Put more 'play' into your 'day'

Not long ago, Amy Vodraska was a 100%, bona fide grown-up. She was taking care of two kids, a husband, and a job and working toward her master's. Her nose was so pressed to the grindstone, it's a miracle it wasn't sharpened to a point.

And then something happened. Amy Vodraska cracked. "It hit me that I was spending all my time doing what I was supposed to do. I thought, Am I ever allowed to have fun again?"

So, in the midst of her all-work-and-no-play crisis, the Boonton, NJ, woman signed up for one horseback-riding lesson a week. She had ridden as a kid and had given it up in college. "As soon as I climbed back on a horse, I felt my shoulders disconnect from my earlobes--and I realized how much fun I had been missing," she says.

Fast-forward a few years and you'll find Vodraska, now 43, riding and even playing tag in the ring with Sugar, her Royal Dutch Warmblood, at least four times a week. "Just putting my face in her shoulder makes me feel joy," says Vodraska. "There's no point to it at all--it's just a lot of fun."

Add Vodraska to the list of grown-ups headed to adult playgrounds, signing up for Laughter Yoga, or watching funny animal videos on Buzzfeed. Cyndi Lauper, who is closing in on the big 6-0, was right: Girls just want to have fun. Not only that, say the experts--women and men both need to.


Preeti Vyas used to be just as motived and insanely busy, as Amy. As Business Head at the Future Group in Mumbai, Vyas was extremely driven. Then she and husband Amish Tripathi (author of the hugely popular Shiva trilogy), became parents to son Neel. “We had our baby after seven years of marriage, after I'd been working for 13 years. Fully prepared to go back to work, Vyas didn't account for a magical experience--she fell in love. “The joy and happiness I experienced seeing and being with Neel stunned me,” Vyas recalls.

So she decided to spend cherished time with Neel and also focus on something she had always wanted to do--set up FunOKPlease Publishing in 2010, for “the curious little Indian”. From being totally committed to her job, Vyas went to publishing childrens' books featuring lovable characters like Toto the Auto. “I love what I do, it is so much fun. Because work is play, there's no need to de-stress, there is no pressure. What drives me now is the need to make FunOKPlease commercially viable so I can keep doing what I love,” says Vyas.

Work now involves brainstorming on new ideas for books, going with Neel to do reading sessions for her company's newest titles, and creating characters like Palli, a girl auto as a foil to Toto, the boy auto. Most days, both Vyas and Tripathi are home (incidentally, Vyas was the one who urged Tripathi to quit his regular job and focus on writing) with their son. “I think Neel will grow up believing his parents never worked at corporate jobs in their life,” she laughs.

Vyas followed her heart and the wonderful thing is, she has fun doing it. How can you do that too? Becoming 'play'ful may be a start.


Because life without fun and games isn't just dull--it's downright unhealthy. "Our research has shown that when women get out there and play, the benefits are amazing," says Careen Yarnal, PhD, an associate professor of recreation, park, and tourism management at Penn State University. "They cope better with stress, which sets up protective mechanisms that contribute to health and well-being. And if they play with others, it creates bonding and they get the benefit of social support, as well. Just as we know play is healthy for children, helping them blow off steam, learn, experiment, and make friends, we're finding the same to be true for adult women. When it comes to stress prevention, play is like wearing a suit of armor."

Unfortunately, many of us have become disconnected from the concept of fun. Increasingly, experts are saying that midlife is where fun goes to die. Our lives are so structured and serious that "there is often no room for spontaneity," says Stuart Brown, MD, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and president of the National Institute for Play. "You're probably responsible, a hard worker, a moral person, and very involved with taking care of kids, parents, other people. But when you're not experiencing playful moments, you're not honoring your own need for unfettered joy."

Are you so far gone that you need a definition of fun? Here's one: "Anything that connects us with our childlike energy and joy counts as fun," says Susan Biali, MD, the author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You.  

Are you saying "sign me up" yet? If it's been a long time since you had any fun, check out these 12 easy ways to work a little more play into every day.


Dr. Biali, stressed out from patching up stabbed gang members in the emergency room, found her happiness fix in flamenco dancing, but, she says, "the idea that you have to take up some new hobby to be happy can create its own kind of pressure." If not flamenco, at least add a little fun to your everyday. Stop checking email over the weekend. Spend a few moments tickling your little boy or girl and revel in the glorious peals of laughter that result. Why not tickle Daddy too? And while on the subject of touch, wake a little early and indulge in cozy cuddling time. Who knows, that may even end up becoming something oh-so-satisfying.


You know that feeling of being so engrossed in something enjoyable that you lose track of time? Psychologists call that flow, an experience so pleasant that nothing else seems to exist. It can come from anything that absorbs you, from biking to knitting to devouring a Stephen King thriller. These engrossing leisure pursuits are the secret to ageing well. And a pursuit can be anything that you embrace openly, says Bangalore-based psychiatrist Dr Prabha Chandra. “I just read about a new group of bathroom singers and I thought what a wonderful idea that is. There's no pressure to perform. It's just something the group loves doing. Do stuff like working with clay, get your hands muddy. Or do spray painting. Take up something where there's no high degree of technique involved, else it can end up being about achieving perfection. The goal is to to do something for yourself,” Dr Chandra says. 


Cooking meals, doing the dishes and folding clothes day after day can get you down. And yes, there's resentment brewing deep inside because you're doing it all by yourself. No wonder Darby Saxbe, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, concludes: "Housework is bad for your health." So, why not get the family involved? List everyone's duties on the refrigerator. Get the children to help you bake cookies, cut funny shapes in the dough, get them familiar with the kitchen. It'll pay off. When Priya Bhaskar, a homemaker and volunteer teacher, and her husband celebrated their anniversary recently, their 11-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son surprised them with breakfast in bed-- toast, jam, eggs and yes, orange juice on the side. An act so simple, and with such joyful consequences.


Researchers at the University of Glasgow, in the UK, studied quilters and report that in addition to the well-being that comes from the sense of flow of their craft, the women get mood boosts from the colors of the fabrics used. A 2010 study in the journal BMC Medical Research Methodology showed  people with depression or anxiety are more likely to associate their mood with the color gray, while happier people preferred yellow. So go on, embrace color--sport fuchsia on your nails, ruby reds on your lips, neon on your clothes and accessories. And dress up your walls in warm tones. 


Who says work has to be serious? The people at Bangalore-based recreation company The Fuller Life (TFL) definitely don't think so. TFL works with companies to bring fun back to work. And they do this through contests (Antakshari, anyone?), sports, quizzes, Dumb Charades, treasure hunts, karaoke competitions, anything really that will get people to lighten up. Founder and CEO Arvind Krishnan says his company's philosophy 'One Life, Do More' “...is not about doing everything you can or cluttering your life. It's about doing what you love.” And his co-workers at TFL have certainly embraced that. One day, a bunch of them stood on a street corner in Bangalore holding placards saying 'Free Hugs', 'Are You Happy?' 'Keep Calm and Be Happy'. Passers by got smiling. Even the bemused traffic policeman the group stood next to, couldn't help laughing.


While there's been plenty of research on what happens when people make us laugh, Melissa Wanzer, EdD, a communications professor at Cassius College, wanted to learn more about the health benefits of being the funny one. So she started tracking a trait she calls humor orientation, or HO. "We classify people as either high HO, moderate HO, low HO, or no HO," she deadpans. But the perks of making others laugh are no joke: "People who use more humor, even if that means lame wisecracks, perceive themselves as more effective at coping with stress, more competent communicators, and less lonely." They get more social support too. "People want to be around funny people, and that support may generate additional psychological benefits, including higher self-esteem," she says.


Music is one of the fastest ways to switch from serious to playful, says Dr. Biali. "We respond physically. It's the quickest way to get us out of our heads and into our bodies," she says. Dr Chandra knows what she's talking about. “I listen to FM channels while driving and sometimes, I sing along, loudly. And listening to chatty Radio Jockeys, makes me laugh out loud at their silliness,” she says. Besides, music is therapeutic too, says hypnotherapist at VIMHANS, Delhi, Simrita Chaudhry. “Music elevates the mood. It is linked to happy thoughts. A particular tune or song can take us back to our childhood. And music stimulates the brain and leads our bodies to produce positive hormones and chemicals,” Chaudhry explains.


While we may not think of spouses as constant playmates, they probably were when we chose them: Penn State researchers have shown that when dating, adults rank playfulness and humor high on their lists of desired qualities. Borrow one of your kids' video games (Wii Tennis and Guitar Hero are both highly rated for couples) or leave a deck of cards or your old favorite board game on the coffee table and see what happens.


Embrace your inner child and conquer your fears of the Ferris Wheel and the Roller Coaster. Or make a bold, possibly potentially career-destroying move, to start doodling again. For a living. That's what banker-turned illustrator, Alicia Crescencia Souza did.  After a stint as a banker abroad, she relocated to India, worked with lifestyle brand Chumbak as an illustrator and now, freelances as an in-demand doodler. Her happy creations are sassy, their messages saucy. “Have a passion that engulfs you--something that keeps your mind moving and your eyes really looking. Take that forward, bring that to life. Then you're ready to make it your 'job' though it never will be just a 'job'” she adds.


The Internet doesn't really offer any new twists on fun, says Pamela Rutledge, PhD, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. "People have long loved reading the funny papers or listening to recorded comedy. It's just made it so much more accessible."  Post the videos/images you love via Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest for bonus health points: Dr. Rutledge says sharing what made you smile intensifies the benefits. Dr Chandra concurs. “I laugh a lot viewing these videos and I share them--on social media, on What'sApp,” she says. Grown-ups have this image of being poker-faced and serious.  “Let go and laugh out loud,” adds Dr Chandra. And don't forget to share stuff that makes you feel positive and inspired. Pay it forward, so to speak.


New York City recently built an adult playground, complete with monkey bars and balance beams. Because skipping, hopscotch, and hula-hooping in a park sure beat working out on the elliptical for 30 minutes any day--and they all burn calories. Okay reality is there may not be too many play parks for grown-ups in India. But fitting in fitness can take just an alarm clock. Ask Dr Sheela Nambiar, author, gynecologist, obstetrician and fitness consultant. Dr Nambiar runs TFL Inc. (Training for Life), a fitness studio in Chennai. And along with her gynecologist mom, Dr Nambiar also runs a nursing home in Ootacamund. When she is in Ooty, every Sunday, Dr Nambiar is up at 5 am organizing walkathons and bike rides in the Nilgiris mountains. Exploring hidden trails and getting to see the mountains bathed in glorious morning light, makes the jarring wake-up call and sleep deprivation worthwhile, she says.


Everyday stuff getting you low? Why not pack your bags and leave your worries behind? Travel is a shared passion for Preeti Vyas and Amish Tripathi. “We are not high-maintenance and we don't need designer stuff to live on. We travel,” says Vyas. Traveling as a family can be enriching. That's how memories are made. But wait, getting together with your girl pals can also be a whole lot of fun. Sumitra Senapaty, founder of women-only (she does women-and-children packages as well) travel club Women on Wanderlust knows just how exhilarating and yes, liberating, that kind of  travel can be. Delhi-based Senapaty used to be a travel writer. “Women constantly told me how much they envied me. They said social constraints and fears over security and safety held them back. The WOW Club takes the stress and strain out of travel to help women re-discover themselves,” adds Senapaty, a woman who juggles the roles of mother, wife and entrepreneur, with ease. Because she loves what she does. And she has fun doing it. 

(Yep, I wrote the 'Indian' portions for this article that appeared in the print version of Prevention India last year)


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