Several years ago, my life collided with what I call “Barrie’s crossroad.” It’s a crossroad that I think we all come to at some point. You may have been there before. Or may be there right now. It’s when you find yourself doing everything you can to endure adulthood, while wondering whether you’re actually enjoying it. My life was blurring into a frazzled mosaic of busyness, perfectionism, and exhaustion. And what I came to realize was that the playful parts of my personality were slowly being overtaken by the intensity and seriousness of adulthood. This was not exciting news!
In the early 1900s, when adult life was similarly overtaking the scottish playwright James Barrie, he decided to write a play . . . a play about a boy named Peter, who never wanted to grow up. It was Barrie’s attempt to hold onto his childhood wisdom that he thought was escaping him.
As it turned out, my version of Barrie’s crossroad became a quest to learn how playfulness actually affects adult life in today’s age. I thought that if I could wrap my head around the benefits of playfulness, then I might be able to reclaim it as a balancing force and maybe even pay the insight forward somehow.
I began by observing, studying, and interviewing people who live with a lighter step, who live a little more on the playful side of the coin. I also searched across a range of disciplines—like psychology, sociology, history, neuroscience, and economics—to sort through the nuts and bolts of how playfulness helps us in our day-to-day lives.
The result became a book called Playful Intelligence. And the punchline of what I found is that playfulness in adulthood is best understood as a function of playful behaviors. What’s more, these behaviors affect our adult lives much differently than they did when we were kids. So the book centers on the five playful behaviors that in my research proved to be of highest value in adulthood: imagination, sociability, humor, spontaneity, and wonder.
As wonder is a subject of interest in this community, I would like to share some highlights of what I’ve learned about it. The biggest thing I can tell you is that playfully intelligent people have low thresholds for wonder. It does not take the Grand Canyon, a breathtaking piece of art, or a jaw-dropping performance to elicit wonder in the playfully intelligent.
John Muir, famed leader of the American nature preservation movement, founding president of the Sierra Club, and mastermind behind the United States National Park System, lived with a low threshold for wonder. One of Muir’s biographers, Michael Cohen, put this well: “If a reader learned anything from [Muir’s] narration, it was not what to see, but how to see it . . . . He tried to make his readers powerful and enthusiastic observers, like himself.” Muir’s lesson was that the playful behavior of wonder is about how one is seeing and experiencing the world, not what one is seeing and experiencing. This means having a low threshold for wonder by being open to finding it in all things, big and small, and even in those that at first glance may seem mundane and boring.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the playful behavior of wonder is its ability to keep us in the present moment. Wonder does this by stopping us and urging inaction rather than action. In this sense, it’s different from most other behaviors or emotions, which usually prompt us to act. It has been suggested that this inaction reduces inflammation in our bodies, which helps stave off cardiovascular disease and cancer. The science isn’t perfect here, but it’s encouraging. Wonder also grants us time to regroup and reflect, as well as become inspired, more trusting, and more supportive.
Wonder researchers suggest that we slow down and open ourselves up to new experiences. The idea is that slowness creates more opportunities for experiencing wonder. If you are moving through life too fast, nothing will ever catch your eye or be interesting enough to spark wonder. By being more open to new experiences, you will naturally increase novelty in your life and, in turn, your odds of experiencing wonder. But keep in mind, although these two suggestions (slowing down and new experiences) are helpful, they don’t guarantee a wonder-filled experience. Even when we allow ourselves to slow down or experience something new, wonder will still be elusive if our wonder thresholds are too high.
So back to James Barrie. Barrie was actually mistaken when he thought his childhood wisdom was escaping him. It was just trying to change—as all of ours is trying to do—into a playful intelligence that’s aware of how playful behaviors help us thrive amid the grind of adult life. Ones like imagination, which once powered our backyard treasure hunts, tea parties, and puppet shows, but now helps us empathize with others and reframe difficult situations. And wonder, which once launched us into the orbits of learning, but now grounds us, keeping the playground forever within arm’s reach.
When we understand this change, and we bring our collective playful intelligence together, something more magical than Peter Pan happens:
We start cartwheeling through the crossroads—showing the world a lighter and smarter way.