A GREAT MATCH is a lot of fun. But the feel-good effects go much deeper than a single game. Devoting time to play leads to a higher quality of life overall, by dialing down stress; increasing creativity, focus, and productivity; and tightening your social bonds. “Play is beyond good for you—it’s necessary,” says Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute for Play, who has co-taught a popular class called “From Play to Innovation” at Stanford University inspired by the idea that human play behavior is key to (Page 45) creative thinking. “Play creates a sense of optimism, it alters mood, and it produces new connections in the brain that help one’s innovativeness…. It’s a really fundamental part of our design as humans.”
Those may sound like big promises, but studies back them up: In their 2013 study of almost 900 young adults, Cale D. Magnuson and Lynn A. Barnett found that “playful individuals” reported lower levels of stress than their less playful peers and were less likely to resort to “negative, avoidant, and escape-oriented strategies,” suggesting they were more resilient.
So, what exactly counts as play? Jeff Harry, who founded Rediscover Your Play, a coaching and consulting practice centered on what he calls positive psychology play, says he defines play as “any joyful act where you forget about time. You find yourself in a state of flow. Some people even say you ‘fall into your zone of genius.’”
Of course, we are all competitive, but when you are truly playing any game, you find joy in the moment. “You hone your ability to be present,” explains Harry. “And you’re tapped more into who you are.” Dr. Brown adds that play and creativity “are brother and sister. If you watch little kids who are not being overorganized by adults, their play is imaginative. Play itself is inherently creative.”
Play also encourages social bonding. “Look back at our heritage as humans in small tribal units and you’ll see sharing, cooperation, belonging,” says Dr. Brown. “That developed over time in part through mixed-age play. It’s part of our long-term survival as a social species.”
WHEN I LISTEN TO THE SOUNDS ON PICKLEBALL NIGHT, THERE IS A SENSE OF COMMUNAL GETTING ALONG, FUN, LAUGHTER.”
—DR. STUART BROWN
That social piece is important: Research out of the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2017 found that study participants who worked out in a group over 12 weeks (30 minutes, at least once a week) significantly reduced their perceived stress and improved their quality of life, whereas the solo- and non-exercisers did not.
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., writes about such an effect in her book The Joy of Movement. She refers to a euphoria that individuals feel during synchronized movement as “collective effervescence,” based on a concept coined a century ago by French sociologist Émile Durkheim.
Dr. Brown has noticed that same euphoria at the fitness club he belongs to in Salinas, California. Since it added pickleball, he says, “there’s a totally different atmosphere. When I listen to the sounds on pickleball night, there is a sense of communal getting along, fun, laughter. It’s like a playground you would hear at recess time at an elementary school. It’s incredible.”
And the best part: To score these many holistic benefits, you just need to carve out regular time on the court, be social, and let the good times roll…er, bounce.