Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to TheTakeaway. Melissa Harris-Perry. Early in the summer, Team Takeaway talked about doing a series about play. A light series for summertime about different things we could do, maybe on our vacations. Go to the beach, build sand castles, ride some bikes, see some movies, play games. Then June was a very busy news month.
Speaker 2: COVID vaccines for children.
Speaker 3: Americans drivers feeling the heat.
Speaker 4: Inside Robb Elementary.
Speaker 5: Overturn the election results.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We were working around the clock to bring you The Takeaway. Then some of us sent kids to camp and others had weddings to attend, and before we knew it, puff, it was August. That's the thing about play. You have to work to make it a priority, and so that's what we're going to do this week. Meet our guide to grown up play.
Professor Laurie Santos: I'm Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab Podcast.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We started by asking Professor Santos, just what is play.
Professor Laurie Santos: I think when we think of play, we often think of the kinds of play that kids do. Pretend play has to involve some sort of toy or doll, but play can be all kinds of things. Play can be engaging in a board game. Play can be having a really fun verbal repertoire with my husband at night where we're joking around. Play can be hiking in a way where I'm trying to push myself. Anything that feels like you're doing something for the intrinsic reward is play.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Turns out play can have real benefits.
Professor Laurie Santos: I think one of the biggest misconceptions about play is that it's stupid. It's irrelevant. It's not important, but there's lots of evidence that play can be really important psychologically. For example, play is one of the many tools we have to reduce our stress.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Remember that busy news cycle we talked about, well, breaking news and polarized politics can cause plenty of stress for all of us. Professor Santos says play can help.
Professor Laurie Santos: It's no secret that the world is a tough place right now. There's a lot of stressful things on the news. There's so much anxiety provoking stuff happening, taking time to play and laugh and engage your creative side, these are fantastic coping strategies for getting through tough times.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There's another thing, through play, we can acquire new skills.
Professor Laurie Santos: Scientists have long been curious about where play comes from. Because at first glance it can seem so frivolous, but there seems to be an important evolutionary reason for it, both in humans and in non-human animals, which is that play allows us this domain in which we can practice something safely. Let's say you're a monkey, and you really want to get good at fighting, you don't want to go off beating everybody up, because you could get injured. You could get hurt, but if you could play fight with close friends where you know you're not going to get hurt, everything's safe. Then you get to practice your moves in a way that's not going to injure you.
This evolutionarily seems to be the reason for play. It allows us to practice different things we need to get good at in a fun environment, in a spot where we can be creative and pretend.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What kind of skills do we adults learn from playing?
Professor Laurie Santos: A lot of times when we're playing, we're engaging in scenarios that might be useful in the future though, not the very exact ones that are useful in the future. Take a form of adult play that we often don't think of as play, like going to zombie movies. This is playful. You engage in some zombie scenario, or you play some game like Dungeons and Dragons where bad things are happening.
These are forms of play because you're trying out different strategies that might happen in bad scenarios in your life. It's not like you think warlocks and zombies are going to show up, probably, but you are practicing the kinds of strategies you might use when you get into conflict with other people, when things go badly or in unexpected ways.
I think kids are doing the same thing with their play. I don't think they're trying to necessarily be princesses and so on, but they're using those scenarios to understand better how human relations work, how cooperation works, how conflicts get negotiated, and all of those strategies are really good things to practice.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Santos talked about having a playful mindset and embracing a yes and attitude.
Professor Laurie Santos: This is a mindset that improv folks talk about a lot, where you're just going to go with whatever the next step is. It doesn't matter what it is. We're going to just see how this goes. There's a serendipity to play that I think can be quite powerful too.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's a mindset that can be useful in everything we do, not just at home or on the weekends, but also in the office.
Professor Laurie Santos: I think sometimes when we talk about having more fun at work, we think it's going to be ukuleles in the business room and things like that. I think that's great, if you want a ukulele in the business room, go for it, but I think we can incorporate more fun just by changing our attitude. Having an attitude of playfulness to some of the decisions we're making or some of the kinds of ideas we're coming up with. Getting out of that mindset, we have to produce, produce all the time. I think that can be really important.
There's lots of evidence, for example, that employees that feel better are going to work more. They're going to show up for work less. They're going to have less absentee days. They're going to love their job and think it's more like a calling. I think incorporating play into work can be an important way to make work fun again, which I think will make people want to be there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If it feels like all of this is perfect for somebody else, somebody less busy, less stressing you, that just might be the most important takeaway of all
Professor Laurie Santos: Something we really need to prioritize to get more play in is having free time. One of the moments where it's really hard to have a playful mindset is if you're feeling incredibly time famished. You get a deadline at work, there are things coming up. You don't have a free moment to yourself. It's hard to say, "Oh, I'm going to goof off and have some fun and have a yes and mindset in those moments."
I think prioritizing play in your life also means prioritizing having a little bit more free time. It means opening up your schedule and really making sure that you have the kind of temporal bandwidth to engage in stuff that's fun.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For those of you getting stressed, just thinking about how you're going to suddenly now make room for play in your lives, take a breath.
Professor Laurie Santos: One tip for incorporating play into your life is to take baby steps. I think sometimes when we hear advice about how to do things, we take exactly the opposite of a playful mindset. We're like, "I must get this in my life. It's so beneficial." That's the whole, it's like the antithesis of play. You're not doing it for some other purpose.
But try baby steps and try just a mindset of being a little bit more creative, a little bit goofy or fun. Allow yourself that bandwidth, and if that feels uncomfortable at first, remember that this is quite beneficial. This is exactly the same strategy you might be using with something like meditation or an anxiety reducing medication. Ultimately, you're using a strategy that we know can combat anxiety and stress.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How does Professor Santos unwind?
Professor Laurie Santos: My favorite form of play these days, it's a little bit outdated, but I'm really into it now is I like guitar hero, which is this game where you have these plastic guitars that are not real guitars, and you sing along to songs. I'm on level hard now, which for a busy academic should be very impressive. I assure you that if you are playing guitar heroes, Kickstart MyHeart and singing at the top of your lungs, you will not be thinking about work. You'll just be in a very playful mindset.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Did you notice something there? One of the first things she said was.
Professor Laurie Santos: I'm on level hard now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That might just be the competitive spirit in me, but that sounds like somebody who's trying to win.
Professor Laurie Santos: [laughs] I want the people to know what I'm dealing with.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All of the course in good playful, fun. Professor Laurie Santos's class, The Science of Wellbeing is available free online where it's been viewed by 3.7 million people and her podcast, The Happiness Lab is available wherever you get your audio.
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