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6 reasons why being playful makes you a better coworker

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In The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals, psychology professor Thomas Suddendorf explores the question philosophers have debated for thousands of years: what makes humans unique among every other species in existence today, not to mention the millions of years life has existed on this planet?

Of course, he looks at traits like speech, farming, tools and collaboration, but notes that “if you set the bar low, you can conclude that parrots can speak, ants have agriculture, crows make tools, and bees cooperate on a large scale.”

While it’s true that we definitely excel at most things other animals can do, Suddendorf suggests that there are two major features that truly set us apart: “Our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on different situations, and our deep-seated drive to link our scenario-building minds together.”

That’s where play comes in. While many other animals just use play for social bonding (imagine two golden retriever puppies wrestling), humans use play as a way to spark imagination in ourselves and others in order to grow, learn, and affect the world around us.

The case for play

Play is perhaps our first conscious act and is a foundational part of what it means to be human. From the second a baby can smile, her mother will play peek-a-boo or make silly noises to get her to laugh. With that first squeal, a lifetime of play has begun. From toddler to late teens, society prioritizes giving her toys, activities and ample unstructured time with family and friends to play, build, create and pretend.

But once she hits the working world, it might seem as though play is less important, as it is harder to come by with everyday responsibilities. However, play is as important for adults as it is for children--especially when it comes to being a good coworker. Here are the top six reasons why: 

1. Play makes you more positive

According to play researcher Dr. Stuart Brown, “play-deprived adults are often rigid, humourless, inflexible and closed to trying out new options.” We can then assume that adults who are playful are more likely to be adaptable and approach situations with a good spirit and an open mind. 

2. Play improves memory

In the Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the pioneering neuroscientist Marian Diamond found that play affects both brain size and chemistry. As a result, adult subjects that were exposed to more enriched, playful environments were able to develop new nerve cells in the dentate gyrus, the area in the brain that deals with memory processing.

3. Play makes you more motivated

In the European Journal of Humour Research, psychology professor René Proyer found playful adults experience higher life satisfaction, which increases motivation for completing tasks. And in his book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: The Experience of Play in Work and Games, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that the same type of focus that takes place when engaged in play can also occur in work, causing people to forget about the clock or corporate rewards to make the process of the work itself the reward.

4. Play increases job satisfaction

In the International Journal of Technology Management, health policy expert Ping Yu and her team conducted a study of nearly 1,500 Taiwan professionals, revealing that playfulness was positively related to both job satisfaction and job performance.

5. Play makes you more innovative

Stuart Brown makes the case that play should be your top corporate initiative because it “enhances the capacity to innovate, adapt and master changing circumstances. It is not just an escape. It can help us integrate and reconcile difficult or contradictory circumstances.” This is incredibly important when it comes to dealing with the unpredictable nature of many jobs. A playful mind is more likely to take any curveballs that a job throws at it and come up with innovative solutions.

6. Play lowers stress

In the academic journal Leisure Sciences, researchers Cale Magnuson and Lynn Barnett found that playful adults report less stress in their lives and possessed better coping skills. According to their research, “playful individuals, while not necessarily experiencing fewer stressors, may possess a different perspective during the initial appraisal process. This may enable playful persons to evaluate what would typically be seen as a stressful event to their less playful peers as not exceeding their resources, and thus as significantly less stressful.”

Keep in mind that not all adults play alike. In the academic journal Personality and Individual Differences, Proyer outlined the four basic types of playful adults: the outwardly playful; the lighthearted and worry-free; the types that prefer to play with thoughts and ideas; and those who are more whimsical and amused by small, everyday observations.

Incorporating play into the everyday

Play is just as important to our well-being as eating the right food, exercise and a good night’s sleep. In his TED talk on the importance of play, Brown said, “The opposite of play is not work; it’s depression.” A life without play can lead to feelings of crankiness, rigidity, and victimization. That means play, like sleep, can't wait until your next vacation—it needs to be a part of everyday life!

The good news is play can found anywhere and everywhere, including the office. The hallmarks of play are often amusement, spontaneity and interactivity. That can easily be fulfilled with a quick game on your phone in between meetings, joining a fitness competition with your co-workers, skipping the cafeteria to play a quick game of football with friends at lunch, or even setting a self-imposed challenge like finishing a routine task in a record time. For more ideas to incorporate play into the office, check out our articles about children's games to improve working life and activities to encourage innovation. 

 After work, dedicate at least a little time for something fun like playing an instrument, reading a book, doing a crossword, or working on a side project. Keep in mind your personality type to find the style of play that recharges your batteries; if you’re more of a puzzle person, an extreme sport can be as draining as no play at all. 

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