I may be having, I am still working. I have responsibilities, I have deadlines, I have difficult problems to solve. I am working my mind hard, to the point of exhaustion.

I used to confuse my work with play, which meant I never got a break from work. After all, why stop if I'm having so much fun? Then it suddenly dawned on me: If I was enjoying myself so much, why then was I getting depressed so much of the time? Clearly, my brain was telling me something.

I first got an insight into this when I moved to southern CA from the east coast, and a friend took me to a resort where he goes to play water volleyball. I was a bit hesitant, as I have terrible eyesight and am badly coordinated. Moreover, I have bad memories about being the last one picked on teams as a kid and I didn't want to relive those awful humiliations.

But once I got in the pool, I experienced far more pleasant childhood memories, of being kids on a summer evening. That's what I learned from water volleyball. When I am playing, really playing - not simply cultivating a playful spirit, not simply having fun at work - I am a kid once more. Then the clock hits 3:30, signaling the end of our last session in the pool. Our moms are calling us in for the evening. It's a moment to savor.

First published April 24, 2011 as two articles, revised into one article Dec 5, 2016


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