When was the last time you had a really good laugh?
An average toddler laughs 300 times a day. It takes the same average 40-year-old adult 10 weeks to laugh that much. Where’s all the playfulness gone from our adult lives? Research shows that when we get to adulthood (around 23 and older), we stop laughing. And this trend continues all the way up to our 70s – when, abruptly, we start laughing again.
There seems to be a direct correlation between working life, and lack of laughter. Perhaps this makes sense. This is the time in our lives when most of us have pressing responsibilities, challenging careers, and people we’re responsible for, perhaps family members to take care of. But this lack of laughter comes at a cost – and is something we should all look to change. Research has shown that adults who integrate play into their lives are much better at dealing with challenges, and more able to cope with stressful situations.
Play is universal – common to all cultures and languages. Research suggests that humour is hardwired into our brains – we are genetically predisposed to laugh. It’s also a pretty social phenomenon – we are around 30 times more likely to laugh when we’re with others, than when we’re by ourselves.
We’ve been playing for as long as we’ve been sentient humans, and probably longer – and examples of playfulness are everywhere in ancient cultures. Pre-historic humans played games with knuckle bones, the ancient Egyptians had board games, and the comedy of the medieval court jester was a disruptive force, telling truth to power.
Even though we seem to laugh less during our working lives, research shows that play at work has an immensely positive effect. Play can refresh your mind and your body, increase energy, and prevent burnout, and help you see problems in new ways. From authenticity to innovation, team work to efficiency – it may seem surprising, as laughter is often painted as frivolous or childish, but the more we play, the better we show up at work.
After all, children are incredibly creative and inventive – and they are constantly learning. By that definition – wouldn’t you want to be more childish?
There’s a quote that’s often apocryphally attributed to Einstein: “Play is the highest form of research.” And it’s certainly true that if you can’t have fun with a problem, you’re much less likely to solve it. But watch out – you can’t mandate play. Then it becomes conformity – someone else (perhaps your boss!) telling you what to do isn’t true play. Playfulness is deeply personal: something that happens inside you, rather than something you’re ordered to do.
Play and laughter are disruptors: changing your state and shifting your perspective. Play has been shown to release endorphins, improve brain functionality, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – stimulate creativity. It’s possible to see art as playing for adults – something you do that isn’t necessary, but fun – and whether that’s painting your nails, or writing a symphony – all of it counts as play and can profoundly enrich your life.