Play is not a swearword: The Importance of Play in Adults

Play is not a swearword: The Importance of Play in Adults

5 reasons to play more (including feeling happier, making better decisions, and being less stressed)

Photo: Norbert Braun on Unsplash


I may be known as ‘Potty Mouth Auntie Sarah’, but I assure you, ‘play’ is not a swearword. Sadly, when I talk to women about the importance of play in adults, they either look at me like I’ve sworn at them, or I literally see them roll their eyes. However, what I know as a psychotherapist and budding researcher, is that therapy is only one part of improving your mental health and mood. Making small tweaks to lifestyle choices including movement, sleep and nutrition make HUGE impacts on your mental health and mood. And the importance of play cannot be overstated.

There are huge physical, emotional and psychological benefits to play in adults. Apathy and boredom are key signs of midlife crisis for women. Lady if there was ever a time to press the big red f*ck it button and play, it’s now.  But just in case you don’t believe me, here are five reasons to play more:

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5 Reasons to play more

The opposite of play is depression

Stuart Brown is one of the foremost researchers on play. One of my favorite quotes is:

“The opposite of play is not work – the opposite of play is depression. Our inherent need for variety and challenge can be buried by an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Over the long haul, when these spice-of-life elements are missing, what is left is a dulled soul.” 

Stuart Brown in “Play: how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul”



Play makes you happier

“When play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure.” Stuart Brown

Play in itself is purposeless. Play does not have an outcome. Play is done purely for the sake of having fun.

And the best news is that play makes you feel happier and have a more positive outlook on life. (Rene Proyer 2013)



Play helps you process emotions and make better decisions

Play researchers, Jaak Panksepp  has proven that play stimulates nerve growth in the part of your brain where emotions are processed (amygdala) and the part where you process executive decisions (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). So whilst you are playing you are getting smarter and improving your emotional intelligence!

Another play researcher, John Byers, has shown that the amount you play as a kid is correlated with the development of your prefrontal cortex – yup the cognitive part of your brain which is responsible for thinking, organising your thoughts, and planning.

So the more you play, the brainier you get!

(Question: Will playing offset the hours spent watching numpty reality TV? Asking for a friend…)



Play reduces stress

I’m sure you could do with a boost of stress-relief. The good news is that just playing helps reduce the stress levels in your body. Remember that cognitive improvement we talked about just now, well that helps you cope with stressors in your life.

“playfulness serves a strong adaptive function with university students, providing them with specific cognitive resources from which they can manifest effective coping behaviors in the face of stressful situations.” (Magnuson and Barnett, 2012)



A lack of play impacts your physical health

Women generally take on more responsibility than men. We people-please and say yes when we really mean no. We also have the invisible burden of the division of labour at home. Yuck.

All work and no play makes Sarah a very dull girl. It also has the potential to impact your physical health.  

Did you know that 80% of people with autoimmune diseases are women?

Don’t believe me? According to Gabor Mate, key attributes of people with autoimmune disease are:

  • They are overly-concerned with the emotional needs of others instead of their own.
  • They over-identify with work, duty, role and responsibility and ignore their own inner world


So, if anyone needs to play more, it’s us women. Could it be YOU, lady? 


Here’s Gabor talking about this very subject of autoimmune diseases and women

Here’s a transcript in case that reel gets taken down:

“Women have 80% of autoimmune disease in society. So that disease where the immune system attacks the body happens to women much more than two men. Things like rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, inflammatory diseases of the gut, and so on.

Those diseases tend to happen to people, not just to go into my own observation, although it’s very much my own observation when I was working in family practice and palliative care, before I did addiction medicine, I noticed that who got sick and who didn’t wasn’t accidental.

People tended to be compulsively concerned with the emotional needs of others rather than their own.

They identified with duty, role and responsibility. So their work in the world, rather than their own true selves.

They tended to suppress healthy anger. So they tend to be very, very nice and peacemakers.

And they tended to believe that they’re responsible how other people feel and they must never to disappoint anybody – to fail.

And so these are the people that according to my observation, but according to a whole lot of research as well, that I didn’t even know about, but have since found elegant research. These are the people that tend to develop autoimmune disease.”



So what might play as an adult look like to you?

Play might involve movement – and yes horizontal activities count here – or sporting activities (but note that if you start judging your performance, then it’s no longer playful. And you should probably cut that sh*t out right now.)

It might involve letting your imagination run wild: reading books, watching movies, board games where you create entire worlds. For example, it could be reading fairly low-brow young adult fiction (cough.. never me). There’s an evolutionary benefit to using your imagination. It helps you make sense of the world around you, think about your future and consquences before they actually take place. So yes, that daydreaming is an advantage (even if it’s about Ryan Gosling as Ken and horses, in fact, especially so).

It could be hanging out with your favorite people, for example with your besties drinking cocktails whilst wearing kaftans (that was definitely me last weekend).


Play involves flow (being completely absorbed in your purposeless activity and loosing track of time)

Play may/may not involve connection with other people

Play might involve a sense of novelty – something you’ve never done before

Play might involve a sense of frivolity, absurdity or rebelliousness

If play is good, you usually have a desire to do it again

If you’re doing a job that is really in alignment with your core values and strengths, then work might also feel like play. How good would that be!


The importance of play to me as a therapist

You may think getting women to feel joy and play is frivolous. Especially when there is so much pain in the world. But what I’m trying to get you to do is to focus on your own health and stop the rot before it happens. I’m trying to get you ‘upstream’ before things start to go really bad and you need to come and see me. I’m trying to keep you out of my therapy studio.

I’m hoping to build up the resources in your toolbox. Get you to play, get you more energy, and more sense of self before you start to get worn out burnout, depressed, anxious.

If you’re a woman in the middling years, you might want to check out my Evviva group program. There are some online workshops coming up in Dec 23 and Jan 24 where you can sample a taster without commitment.

Sarah Tuckett




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