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Playfulness key to adult health and happiness

New Australian research indicates adults can increase their happiness, wellbeing, playfulness and mental wellbeing by taking part in regular group play activities that, in turn, lighten their mindset.

Sunshine Coast psychologist Dr Rosemary Colston, who was awarded her doctorate in September, presented key findings at the annual national laughter yoga conference in Sydney recently.

Among the significant measurable improvements were:

      • positive relationships with others

      • self-acceptance

      • purpose in life

      • mood

      • stress management

      • sense of happiness.

    I’ve sought to unpack the key talking points that arose from that presentation in this blog.

    You can read the full research paper An exploration of the effects on adult play on happiness and wellbeing  

    Let’s start by being on the same page about what play is.

    What is play?

    Children play: adults work. That’s the line many of us in western cultures have swallowed hook, line, and sinker. Adults who play may be seen as frivolous or shirking their serious contribution to the greater community because they’re clearly not working hard… Colston’s research challenges that thinking.

    For children, play is work. It’s how they explore the world, how to work within it and how to work others. It’s a safe place in which to develop emotional intelligence, to manage and use different emotions and enjoy social ‘success’.

    And that can be true of play for adults too.

    Uninhibited, cheerful, spontaneous, light-hearted play not only helps us feel psychologically good, it allows us to be imaginative: to discover new strategies, behaviours, ways of being; to release our anxieties and hang-ups; to connect with others. I know that’s certainly true of the specific playful mindful practice of laughter yoga.

    What play isn’t is serious or obsessive. There’s a big difference for example between playing ‘hit and giggle’ tennis and being on the world championship circuit intent on being #1.

    Educators and psychologists see children generally leaving play behind much younger than generations before as they become swept up in the ‘seriosity’ epidemic denying many adults play and playfulness.

    Why adults don’t play (much)?

    Being an adult is ‘serious’ stuff! We all only have 24 hours in which to prioritise competing demands.

    We’re often too tired after doing all we ‘must do’. Colston says the Protestant work ethic plays a big factor in reinforcing our ‘must do’ list.

    Then there are factors like having the opportunity or money to play, or a playmate.

    Self-consciousness can play a part too. 

    So can living with the leading cause of disability in the world — depression — being unable to see a way forward that is light, bright or positive.

    How we use our 86,400 seconds — and how we view that use — can make an enormous difference as American psychologist Cassie Holmes details in her book Happier Hour.

    Colston contends that play doesn’t need to be relegated to leisure time which may be just as well given all we ‘must do’.

    Colston remembers the moment it hit her that the playfulness that came from facilitating group adult play activities for a few weeks had personally rubbed off. She was washing up. Instead of ruminating about other household members failing to clean up after themselves, she was delighting in the prisms of colour that shimmered as sunlight touched the sudsy bubbles in the kitchen sink. Washing up, at that moment, was not a chore. Colston’s mindset was playful. It was almost as though she’d taken on Mary Poppins’ persona:  in every job that must be done there is an element of fun…

    What adults who learned to play gained

    With a substantial literary review informing her of why adults don’t play, Colston developed a program to encourage adults to reclaim their playful nature.

    She ran free 10-week facilitated play programs for adults called Happy Club. More than 50 participants came together in 6 small groups to laugh, dance and play. Participants were aged between 18 and 72, lived mostly in suburbia, were in the main educated and working to some extent.

    Laughter yoga was one of the activities but there was a variety of fun and games because no one form of play fits all people.

    Happy Club became a safe space in which participants could let go of self-consciousness and seriousness of life and have fun. Similar findings were deduced from a study of a monthly laughter yoga club’s impact on stress, published in 2021.

    Colston says regular Happy Club participants felt better, had improved mental health, were more playful and more creative.

    Further, Happy Club participants became more comfortable in taking risks through playfulness with strangers, were willing to try new things and to be vulnerable.

    Why adults need to (re)learn playfulness and play

    Happy Club research results have demonstrated it to be an effective mental health and wellbeing intervention. As such, it is eligible for Medicare rebates via group therapy referrals from doctors to mental health professionals.

    Colston is intent on teaching other mental health practitioners to run Happy Club around Australia to enable access for more people in need of, and interested in, reclaiming their play in adulthood and all the wellbeing elements it offers, while also helping practitioners to get paid to play.

    She is currently taking expressions of interest via her email:

    Her research clearly suggests that playing can help alleviate stress, depression, and anxiety along with social isolation.

    But there’s more. She says we owe it to future generations to be playful.

    “Parents – particularly mothers – are children’s first playmates,” says Colston. “They learn from them. They learn through play. Yet so many adults have forgotten how to really play.  If joyful play doesn’t come easily, it’s time to reclaim your own inner child for your physical, emotional, and social wellbeing —and children’s too.”

    What this research suggests for laughter yoga

    Colston’s research reinforces much of what laughter yoga founder, physician Dr Madan Kataria, has contended:

    There is fun everywhere in life. All you need is childlike playfulness and playful mental attitude. Laughter yoga will give you both.

    If you’d like more information about Happy Club, contact Dr Rosemary Colston via email.


    This blog was written by HeatherJoy Campbell, Queensland-based laughter yoga trainer/facilitator.