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Play might seem like a pretty lightweight topic for mental health. Yet play is an active form of fun, and fun is an essential element of joy. Joy, in turn, helps fuel our inner lives.

Nobody can function well without adequate fuel — we all need good food, clean water, fresh air. Similarly, our inner selves require joy to thrive, and play is a direct route to that state.

Of course, there are obstacles: You feel too busy, too burdened, too preoccupied with seemingly more important things. Most of us can talk ourselves out of play pretty fast.

By the time I (Henry) was 16, I felt and acted a lot like a 50-year-old man. I was laser-focused on academic success, so I learned to set fun and play aside — to delay gratification.

On the positive side, delaying gratification later helped me survive my medical training. But it also turned me into a workaholic who was ready to defer joy indefinitely.

We think workaholism is best described as an amnesia where one completely forgets how to play. But I found my way back to it, and so can you.

Rediscovering Play

After years of all work and no play, I discovered mindfulness practices. These gave me enough self-awareness to become a witness to my own life. I saw how avoiding play had kept me from being “in flow” and able to enjoy myself. I could tell something inside me was stuck.

We all know this feeling: It’s like a blockage. Every time we refuse to loosen up, when we cling to our seriousness and urgency, we’re rein­forcing that block and refusing to let it go.

When we play, we stop clinging to these obstacles. We make room for the feeling of joy — and this frees us.

By “free,” we don’t mean free to do whatever we want. We mean free to be our true selves.

We’re convinced one of the most profound aspects of play is its relationship with authenticity. The more playful we are, the better we feel in our own skin, and the more easily we can let go of pressures to perform.

This allows us to show up as we really are. As monk and theologian Thomas Merton wrote, “Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ­ambition is to be what I already am.”

This is how play helps us become more fully ourselves. We are all more than the roles we play in our professions and families, and play helps us remember who we are and what brings us joy.

Finding Your Playful Nature

A Morning Meditation From Aimee Prasek, PhD

Close your eyes. Gradually turn your attention inward. Become aware of your breathing and the sensations of your body. Allow any tension you’re holding to leave your body.

Now think of a time you felt playful.

It may be an activity you enjoyed as a kid or a game you played recently with your children or pets. If you don’t have specific memories, try to recall the last time you laughed really hard.

Go over all the details in your mind. What did it feel like to be playful? Who were you with? What were you doing?

Now think about the day ahead and allow this playful feeling to emerge. If you allowed yourself to be a little more playful, how would the day unfold? What would you do differently? How would you feel?

Imagine yourself maintaining this playful feeling throughout your day. Do you have more energy? How do your interactions feel? How would you respond to a stressful surprise?

Set an intention to become more playful, exuberant, loving, joyful, spontaneous, humorous. Take time to absorb any feelings or images you experience.

When you’re ready, open your eyes. Sit quietly for a few moments and enjoy the feeling. Maybe you feel more peaceful, less anxious. Take that sense of play into the rest of your day. Let it make your life a little lighter.

In partnership with:

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 Listen to the Joy Lab podcast.

This article originally appeared as “Hit Play” in the May/June 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Henry Emmons, MD and Aimee Prasek, PhD

Henry Emmons, MD, is an integrative psychiatrist and cofounder of He is the author of The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp. Aimee Prasek, PhD, is an integrative-therapies researcher and CEO of Natural Mental Health.

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