Why Play is Important for Adults, according to Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi

Play is just as important for adults as it is for kids.

Does that claim strike you as strange?

It strikes a lot of folks this way. After all, many of us feel like play is the domain of little kids.

But a lot of us feel that when we get older, we must leave play behind us.

And we think that we must focus on the adult world with all its chores, responsibilities, and other weighty activities.

Accordingly, we often believe as adults that playtime is over.

But interestingly, many thinkers and writers, both ancient and modern, have suggested that play is extremely important.

In fact, such writers suggest play is just as important for adults as it is for kids.

To explain this, let me tell you a bit about a philosophy of play class I am teaching this semester.

The philosophy of play is a burgeoning field of philosophy, and once you delve a little bit into the literature on philosophy of play, you start to see why.

Play has been an integral part of all civilizations in all time periods, and it is a recognizable aspect of both animal and human experience.

Because plays is so integral to human existence, many philosophers and thinkers argue that play is in some way integral to what it means to live a good human life.

Here are three books I love on play: Richard Callois’ Man, Play, and Games; Stuart Brown’s Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination; and Invigorates the Soul; and Bernie de Koven’s The Well-Played Game.

You can read more about some of these ideas here:

Aristotle on Eutrapelia, the Virtue of Playfulness.

Playfulness is next to Godliness.

Playfulness and Performance.

But it isn’t just philosophers who argue this. Based on psychological research, some modern researchers also suggest this very thing.

One such research is Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, picture courtesy of Unsplash.

Csikszentmihalyi was a teenager during World War II. Tragically, his brothers were killed or imprisoned by the Soviet regime.

As Csikszentmihalyi watched the world around him crumble, he became curious.

He wondered why some adults seemed to be able to persist through their horribly suffering and eventually flourish on the other side of it.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that eventually Csikszentmihalyi became interested in studying happiness.

He became especially interested in how human beings direct their consciousness to achieve happiness, even in, surprisingly, circumstances filled with suffering.

This interest led Csikszentmihalyi to study and develop a body of research around a concept called flow.

Flow is a state of consciousness people achieve when they set intrinsically meaningful goals for themselves.

These goals are challenging and stimulating and yet are within their ability to grasp.

The more people create such experiences, the more they achieve an optimal state of human happiness.

This state is one in which they feel engaged, purposeful, curious, challenged, energized, and happy.

Early in his research Csikszentmihalyi focused a lot on artists and writers who devote a great deal of their life to artistic endeavors for which they often garnered little fame or wealth.

He was curious about what drove such people to devote so much time and energy to pursuits that, it seemed, have little tangible pay off.

Through interviews he discovered that many such creators spend a great deal of their time in a sate of flow, a state somewhat like ecstasy.

Because of this, they find their life incredibly rich, meaningful, and rewarding, even though it does not necessarily make them extremely wealthy or famous.

You can listen to Csikszentmihalyi discuss flow here: Flow, Ted Talk.

Perhaps it is not too surprising that creative people spend a lot of time in flow.

However, Csikszentmihalyi has discovered that some people are able to cultivate flow in surprising situations to enable themselves to endure tragedy.

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Human Experience, Csikszentmihalyi tells fascinating stories of prisoners of war.

The prisoners he describes survived their ordeal by creating complex games that enabled them to achieve flow state in the most unlikeliest of circumstances.

Picture, courtesy of Unsplash.

For instance, he describes prisoners of war in World War II who developed a poetry recitation contest.

For weeks, they secretly passed around messages proposing different poems that contestants should consider for the selected poem in the contest.

Apparently they eventually decided on Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain”, as it was the poem a majority of inmates had memorized.

After selecting this poem, they spent weeks translating the poem into their various languages.

One inmate did this by covering his shoe with a film of soap and translating the lines into his  native language.

He did this by writing them on the film of soap on the shoe with a toothpick. He would then memorize these lines and move on to the next ones.

This activity allowed prisoners of war to create an intrinsically meaningful experience that were  challenging but achievable.

As such, the were able to focus their attention away from the degrading and tragic external conditions onto meaningful inner experiences of flow.

Csikszentmihalyi argues that cultivating flow state is one of the things that often helps people overcome seemingly insurmountable suffering.

You can find Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow here.

I have witnessed something like this in my own life with my mom who suffered a traumatic car accident early in her life that left her paralyzed.

She uses swimming to help her achieve flow state, and it is one of the things, I believe, that have given her strength to persist through tragedy.

You can read more about this here: About My Mom: Paraplegia, Swimming, and Resilience.

I am specifically interested in flow because, as I mentioned, I research and teach a lot on the philosophy of play.

Philosophers define play in different ways, but one of the most common characteristics such folks attribute to play is autotelia.

An autotelic activity is an activity that we do for its own sake, rather than for some end it is going to get us.

And it turns out that doing things for their own sake is important.

When we value what we are doing for its own sake, we are more likely to be present in the moment and approach it with feelings of meaning, purpose, joy, wonder, curiosity, and challenge.

And as you can imagine, such feelings often make it more likely that we will experience flow in the activity we do.

So, if play is an autotelic activity, and autotelic activities encourage flow, playing regularly can help us achieve flow, which increases our happiness and well-being.

And this is one reason why play is important for adults as it is for children. Flow is a state of optimal happiness and functioning for human beings.

So when we regularly practice activities that get us into flow state, we reap immeasurable psychological and physical benefits.

But there is a second reason that play is important for adults.

When we regularly practice play, we understand what flow state feels like and regularly practice getting into it. As such, we become masters of switching on flow state.

And the more we cultivate this ability, the more we can switch on flow state during difficult situations.

For example, all of us have faced difficult times in our lives or have had to take on tasks that we found difficult and unpleasant.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research suggests that we can habituate our personality to be autotelic.

And when we do this, we are often able to somehow achieve flow in difficult situations through the way we focus our attention and structure our consciousness in the activities we experience.

This is what the World War II prisoners did.

They faced an incredibly difficult situation but were able to focus their attention and structure their consciousness on various autotelic activities to achieve flow.

And this was part of what helped them survive their imprisonment.

No one is suggesting, of course, that we create unpleasant situations to practice flow.

 Rather, the suggestion is that we all face difficult situations in life at one point or another.

And the more we develop our capacity to enter flow, the better we can weather such adverse circumstances.

Playing regularly in a way that is meaningful to us is one of the most important ways we practice cultivating flow.

So, by all means, encourage children to play and give them plenty of time to play. And also remember that play is important for adults, too.

It helps us develop our capacity for flow, among other things, and flow appears to be a superpower.

I dedicate this post to my students in philosophy of play, class. Thanks, Friends, for all you have taught me.

I also dedicate this post to my husband, John, who is one of the most playful, adventurous people I know.

Recently I got to discussion play on my friend, Jeff Ash’s podcast. We discussed, among other things, play and body image. You can listen to this podcast here.


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