Allen Baird explores the medicinal value of play and practical ways to incorporate it into working life to help people's mental health
You’ve probably come across this quote by Professor Simon Sutton-Smith.
“The opposite of work is play is not work; it is depression.”
He wrote in his standard textbook on the topic that there are seven types of play. From ancient times, we’ve played in games of chance, competitive contests, festive celebrations, and comedic jests.
Our contemporary world also recognises play in children’s development, creative endeavours, and the pleasurable experiences of our own consciousness.
The medicine of play
It took a medical doctor rather than scholar to explain what the link between depression and play means in practice. Dr Stuart Brown founded the National Institute for Play and has studied people whose depression was successfully treated through play. For example, some were helped through distance running, or active playing with children and animals.
Brown describes play as a state of mind, although movement can help us get into it. Brown’s main contribution to mental health is his proposal that depression and anxiety can be caused by ‘play deficit,’ in adults as much as in children. Just as sleep deprivation leads to ill health, so play deficiency can lead to mental illness.
What’s great about Brown’s prescription for mental health is that there isn’t just one way to play. He proposes eight player types for us to choose from – joker, kinesthete, explorer, competitor, director, collector, artist and storyteller.
It is mentally liberating to realise that there are multiple ways to play, and that each is an expression of our personality, neither right nor wrong.
The depression game
Perhaps the person in who has brought play and mental health together in recent years is the games designer Jane McGonigle. She experienced depression herself after a head injury and aided her own recovery by making a game out of it. These mental health games eventually turned into a book, a website and an app called SuperBetter.
As well as video games, McGonigle is greatly influenced by the science of positive psychology. She takes some of its advice for mental flourishing – for example, practicing random acts of kindness – and translates them into games, a process she calls “happiness hacking”. McGonigle believes that games make it easier to take good advice and try out happier habits.
Mental Health Today has highlighted other pieces of research that have demonstrated a positive relationship between play and mental wellbeing. For example, the slower pace and relaxed atmosphere of sports like cricket have had proven mental health benefits. And despite their bad boy reputation, certain computer games are effective in treating depression in elderly people.
Work, rest and … work
One area that deserves special attention is that of work. Work seems the opposite of play. Work is also one of the largest causes of mental health problems, including anxiety, depression and stress. Solutions to this problem may be as simple as adding a games room to your office. If this isn’t possible, there are ways to treat all work activities like they are acts of play.
This summer, I’ve set up The Depression PlaySpace, a support group on FaceBook. It’s a place where adults can come together to talk about play, and how it can help us deal with and even defeat depression in our lives, especially at work. Our group’s goal is to promote the idea and experience of play as a powerful but untapped resource for overcoming, managing and preventing depression in adults.
So, what can you do to fight depression with play? You could start by reading Stuart Brown’s brilliant book on play, or by watching one of Jane McGonigle’s excellent TED talks. You could also join my FaceBook group. More importantly, you could schedule in everyday ways to fill your life – and especially your work life – with games, humour and joy.