I’ve been thinking recently about how to keep a positive, happy and joyful vibe in relationships while reading book after book about families fallen in various routines. Thinking that as we grow older, we all get a little or more stuck in various habits, and then if we have kids or are suffering through very difficult times, such as the ones we live in, we may simply forget to look for things that create joy, relying instead on our partner—or our parents, or friends—to do that for us. And then things deteriorate and we don’t know why we’re so burdened and unhappy in a relationship or another.
Problem is, many people who are very successful professionally, and who have worked hard at their passions and schoolwork ever since they were kids, don’t even know what they may enjoy. Of course, they may enjoy traveling in principle, for instance, but they may not have time on their travels to really visit various places, moving instead from the hotel to one conference room to another, and then to dinner with some of the other professionals they are engaging with, and then back to the hotel room.
Other people, who are less successful in financial terms, may have the time for more leisurely travels but not the money. Or they may have ideas about all sorts of things they’d like to do, from learning to draw and paint to crafting greeting cards and jewelry, but find that their schedules are so packed with other family responsibilities that their ideas never take flight.
In all these cases, people forget that play is an essential ingredient not only for our personal growth but also for our family life and other close relationships. Your parents may be really grateful for a night at the opera, while you and your partner may really enjoy a night of live jazz at a bar away from your kids. Your friends may also really appreciate if you find tickets to a good theater play or concert, and these experiences together will take your friendships to a whole new level. It’s what I’m experiencing these days with some of my friends.
These days most of the times it falls to me to be the one who looks for these experiences to share with family and friends, and I know it’s easier for me to do that because I’m a planner and I tend to want to plan our evenings together. From what I’ve read, and from what I definitely see to be true, some people take charge of scheduling meetups and looking for various things to do together with others, while other people simply let them do that and go with the flow. If you are one of these latter people, you may enjoy your friends’ initiatives, which is great for everyone involved, but you may also feel that you’re not exploring enough certain things, like trips to the countryside or hiking in the mountains, or to the beach or a swimming pool, etc. If that’s the case, consider when and how you’d like to take action, and go for it! Go a bit outside your comfort zone and do try with your friends/partner/parents/pals some things that you know you’ll enjoy. And if you’re the planner type, consider taking a back seat sometimes to experience the novelty of someone else’s choices.
I do believe that just like neurons that fire together, wire together, people who do novel things together take their relationship to a whole new level, where, as the authors of the book Play (mentioned below) have found, this relationship is both more resilient and more satisfying to those involved. So instead of spending money on eating out or too many occasions, consider going horseback riding, for instance. I remember one such day spent with a friend at a place nearby Bucharest. Even though the state of my herniated back precludes me from any horseback riding, just watching my friend moving in tune with the horse was mesmerizing, inducing something like a meditative state. On a different occasion, also spent with a friend, her small child went horseback riding, but, this being Germany, he was also invited to first groom the horse by brushing his coat and cleaning his hooves, among other things. The kid was ecstatic! And the pony was so docile and in rhythm with his emotions and little body that once again I stood looking at the two of them go ’round and ’round in an enclosure—the horse walking within the radius of a tether held by an instructor—with fascination and the sense that the connection between horse and rider is very special, indeed.
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Many years after these experiences, here I am making a popular custom design for a sweatshirt for equestrians and other horse lovers.
And here are two T-shirts from Amazon, with some other nice designs.
I also created personalized pillows for kids who are in love with horses, such as the one below. You can change the name from “Personalize this template” and then if you want to swap the image of this tan horse with one of your own, you can easily do so from “Edit design.”
I also made a mug for people who are too old for these pillows, and for kids who collect mugs and photos of their favorite horse or horses.
And here’s the first design again, this time on a tee. It’s a fancy little composition for kids who turn to these sensitive, beloved animals for gentle communication and, in some cases, for therapy as well.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this presentation. If you want to read more about the importance of play in our lives, I recommend the book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown, MD, and Christopher Vaughan. They make very powerful points. One of them is that the violence exhibited by various murderers has something to do those individuals being deprived of play as children. Also the fact that people who use their hands in play a lot as kids (taking appliances apart, for instance) get better at problem solving as adults—which is why come companies now include questions about such activities in their hiring interviews.
Play also means abandoning ourselves to the unexpected in a pleasure-filled, satisfactory way. We may start a painting about a landscape, then find something in that landscape that inspires us to paint a body—so we do that instead, happy to experiment, happy to feel free, happy to experience the state of “flow”—coined and made famous by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—that the authors mention.
Even animals are hungry for play. Brown and Vaughan recount an instance where a bear played with a dog after the latter came toward it wagging its tale. They rolled on their backs and frisked with each other, and the bear even invited the dog into a hug. Play appears to give animals a survival advantage, helping them adapt better to new situations.
In humans, studies have determined that play helps with nerve growth in the amygdala (the seat of emotions) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (home to executive functions involving working memory, reasoning, conscious decision making, selective attention, and prediction of outcomes, among other things).
I invite you to read the book for these and other very interesting findings.
To a happier, healthier life,