What You Need Most In Your Life Right Now Is Playtime


A couple weeks ago I left my journal on the plane from Chicago to New York. I never travel with my journal in case the plane goes down, and of course the one time I do, I leave it on the plane like it’s an empty bag of Chex Mix. Today I was at PaperSource looking for a new one and I saw the saddest thing in the entire world: a journal with the words HAPPY EVERYTHING on the cover.

I can’t speak for other generations but I doubt there’s ever been this much pressure to appear happy all the time. Look at photographs of people in the 19th century- miserable and proud of it! Facebook and Instagram are the battlegrounds on which we fight to prove just how happy we are and nobody takes first place. And now the leaky faucet that contains all our supposed happiness is dripping onto the water-colored covers of our beloved, personal journals. Sad.

The definition of the verb play is to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose. There’s a phenomenon called the Play Deficit that says that today’s children are playing less than generations passed and it’s hurting their mental and physical development.

The deficit is hurting adults as well — we’re less creative and more pessimistic. Without playtime, we aren’t experiencing flow, the mental state of being completely immersed in an activity, and joyously apart from our egos.

It seems like that’s what social media has taken away from us: even our playtime has purpose — to be seen and approved of by our peers, helping us to measure our lives against each other’s.

This past weekend I backpacked with my sisters and a couple friends from the South Rim to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. On the third day, when we reached the top of the North Rim, a shuttle picked us up to bring us back to our car at Bright Angel lodge. There was a group of six other women riding the shuttle with us and when we stepped up into the van, we saw that they had scattered themselves throughout the rows in a way that made it impossible for the five of us to sit together. We were exhausted, so instead of asking nicely if we could rearrange, we filled in the gaps muttering passive aggressively.

Eventually one of the women offered to switch seats with Betsy, and then at last we were sitting together, but a van divided. The women in the front, who we learned were a mountain biking group from outside of Seattle, chatted with the shuttle driver, and we, a group of sisters and friends from outside of Chicago, finished the last of our Clif bars and stared out the windows at the canyons and talked amongst ourselves.

We were about three quarters of the way through the four-hour drive when the woman in the passenger’s seat who looked like Bill’s first wife in Big Love passed back a pack of strawberry bubble gum- the kind with individual pieces that are the size of little pencil sharpeners. That’s to say, huge. At first I passed, but then they began competing for the biggest bubble, starting with the woman sitting in the back row with us.

“Oooh!” we shouted and then broke into laughter when her bubble popped.

Then in the row in front of her, Becca blew her bubble and again we built her up and laughed when the bubble popped. Positive that I could win for biggest bubble, I grabbed the last piece from the pack and chewed urgently while the game moved up and down the rows. I blew a very tiny bubble that popped almost instantly. “It’s too soon. You’re just warming up!” said the woman in polarized sunglasses in front of me. The game only lasted another minute or so but it managed to completely cut through the tension in the van.

There’s a book I love called The Chairs are Where the People Go. Its author Sheila Heti sat down with her very smart friend Mischa Glouberman for a string of Saturdays and made his clever, unusual thoughts into a chapter book. In the chapter titled ‘Who are your friends?’ Mischa talks about how the people in his improv classes seemed so excited to see each other, despite having very little in common outside of the class. He thought to himself, friends are the people you play with. It was certainly true, if only momentarily, in the van.

It’s sweet to imagine that a pack of bubblegum may be the answer to us not “liking” each other, but liking each other. I’m going to start keeping a pack on me.