The study surely had its roots in my curiosity to understand my own playfulness - sometimes outrageously liberating, other times scary and off - putting to others. Other people would ask, "What do you mean by play?" At first I was not sure myself. Nine and a half pages in the Oxford English Dictionary convinced me that the phenomenon would be impossible to pin down with a neat word or two. One plays the horses, watches a play, plays around and plays hard to get. The easiest thing seemed to be to flip the question around and ask people what it meant to them. It was then I realized that men and women hold very different conceptions of play. Men talked largely in terms of activity, game, or sport. When pressed, they might mention sex. Most women responded with a brief story, describing a special moment and good feelings.
In my personal experience, frequently I felt unappreciated by co-workers for being playful and for breaking out into "inappropriate" behaviour at "inopportune" times. Inclined to view life from its brighter side, I have tended to avoid boredom through playful diversion, and will risk appearing foolish for the potential pay-offs. When I'm functioning in a playful mode I feel good about myself, spontaneous, and authentic. When I am lucky enough to combine playfulness with my work, the work sings. Sharing the fun with other people makes everything better; good feelings are contagious. On a spiritual plane, there are transcendent feelings of hope, of joy and celebration, of saying "YES" to life.
Talking and thinking about play for hours on end was an energizing venture. Four interesting findings emerged from the answers the women gave me: (1) play-fullness or the lack of it is an integral feature of their world-view, (2) the capacity for play may be enhanced as we grow older and more sure of ourselves, (3) women may have a particular capacity for play as a result of their preparation to function in the "non-serious," private sphere of life which includes their contact with children, and (4) play and learning can be potential partners in an adventurous, energized, and transforming quest for knowledge.
I was surprised to learn that each of the women saw playfulness as an integral part of her life-style, as a way of seeing and being in the world. To be playful is to approach life with a sense of wholeness, spontaneity, and connectedness. Playfulness is an affirmation of life itself since we choose to invest ourselves fully, willing to face the risks and the challenges of the unknown. Each of the women had difficulty speaking of play without referring to other parts of , her life. Despite describing themselves as cheerful, able to see the bright side of things' and to laugh at life's absurdities, they also acknowledged sorrow, pain, and struggle as complementary emotions.
Fun and seriousness are not mutually exclusive. Risa, a therapist, talked about the incredible surge of energy she feels when she acknowledges her own suffering: "It's like saying yes to that suffering. To say yes because suffering is also to be alive." Another woman, anxious to support her friend during a period of grieving, was surprised to find them both laughing within ten minutes of their meeting. "I think now I realize that that was not taking away the pain of grieving or anything else. It was making it all bearable." It seems we can play at things which are deadly serious without diminishing ourselves or the situation.
Concepts it' society which tend to be viewed as opposites, ie. glad/sad, work/play, mind/body, were viewed by the women in a more integrated way. In moving back and forth along a continuum in a cyclical or rhythmic manner, play can help to balance sadness and pain, and may even keep us from succumbing to despair. For sixty-six year old Brenda, taking things lightly is clearly a survival skill: "If I couldn't have the relief, the complement of seeing the funny things, the humour, the joy, then life would be too damn serious and I would dry up. I would become cynical and bitter, which I'm not. Joy is the mechanism by which you break the seriousness and the sadness that could overtake us."
None of the women felt a separation between the way they work and the way they play. Ideally, the two can be fused. Even housework can be fun if undertaken in the right frame of mind and at our own speed. Work ceases to be play when the focus is on a product, accompanied by the pressure of time and the threat of external evaluation (which is unfortunately the case for most working women).