I come from a family of teasers and jokers–people who poked fun, made things silly and often used humor as a coping tool during difficult times. In school, I grew up gravitating toward funny people, mostly creatives–artists, musicians and actors–who made sport of the witty remark or the double entendre, and I was scolded often by my teachers for “cutting up” in class. My circle of friends are people who truly enjoy laughing, often at another’s blunder, and who can start those wonderful inside jokes that come to life during a dinner party where the wine is flowing, and live on into eternity where they are always good for another and another laugh. I share a home with two teenaged boys and my daily life is filled with raucous potty humor, merciless chop-busting, and gratuitous joking around. One of my main objectives in working with children and adults is to find a way to make them laugh at least once and I tell kids at my school visits that if you don’t laugh at least once a day, you aren’t living the life you should be. I even refer to get togethers with my closest friends as “playdates.” I have my bad days, my down and angsty days, but I feel that, in general, I live a very playful life and I love it.
In addition to making my life richer and more joy-filled, I’ve always thought of this way of being just easier in getting through this thing we call Life. And, I can sense when one of “us” isn’t in the midst. When an individual who is not playful is in the mix, the whole tenor can change, particularly if he or she is offended, hurt, insulted or put off by the playfulness of others. Throughout my life I have jokingly referred to these types of people as duds. They are the guy you don’t want another date with, the friend of a friend you’d rather not run into again, the couple you won’t invite back to your dinner party and the girl you don’t want in your book club, especially on the night you have tamales and sangria. They tend to make me feel cautious about what I say so as not to upset them–they give me the dreaded “walking on eggshells” feeling. They come off as not as fun-loving and make things less, well, fun. What’s up with that?
So, last week my mother sent me a link to a scientific study on adult playfulness!! It’s a real study, done by super educated people in the Piled high & Deep community, full of research and data, all written up in psycho-jargon with footnotes, citations and other publishy goodies in some type of Zurichian assessment abstract. In other words, it’s proof that playfulness is something that exists in people and that we can actually study and assess its characteristics to see the way having it or not having it affects how we relate to the world and the people in it. Unfortunately, the full article is not very playful at all so I’m going to pull out all the fun, playful bits for you, my friends so that you do not have to slog through it unless you want to. The study sample for this study was comprised of 268 adults between the ages of 17 and 65. About a quarter were men, more than a third held or were pursuing a higher degree, and a fifth were married.
The hypothesis was that playfulness in adults is robustly associated with the strengths of good character: wisdom and knowledge, justice, courage, humanity, temperance and transcendence. Strengths are those characteristics which are psychologically fulfilling and that enable a “good life.” Within the study, there were five evaluative facets of playful behaviors: spontaneous, expressive, creative, fun and silly. The definition of playfulness in adults was defined as
“…the predisposition to frame (or reframe) a situation in such a way as to provide oneself (and possibly others) with amusement, humor, and/or entertainment. Individuals who have such a heightened predisposition are typically funny, humorous, spontaneous, unpredictable, impulsive, active, energetic, adventurous, sociable, outgoing, cheerful, and happy, and are likely to manifest playful behavior by joking, teasing, clowning, and acting silly.”
Here are some of the resulting (paraphrased) findings about playful people:
- Playful people like to laugh and joke; like to bring smiles to other people and have the ability to do so.
- Playful people possess the capacity for awe and exhibit an appreciation of beauty and excellence, in particular, aesthetics and abstract art.
- Playful people practice gratitude, feel hopeful and spiritually connected.
- Playful people like to play with language and this trait, in particular, appears to be related to wisdom and intelligence.
- Playful people recognize, enjoy and create incongruities.
- Playful people are able to create a composed and cheerful view on adversity that allows them to see the light side and sustain a good mood.
- Creativity and spontaneity are often found as having a core relationship to playfulness.
- Greater playfulness relates to exploratory behavior that may facilitate learning and curiosity.
- Playful people are often risk-takers, particularly socially (they joke around in social relationships which may or may not be perceived as playful by others), but often serve to alleviate tension in certain social circumstances; they are social lubricants.
- Playful people lack prudence and self-regulation relating to restraint and temperance; they are typically impulsive, “free-spirited,” excitable and open.
In the end psychologists and behaviorists who study positive emotions concluded that:
“…to play and to be playful can facilitate the experience of joy over time and as a product of recurrent play, joy can have the incidental effect of building an individual’s physical, intellectual, and social skills, which, in turn, may broaden a persons’ action-thought-repertoire and facilitate the development of new coping resources.”
Listen, I don’t want to toot my own playful horn, but this stuff feels intuitive to me. I think I have, often unconsciously, spent my entire life trying to cultivate every aspect of this study, meditated on how to continually strive to be the kind of person who can approach life in this way and worked hard to find and honor the other members of my playful tribe. More importantly, I believe that studying playfulness has all kinds of really effective applications in business, education and even politics. Imagine what the world would be like if we spent more time trying to figure out how to make others smile, if we felt more like smiling and less like taking everything personally. Imagine what it would be like to view mistakes with humor rather than shame. Imagine classrooms and boardrooms where laughter was mandatory!
And, if you don’t agree with me, well, then I guess you should take a deep breath, stop taking things so seriously, pour yourself a glass of wine and find something silly to think about. Try this: put “laughter” into Google Images and see if you can keep from smiling. Hey, it’s a start.
TRY THIS WEEK: Go on… take a seat at the playful table.