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The following article presents the introductory case for prioritizing play in our adult lives. So much cultural emphasis is placed upon our

worth being dependent upon how productive we are, how self-sacrificing we are, how big our home, our car or our job is and the cost of

distractions are typically our happiness and ultimately, the quality of our lives. This article forms the beginning of the research that I am

currently undertaking into happiness and well-being through adult play as part of my PhD at the University of the Sunshine Coast.


Read, enjoy and go have some fun!


~ Rosemary Colston




The World Happiness Report 2013 (Helliwell, et al, 2013) indicates that mental health is the single most important determinant of individual

happiness. The Report states that depression and anxiety conditions are described as the biggest single cause of disability and absenteeism,

with huge costs in terms of misery and economic waste. The Report also shows the major beneficial side-effects of happiness. Happy people

live longer, are more productive, earn more, and are also better citizens. Happiness and the treatment of mental illness are big business for

good reasons.


Play theorists and researchers have determined that play, the unsung hero of positive psychology, offers a vital means of influencing adult

personal and interpersonal wellbeing. Schwarz and Braff (2012) define play as a broad-based spectrum of consciousness and behaviour that

includes different degrees of freedom from constraint, openness, novelty, flexibility, light heartedness, cooperation, humour, risk-taking,

trust, creativity, vulnerability, and positive emotion that generates increased levels of positive emotion, behavioural flexibility, and interpersonal

connection (p. 3). In short, play describes an attitude - as in being playful - and a specific activity - as in playing. The primary purpose of play is

the experience of positive emotions such as fun and pleasure but its benefits are not limited to this.


The broaden and build theory of positive emotions (Frederickson, 1998, 2001) holds that the function of positive emotions is to enable people

to build and expand upon their thought-action repertoires leading to enhanced personal resources. Likewise, negative emotions have been

found to constrict a person's action and thought tendencies, which result in a perpetuation of the action and thought cycles that depression

and anxiety conditions require. Research has demonstrated that positive emotions are an antidote to the narrowing effective of negative

emotion (Frederikson & Levenson, 1998) and that experiencing positive emotions builds psychological resiliency and activates upward spirals

toward emotional well-being (Frederikson & Joiner, 2002), which therefore act as protective factors against the experience of mental



Having an expended repertoire of thought-action responses will naturally result in a greater level of competence and personal mastery. The

evolutionary-cybernetic theory of happiness holds that people are happy when they are "in control", that is, when they feel competent to satisfy

their needs and reach their goals (Heylighen, 1997). Ackerman (1999) explained the evolutionary necessity of play as observed in both animals

and humans because it invites problem-solving, allowing a creature to test its limits and develop strategies. In a dangerous world, where dramas

change daily, survival belongs to the agile not the idle. He describes play, therefore, as being fundamental to evolution, without which humans

and many other animals would perish. Play, therefore, has flow-through benefits beyond pleasure for pleasure's sake.


There is also a strong biochemical and neurological rationale for play in adulthood. In his book, Social Intelligence (2006), Daniel Goleman

explains how human emotions, both positive and negative, are shared instantaneously as a function of our mirror neurons. Consequently,

those neurons make "emotions contagious ... and ensure that the moment someone sees an emotion expressed on your face, they will at

once sense that same feeling within themselves" (p. 43). The sharing of positive emotions results in the secretion of oxytocin which in turn

boosts immune systems and decreases stress hormones. The sharing of negative emotions, likewise, increases stress which elicits cortisol

release and suppresses immune function.


This neurological sharing offers some explanation as to why the largest happiness effect is seen when people do things for someone together

with other people.


Yet the value of play in adulthood is culturally undermined. Western culture is, generally, considered to be structured upon a Puritan and

Calvanistic work-ethic which delegates play as the business of children, and work as being a paramount driver to adult success (Schwarz & Braff,

2012). Nicholson, Shimpi and Rabin (2014) suggest that social messages internalised as barriers to play include worthiness, self-sacrifice and

guilt. These researchers go so far as to suggest that we have a moral imperative to engage in adult play both as a powerful means of self-care and

to assist our children to transition into adulthood with enthusiasm rather than the current message which is that childhood and adolescence are

the best years of your life and adulthood is an ongoing burden of work and responsibility. This gloomy outlook has been identified as onereason

why adolescents engage in highly risky behaviours such as binging on drugs and alcohol.


Happiness is in our control. Research suggests that while happiness is strongly determined by a genetic set point, 40% of our happiness is a

direct consequence of our intentional activity (Lyubominsky, 2008). Play is one such intentional activity which is not dependent upon physical

fitness or financial means. It is something that all adults have done at one time or another and can do. Studies show that merely studying the

habits of happy people increases happiness and life satisfaction (cited in Fordyce, 1995). Lyubominsky (2008) suggests that happiness can be

increased, too, by cultivating the habits of happiness with regular ongoing effort in the same way that physical health is maintained through

exercise and diet. It follows then that the formation of a group that comes together regularly, with the intended purpose of building positive

emotions, primarily through play, would result in the increased well-being and happiness of those participants.





Ackerman, D. (1999). Deep Play. New York: Random House.



Fordyce, M. (1995). The Psychology of Happiness. Cypress Lake Media.



Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive

emotion. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.


Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.


Fredrickson, B. L. & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.


Fredrickson, B. L. & Levenson, R. W. (1998). Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition and

Emotion, 19, 191-220.


Goleman, D. (2006). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Social Relationships. New York: Bantam Books.


Helliwell, John F., Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, eds. 2013. World Happiness Report 2013. New York: UN Sustainable Development Solutions



Heylighen, F. (1997). "Happiness", in : F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn and V. Turchin (Eds), Principia Cybernetica Web. Brussels: Principia Cybernetica.



Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.


Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., and Diener, E. (2005). "The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?" Psychological Bulletin

131 (6): 803-855.


Nicholson, J., Shimpi, P. M. & Rabin, C. (2014). "If I am not doing my own playing then I am not able to truly share the gift of play with children":

Using poststructuralism and care ethics to examine future early childhood educators' relationships with play in adulthood. Early Child Development

and Care, Vol. 184, No. 8, 119-1210.



Schwarz, R. & Braff, E. (2012). We're No Fun Anymore: Helping Couples Cultivate Joyful Marriages through the Power of Play. New York: Routledge.


Seligman, M. E. P. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). "Positive Psychology: An Introduction". American Psychologist 55 (1): 5-14.






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