No matter how old we become, I think we all love to play. It seems obvious that play is linked to happiness. But what’s interesting is that, in order for play to really make us happy, it must be purposeful.
The sense of meaning that comes from pursuing a good purpose is essential to happiness, many research studies have found. For instance, a 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people experienced more happiness when they were engaged in activities that fulfilled a purpose that was important to them than they did from activities that were pleasurable but not particularly meaningful. Not only that, but pursuing happiness tied to purpose led to significant health benefits like lower disease-causing inflammation and higher immunity, while pursuing happiness through meaningless pleasure did not.
At the International Circus Festival in Montreal, Canada recently, I saw purposeful play at its best: performers who had meticulously designed and diligently practiced playful routines, all for the purpose of making people happy. The creativity involved was amazing: acrobats and dancers portraying emotions that go beyond words through their bodies’ lyrical movements; sets, costumes, and special effects that helped tell stories with dazzling technology; animals and actors that performed clever and sometimes mind-boggling tricks.
One of the most famous circus companies in the world — Cirque du Soleil — has its world headquarters in Montreal. Their mission “to invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the emotions of people around the world” has led them to create many memorable circuses with unique themes. In the process, they’ve developed a reputation for inventiveness. Their newest show “Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities” is all about optical illusions. So I went to see that show, as well, when it arrived in my area. It was wonderful (and by that I mean, not only was it great, it also sparked wonder in my soul).
But these shows — among the best, most playful circus shows in the world — didn’t actually make me happy. Sure, they gave me pleasure, which led to fleeting happy feelings. But true happiness — joy — didn’t come from just passively watching the shows.
The only true happiness I experienced from those circuses was when I applied their creative inspiration to my life in purposeful ways. Right now, for example, when I’m writing about them, I feel genuine joy because I’m not just watching creative play, I’m actually participating in it myself and working toward a good purpose (creating what I hope is a thought-provoking blog!). I’m not merely deriving pleasure from someone else’s creativity; I’m being creative myself in a purposeful way as I play with the words of this blog. The same principle has worked in other ways with the circus shows. When I joined my son to playfully dance along to circus music, that brought me joy. When my husband and I were inspired to make love playfully after going to the circus together, that was a joyful experience. I wasn’t just observing play; I was engaging in it actively, for a good purpose (to strengthen relationships).
I make no apologies for prioritizing play in my life. Playing is something I believe all of us adults should do on a regular basis, in order to experience more joy, creativity, and wonder in our lives. No matter what our age, we can all be like children when we’re playing — and that childlike state gives us the open minds and hearts we should maintain to keep growing closer to God. The more we play in ways that help us pursue God’s purposes for our lives, the more we’ll enjoy ourselves in the process.
As Helen Keller once said: “Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”
Play can help us discover worthy purposes, and inspire us to pursue those purposes.
How have you played in a meaningful way lately? What playful activities bring you joy, and how can you incorporate them into your life more?