Is the key to happiness acting like a clown?

Could the great Aussie larrikin hold the secret to healthy ageing? 

Forget, blondes. It seems people who see the playful side in life have more fun. According to research published in the American Journal of Play  (yes, it’s a real journal!) playfulness may contribute to healthy aging in older adults. We chat to Melbourne based Director of Positive Education at The Peninsula School, Therese Joyce, to find out how you can embrace your sprightly side whatever age you are . 

Child’s play

For some  people, playfulness is linked to their own childhood, explains Joyce. “It’s mucking around at the beach or playing sports in the backyard. It’s not about winning.” 

Not surprisingly, play and playfulness comes naturally to most children – it’s how they have fun, interact with others, grow and develop, and learn about boundaries. 

But somewhere along the line, perhaps owing to societal pressures to ‘grow up’, mounting responsibilities, and busy schedules, some teens and adults can start to suppress or lose their sense of play. 

Getting it back, according to Joyce, is as simple as being open to play. “Playfulness is more of an attitude,” she said. “It’s about being able to let go of the everyday concerns or stresses we have in life and immersing yourself in play.” 

For researchers and authors of Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation Paul Martin and Patrick Bateson, it’s not about what you play, rather how you play. Essentially, a round of beach cricket or tennis doesn’t rank very highly on the playfulness scale (also, a real thing), unless it’s cheerful, frolicsome or spirited.

It has to be good-natured, too. “We have to be aware of other people’s definition of play. It can be really annoying if someone is being the funny, jokey person all the time,” Joyce adds.  

Clowning around

Playful people generally have the ability to laugh at themselves, and they don’t seem to worry about looking silly, according to Joyce . 
 
To test this theory, Joyce interviewed 31 clowns from dozens of countries to see if there was a link between clowning around and playfulness. In her research, she found that professional clowns and performers generally  don’t take themselves too seriously, and tend to learn to accept failures and move on. 
 
“Part of learning to be a clown is to deal with that failure and that awkwardness that invariably happens, and owning the failure. You fall flat on your face, but …it’s not the end of the world.  You don’t have to run away,” said one of the research participants.  
 
In fact, Dr Peter Gray, a research professor from Boston College who has written extensively about the psychology of play, argues that the inability to play could negatively influence children’s emotional and mental wellbeing. “…without play, young people fail to acquire the social and emotional skills necessary for healthy psychological development,” he wrote in the American Journal of Play.

friends laughing and having fun

Give it a go

Play can be different things to different people, but the important thing is not to force it, explains Joyce. 

“Think of something you enjoy and set aside some time to try to do it. Not just in five minutes, but dedicate a whole morning or evening after work,” she said. 

“In our family we play a game called ‘Best, Worst and Funniest’.” At dinnertime, each person takes the opportunity run through the best, worst and funniest thing to happen to them in the previous week or weekend. “Each person has a chance to go through it. Sometimes the worst thing is also the funniest,” Joyce said.  
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