The Power of Playful Thinking

Lately I have been thinking about the power of playful thinking.

You might be aware of the book The Power of Positive Thinking that Norman Vincent Peale wrote and published first in 1952.

This book certainly isn’t the only book in the positive thinking genre, but it’s probably one of the most famous ones. Peale’s book and other books in this genre certainly differ in tone. But they often share some similar ideas.

For instance, positive thinking books tend to communicate the following messages:

  • We create the world with our thoughts.

  • Our thoughts have a certain energy frequency and attract outcomes of a similar frequency. So, thinking positive thoughts creates a positive world. And thinking negative thoughts creates a negative world.

  • Therefore, we can visualize the world we want and create it through our visualization and energy.

  • We can manifest anything we want in life by thinking the right thoughts.

Positive Thinking: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Now, if you are like many people, you have read books in the positive thinking genre and found thoughts like the above ones very helpful. You may have used them in your life in various ways to improve your mental health or your outlook on life.

And if that’s the case, awesome. The purpose of this post is not to tell people they shouldn’t read positive thinking books or to try to debunk such claims. I’ll return to my purpose in a moment.

On the other hand, you might be somebody who finds the self-help genre frustrating. And you may even feel like it is downright dangerous sometimes. For example, a lot of people believe—and I understand this—that positive thinking often results in victim blaming. For instance, if someone experiences difficulties like poverty, illness, tragedy, or oppression, some folks suggest that people suffering in this way have somehow attracted these horrible circumstances with their negative energy.

And of course, many people (including myself) find such accusations troubling. I have written more about this here: Can Self-Help Perpetuate Injustice?

A Personal Experience

This is a legitimate concern, which I have always felt at a deep level for personal reasons. When my mom was in her early twenties, she and my dad were in a serious car accident that left her permanently paralyzed. You can read more about that here: About My Mom: Paraplegia, Swimming, and Resilience.

Me and Mom

Mom has always had a lot of faith. When the accident happened, she believed she could be healed. That didn’t happen, but my mom has lived a brave, active, and full life in spite of this tragedy. So, I have always found some aspects of positive thinking troubling because it was obvious to me that someone, like Mom, could have a great attitude, think awesome thoughts, believe, and still face tragedy.

This observation soured me towards the whole positive thinking movement for a long time. And I think because of this experience, I tended in the opposite direction for much of my young adult life. That is, I  intentionally rejected any form of positive thinking. And although I was frequently an optimistic person, I often focused more on the tragic elements of the human condition.

I’m not sorry I did this. Thinking about such issues helped me develop empathy and compassion in many areas of my life. However, at one point, I found myself growing increasingly anxious and filled with a sense of powerlessness. And much to my surprise, at this point in my life, I discovered that some aspects of positive thinking greatly calmed my anxiety, grounded me, and filled me with a sense of joy and efficacy.

For example, I found that making positive statements about my life and what I wanted it to be like (what some people call affirmations) greatly increased my sense of personal efficacy and optimism. And I found that visualizing the  loving future I wanted, and believing that it was going to come about in some way, also helped. It infused my life with a sense of magic, and I felt like life became re-enchanted.

You can read more about this here: Affirmations for People Who Hate Affirmations. And you can also read about it here: Non-dualism and Love vs. the Ego-Driven Life.

This period of re-enchantment brought me deep joy—and it still does. And yet I was still skeptical of the positive thinking movement. Accordingly, I felt caught in a tug-of-war. I knew that some aspects of positive thinking helped me tremendously. And yet I still felt so skeptical of the movement in general that I often felt reluctant to talk about my experiences with others except indirectly.

Play: A Solution

The philosophy of play has increasingly helped me resolve this seeming paradox in my life. One day a few years ago, I was playing with my niece and nephew at a playground at which there was a very tall slide. I watched my nephew climb to the top of the slide, where he hesitated. I could tell that he wanted to go down the slide but was afraid. And I could hear him talking to himself as he paused at the top. I was curious, so I walked a little closer, and I heard repeating to himself, “I can DO it!”

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

At this time in his life, my nephew loved watching Daniel Tiger. From watching this show with him, I knew that the writers of Daniel Tiger filled each episode with beautiful, encouraging messages to children to boost their confidence. Such messages communicate to children that they can face and conquer difficult things. In fact, as I listened to my nephew tell himself, “I can DO it!”, I was certain he was rehearsing a scene he had watched from that show.

And wouldn’t you know it? His rehearsal, his affirmation, worked. After rehearsing “I can DO it!” to himself a few times, he slid down the slide, laughing uproariously. He then ran around and up the slide steps to do it again. My nephew, seized with the spirit of play and a belief that he could conquer his fear, tried something new and created a world where he was a courageous slider.

This experience empowered him to envision new goals. A few days later we were at the park again, and he climbed a tree. Sitting in the tree, he said to me, “I’m great at climbing trees!”

“Yes, you are, Buddy!” I replied to him.

I was pretty sure he was also acting out a scene from Daniel Tiger in which a child did something hard, reflected on their hard work, and celebrated their accomplishments. Once again, in watching my nephew, I realized that his love of playing inspired him to envision things he wanted to do; believe he could do them; do the things; and rejoice in his success.

Children and Play Mode

This is the typical mode that children operate in: play mode. They think about something they want to do. And they believe they can do it. So, they try it and often succeed. And they rejoice in their success, which makes them want to try new things. And they keep creating and recreating their worlds in this magical way.

Picture by Justin Peterson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And children don’t get too hung up on any part of this process. For example, if they try something and fail, they try again and often succeed. Or they decide they will try something else. And they often succeed at that endeavor.

I remember experiencing something similar in my PE class in sixth grade in which  we were doing a gymnastics unit. As a part of the unit, we had to practice a variety of basic gymnastics skills and then develop a routine out of our favorite ones. I decided that I wanted to do a backwards walkover as a part of my routine. That is a complicated skill, and I had never taken a gymnastics class before. However, I really wanted to do the move, and I believed I could.

So, I just kept practicing. Seized by the power of play, I became completely engrossed in doing a backwards walkover. And it took me about a week and a half. But finally I did it, although initially every part of the process was challenging to me. I created a new world where I was skilled at backwards walkovers and was really strong and graceful in the process. All because of play.

I bet you could tell me a story like this from your childhood as well.

I believe Playful Mode is a kind of intelligence, which this book Playful Intelligence: the Power of Living Lightly in a Serious World describes well.

Here’s a quote from the book I love: “. . . Imagination, sociability, humor, spontaneity, humor, and wonder. We all have the capacity to use these playful qualities in our daily lives, but we usually don’t do so consciously. We also rarely think about the influence they can have on our overall happiness and well-being.”

Why is play mode so powerful for children?

There are probably many reasons. But one reason is that in play, children naturally  view themselves and the world as an open system in which they participate. An open system  has permeable boundaries through which it can give and receive energy. As such, it can  become something new and greater than any of its individual parts. Children sense naturally that they can interact with the world in a way that changes themselves and their world for the better.

A game like Capture the Flag is a good example of this. Capture the Flag certainly operates by certain rules and procedures. There is a certain similarity to all Capture the Flag games. Nevertheless, each, individual game is a unique event, an open system, in which the individual players interact each other, the game, and the environment. They do so in a novel way to create something new and larger than the game of Capture the Flag itself, or any of the individual players.

As players invest themselves in the game and the game goals, the energy of them game infuses them as well. They become stronger, more courageous, and more joyful versions of themselves.[1] And the particular game takes on a special, unique world quality. Each game, played for itself, is a transformative process for both the game and the players.

Children display this transformative process in any genuine play process—like playing hide and seek, jumping rope, riding their bikes, building a fort, playing with legos, or coloring. In play mode, they imagine a world they want to live, believe they can do so, and then they do it in some form or another, creating that very world they imagined.

Picture by Justin Peterson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Performance Mode

Almost all of us begin life in play mode. However, at some point along the way, we start to believe that life is a closed system. When we believe this, we tend to view ourselves and the world in a rigid manner. We believe that we are what we are now, and that’s all we will ever be. And we also often believe that the world is the way it is, and that is all it will ever be.

In the process, we often start to believe that our purpose in life is to fulfill a script that somebody else delineates for us. After all, if we stop believing we create our worlds, we start creating other people’s worlds as defined by the script they give us.

That script might be the script of student, worker, partner, child, friend. In some cases, the script is especially negative–like failure, loser, dummy, or misfit. I call this way of living performance mode, as opposed to play mode.

The painful thing about performance mode is that we usually feel as though we don’t have control over our script. Furthermore, in performance mode, we often feel like we cannot change our individual system represented by our mind, body, or personality. Therefore, performance mode often feels hopeless because we feel ourselves living out a script that someone else programs for us.

Furthermore, we feel like we are performing the script with with a system (our mind, body, personality) that we cannot change. And we often feel like our system is not adequate to the task. This can cause us to feel anxious, discouraged, and even filled with despair or self-loathing. We get enmeshed in negative thinking and tell ourselves things like, “I can’t do this. Things will never change. I’m a loser. Life is horrible.”

The Power of Playful Thinking

So, I believe the reason some aspects of positive thinking are so helpful to so many people is that they invite adults into play mode again.  And when we are in play mode, we remember that both we and the world are an open system, and that we and the world are actually highly malleable.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We also remember that the world is a game that we are supposed to play. And as we start playing, we transform the world and experience transformation in the process. That is the Power of Playful Thinking.

But play is not without risk. You can hurt yourself by accident playing games. And other players can hurt you—either by accident or through malicious intent. And when children suffer injury, they often stop playing for a while. And they might stop playing with certain people altogether. But they find new ways to play, and this new play helps them work through their pain.

This is in part why there is such a thing called play therapy, a technique which therapists sometimes use to help both children and adults work on mental health issues and work through psychological pain. Play is powerful.

So perhaps the other part of the Power of Playful Thinking is that it suggests to us that as an open system, we still get to decide what we do with our pain and our tragedy.

There is always risk in playing, and pain changes how we play. But in our pain, there is always the possibility to imagine the world we want, believe we can do it, and try again. And no matter if we succeed or fail, in the process, we change ourselves and the world. We become stronger, more courageous, re-enchanted versions of ourselves. We are transformed.

By the way, My friend, Jen Carroll recently started a blog called Imagination Nexus, in which she talks about the power of imagination in creating a better world. What a wonderful thing! You can read her first post here: Beyond Flights of Fancy.

You might also like to read these posts on play: Aristotle on Eutrapelia, the Virtue of Playfulness and Playfulness is Next to Godliness.


[1] I assume in this example that the players want to play the game and do not do so under duress—for instance, being forced to do so in a draconian PE class.

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