I just finished writing my e-newsletter that explored the important role of laughter in the workplace. The newsletter was based on a special edition of TIME magazine titled, “The Science of Laughter: Our Bodies. Our Minds. Our Souls.” To complement my e-newsletter, there’s an excellent book by Dr. Stuart Brown called “Play – How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul” that dovetails nicely with the TIME special edition.

Dr. Brown’s major premise is that play is part of being human – not just for kids but for adults as well. He writes, “Play is a profound biological process. It has evolved over eons in many animal species to promote survival. It shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable. In higher animals, it fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups. For us, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation…Play is a tremendously powerful force throughout nature. In the end, it is largely responsible for our existence as sentient, intelligent creatures.”

For the purposes of this blog, I will present some key excerpts from Dr. Brown’s book that are very relevant to the work environment:

  • “In play, most of the time we are able to try out things without threatening our physical and emotional well-being.”
  • “In play we can imagine and experience situations we have never encountered before and learn from them. We can create possibilities that have never existed but may in the future. We make new cognitive connections that find our way into our everyday lives. We can learn lessons and skills without being directly at risk.”
  • “The genius of play is that, in playing, we create imaginative new cognitive combinations. And in creating those novel combinations, we find what works.”
  • “Play seems to be a driving force helping to sculpt how the brain continues to grow and develop.”
  • “Like sleep, play seems to dynamically stabilize body and social development in kids as well as sustain these qualities in adults.”
  • “Play seems to be so important to our development and survival that the impulse to play has become a biological drive. Like our desires for food, sleep or sex, the impulse to play is internally generated.”
  • “When play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure.”
  • “There is laboratory evidence that there is a play deficit much like the well-documented sleep deficit.”
  • “Play creates new neural connections and tests them. It creates an arena for social interaction and learning. It creates a low-risk format for finding and developing innate skills and talents.”
  • “The great benefits of play, as I’ve said, are the ability to become smarter, to learn more about the world that genes alone could ever teach, to adapt to a changing world.”
  • “We are designed by nature and evolution to continue playing throughout life. Life-long play is central to our continued well-being, adaptation and social cohesiveness. Neoteny has fostered civilization, the arts and music.”
  • “The opposite of play is not work – the opposite of play is depression. Our inherent need for variety and challenge can be buried by an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Over the long haul, when these spice-of-life elements are missing, what is left is a dulled soul. Far from standing in opposition to each other, play and work are mutually supportive.”
  • “We need newness of play, its sense of flow and being in the moment. We need the sense of discovery and liveliness that it provides. We also need the purpose of work, the economic stability it offers, the sense that we are doing service for others, that we are needed ans integrated into our world. And most of us also need to feel competent.”
  • “The quality that work and play have in common is creativity. In both, we are building our world, creating new relationships, neural connections, objects… At their best, play and work, when integrated, make sense of our world and ourselves”.
  • “Respecting our biologically programmed need for play can transform work. It can bring back excitement and newness to the job. Play helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of the creativity process. Mos important, true play that comes from our own inner needs and desires is the only path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work. In the long run, work does not work without play.”

Too many of our organizations stifle play in the workplace and, as Dr. Brown has discovered, this runs contrary to our biological programming and is bad for the bottom line.