Follow your bliss. Just do it. Do what you love, and the money will follow. Lean in.
These are life-guidance mottos that have taken a turn on the stage of the American consciousness. But there’s one I’d like to add that is particularly necessary right now: Don’t forget to play.
There’s evidence that this activity that many of us associate with childhood can energize lives that are mired in Leaning In, doing more with less, multitasking and Having It All, according to a meticulously researched new book by Washington Post columnist Brigid Schulte, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.
And Wharton School business professor Stew Friedman, writing for the "Harvard Business Review" earlier this month, claims that people can be more productive by spending less time on and less attention to work. He coaches high-powered clients to add a non-work activity in an area of life they’ve been neglecting, and witness demonstrably better results in all parts of life — at work, at home, in your community and in your private life. He calls it a four-way win.
It’s a paradox that even in the busiest of lives adding an activity can ease one’s load by generating emotional satisfaction. Taking time to play is a leap of faith when we Americans compete over who’s busiest as a sign of status. It’s like the man in the Cadillac commercial who brags that he only takes two weeks off in August, n’est-ce pas?
Playing might seem an odd idea for an adult. But this isn’t pulling out the Monopoly board for a family game. It’s about creating a quality of life that many of us thought was long gone because of work and family commitments. Instead, it’s doing a little more of what makes your "heart sing," to borrow a phrase from Schulte.
Barbara Brannen, a successful Denver executive with two kids profiled in Overwhelmed, found herself so stressed-out from working all the time that her health suffered dramatically: She lost the use of her left arm. After that wake-up call and some surgery, Brannen began adding back simple pleasures like reading the comics and, when she walked past the piano in her home, stopping to play for a few minutes. She bought a kayak and splashed around in a nearby lake.
"I decided that play was a gift, a gift that women, in particular, get the message very early on that they should give up," Brannen says. She realized that, as Schulte writes, "she’d fallen into doing all the things that her kids wanted or that her husband liked or that others expected of her — playdates, socializing, going to movies, or just waiting for vacation or holidays to come. She did enjoy the time, ‘but I wanted to feel my heart sing’."
Perhaps there’s a concept of the feminine ideal, the Angel in the House, Schulte suggests, that traps women into believing they have to give up delight.
Traditionally, men have been conditioned to become ideal workers — always available to the boss or client. But this is changing, too. Schulte profiles a man who makes time every day to listen to live music.
I learned about play a couple of years ago as my daughters were starting a new softball season. I’d watched enviously as my neighbors coached the teams, convinced I didn’t have the time to assist. But on this sunny Saturday, I walked over to the coach and volunteered. The few hours I spent helping out gave me energy for everything else — including work.
Don’t be afraid to step away from your busy life, trust an impulse and give your body and brain a rest. Even Isaac Newton was lounging under a tree when he formulated gravity — n’est-ce pas?
Anne Michaud is interactive editor for Newsday Opinion and a member of the Newsday editorial board.