Why unstructured play is critical to your mental health
In our work-obsessed, hustle-based society, leisure is often frowned upon. There’s a pervasive attitude that if you aren’t being productive, you’re wasting time and others are surpassing you in their careers, investments, and relationships.
Thinking this way is not only wrong, it leads to anxiety and depression.
Leisure is critical to our mental health and without it, we quickly become angry, impatient adults. We’ve all run into colleagues or friends who don’t take a day off and seem constantly frustrated by the smallest things. The people who brag that they hardly take vacation and respond to emails even when they’re supposed to be off. Not only are these folks miserable, they make others around them uncomfortable.
You don’t have to constantly work and put others ahead of your own needs to have a successful career and personal life.
Remember that measuring worth based on output is a relatively new phenomenon. For many years, spiritual health received just as much emphasis as your productivity, and people spent years practicing foreign languages, learning instruments, and taking up art because it made them more sought-after friends and partners.
So, what’s the solution to our modern go-go-go lifestyles? We can’t quit our jobs or stop doing chores.
Leisure. Play. Laughter. These are the answers.
Play — particularly unstructured play — is good for your mental and physical health. It releases feel-good hormones, reduces your blood pressure, and improves your mood. If your leisure includes going for a walk or bike ride, this physical activity will also improve your cardiovascular fitness and lung capacity. Overall, you’ll feel less stressed, more creative, and achieve greater overall happiness by engaging in play. Leisure also allows you to reset and distance yourself from your job, family, and relationships so you can reassess if needed.
It can also make you more productive in the long run. If you push yourself toward output constantly, it becomes harder to motivate yourself and you produce less even if you’re working longer hours. Giving yourself a break allows your mind and body to breathe so you can go back to your to-do list refreshed and ready.
Unstructured play means there are no expectations other than enjoying yourself. Practicing a new skill and getting frustrated at your progress doesn’t count. Neither does a happy hour with your boss where you feel like you must be professional the entire time. This time should be free from any agenda items other than fun.
And play doesn’t mean swinging on monkey bars or climbing trees—those these sound like a lot of fun. Play is any activity that brings a smile to your face or enriches your life outside of work and family. It’s something you do for yourself and can range from hitting the spa, going for a walk to look at street art, buying a new shirt, or planning next year’s vacation. Leisure can be rest or activity. The most important thing is that you feel light and happy.
Setting aside expectations and responsibilities to simply enjoy yourself can be challenging—at least at first. After years of forcing ourselves to always be serious and productive, we’ve lost our ability to turn off the always-on part of our minds. Take a deep breath. It’s okay. It’s hard to unlearn the patterns society has forced upon us. The more you integrate play into your daily life, the easier it will become. You won’t always feel guilty about taking time for yourself or find yourself distracted from playing because of work emails or family expectations. Be kind to yourself as you embrace the importance of leisure.
Another thing to keep in mind is surrounding yourself with like-minded people and not engaging as much with those who don’t support your desire to play. This doesn’t mean ignoring your boss or neglecting bills. It means finding a group of folks who aren’t caught up in the rat race at the expense of their personal health. They can be your sounding board when you begin to slip back into old patterns.
If you have a partner, roommate, or close friends, talk to them about your intentions and ask if they want to join you. Accountability buddies are a great way to stay focused on your goals and can even help brainstorm fun ways to play more.
We hope this manifesto in support of leisure inspires you to find more time in your everyday life to play. Remember, it’s not selfish to take time for yourself and enjoy life. It makes you a better friend, boss, partner, and human being.