Issue 20: Play

The promise of play

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by Oliver Burkeman on June 19, 2018

Until recently, if you’d told me I needed to spend more of my life relaxing or having fun, let alone playing, I’d have smiled and nodded in agreement, while privately concluding you must be one of life’s underachievers, attempting to make a virtue of your loserhood. I was – and to be honest, largely still am – the other kind of person: productive, driven, happiest when absorbed in something constructive, vaguely agitated when obliged to stop and appreciate a beautiful sunset or a stunning work of art. This preference for goal-focused activity may owe something to my early training as a newspaper reporter. When an impatient editor is hassling you for an article he needs in two hours’ time, you don’t announce your intention to step outside and soak up the sun in a nearby park. Make a habit of such things, and you’re liable suddenly to find yourself with rather too much time for relaxation.

But like many similarly hard-charging types, I’ve come to perceive certain flaws in this attitude to life. (And for the usual clichéd reasons, I’m afraid: getting older and becoming a parent.) The deep problem with dedicating the whole of your time to productive and useful projects isn’t simply that it’s exhausting, or depressing when they don’t work out. It’s that it renders your experience of life exclusively instrumental. It encourages you to value any given moment only insofar as it helps achieve some future purpose – which means constantly leaning away from the present, and never quite being here now. Trapped in such a mindset, the pleasures of actually accomplishing a goal, however brilliantly, are strikingly brief: days or even hours later, it’s time to set a new goal, and start straining toward the future once more.

Something about approaching the middle of a human life, argues the philosopher Kieran Setiya, seems to trigger the realisation that there’s something crucial missing from these “telic” activities – that is, activities focused on and valued in terms of their endpoint. “I have spent four decades acquiring a taste and aptitude for the telic, for achievement and the next big thing, for personal and professional success – only to feel the void within,” he writes in his recent book Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. “Fulfilment lies always in the future or the past. That is no way to live.”

But this instrumentalisation of time – and the attendant sense of meaninglessness – certainly isn’t confined to one part of the life cycle. Indeed, it’s arguably the standard experience of time in the developed world. In recent decades, the ethos of productivity has burst through the walls of the workplace to dominate the rest of life, too. Self-help experts urge us to get more rest and more sleep, to meditate and spend time outdoors – but almost always in order to be recharged for future work, not for the intrinsic joy such pursuits may yield. “We are all of us compelled to read for profit, party for contacts, lunch for contracts… and stay home for the weekend to rebuild the house,” wrote the American critic Walter Kerr, noticing this phenomenon as early as the 1960s. The trouble isn’t simply that we subjugate our non-work lives to work, but that we subjugate the present to the future – which, as you might have noticed, never arrives. In seeking to spend life as productively as we can, we bring upon ourselves the ultimate ironic punishment: we miss it.

Play and leisure, defined broadly, are the antidote to this disease: they’re “atelic” activities, undertaken for the sake of themselves, for the pleasure experienced in the doing of them. (Which isn’t to say they don’t also bring benefits, such as rejuvenation or learning – just that these aren’t the primary motivation.) In a society fixated on productivity and instrumentalisation, even temporarily rejecting those values in order to spend time playing can be a radical act – which is perhaps why we tend to condemn so many atelic pursuits as mere idleness. Yet if one definition of “wasting time” is using it for something other than future benefit, wasting time may be not just forgivable but essential, if we’re to live at all.

There is a potential trap here, however, into which I fell myself when I first began trying to heed the advice to relax more. It’s easy to assume that what’s called for is some kind of escapism – a mental checking-out from the travails of productivity and accomplishment in favour of low-effort, low-energy pastimes. But that path leads straight to the sofa, and hours spent binge-watching bad television, or worse, mindlessly surfing the web. Any fleeting pleasure these provide is easily outweighed by ending up more exhausted, lower in spirits, and with a more unpleasantly scattered mind than when you began.

The mistake we make, maintains the author and game designer Ian Bogost – who outlines his argument in Play Anything – is in thinking that play involves a turning away from “real life”. In fact, that belief compounds the problem, implying that we face only two options for how to spend our time: productively and focused on the future, or attempting to avoid reality, both of which mean we’ll never be fully present. The solution, Bogost argues, is to plunge headlong into reality, engaging with the constraints of the situation in which you find yourself, treating them like the rules of a game, so that the whole world becomes a playground. He describes the surprising joys of taking this attitude toward the task of mowing his lawn: “As I become one with my equipment, I find new goals and new accomplishments, refining the straightness of my lawn stripes over the months and the seasons… each week’s mow offers the delight of a novel rendition of a familiar experience.” It might seem ridiculous to call that “fun”, he concedes. But it would be more ridiculous to try to distract oneself from the process by singing, or by listening to music or podcasts – all of which would simply underscore the idea of the task itself as an undesirable chore.

At the same time, of course, mowing the lawn is an archetypally goal-focused, thoroughly telic activity: you do it in order to achieve the future state of the lawn being mown. And this points, I think, to the real promise of play. It need not function merely as a counterweight to our outcome-obsessed lives, something in which we sporadically indulge as respite from the drudgery of accomplishment. Instead, we could allow the spirit of play to suffuse our telic tasks, bringing pleasure to productivity, so that we didn’t have to choose between investing in the future and savouring the present. Writes Bogost: “Anyone can treat anything with the deliberate attention that produces fun.”
I’m still very much a novice at such a synthesis. But the early signs are good. And the best part, from the point of view of a recovering productivity addict, is the prospect that a playful approach to your to-do list might make for higher quality accomplishments, too. Without play, as Carl Jung once wrote, “no creative work has ever yet come to birth”. Perhaps the key to building a seriously fulfilling life is to stop taking the task of building it so seriously.

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