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Reflections September 2014

Aid for Age

Playful to the Happy End

By Tait Trussell

“Playfulness is a central source of meaning in our lives. Most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the result of playfulness.”

“You can’t be serious.” she exclaimed.

“Well,” he responded. I was just being playful.”

Is that any way for a 60-year-old man to behave? Maybe so.

Mary Ann Glynn, now a professor at Boston College, who, along with her coauthor Jane Webster, published a paper in the 1990s that described adult playfulness as “a predisposition to define and engage in activities in a non-serious or fanciful manner to increase enjoyment.”

Based on a series of lab experiments and surveys, Glynn and Webster concluded that playfulness in adults was linked to “innovative attitudes” and “intrinsic motivational orientation,” meaning playful people were more likely to do things without regard for their practical purpose.

The researchers also found that when study participants were asked to compose sentences using a specific set of words and told to treat the task as work, they exhibited less creativity and figurative thinking than people who were primed to approach the exact same task as play.

A recent study has found that playfulness — which includes having a "sense of humor," a "playful" attitude, or a keen and abiding love of "fun" — is among the most coveted character traits for potential mates, both men and women.

“Of all human activities, playfulness comes closest to providing the fulfillment we all hope to get in our lives. Call it full-blast living,” says Bernie De Koven, a game designer and author. “Playfulness is a central source of meaning in our lives. Most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the result of playfulness,” he contends.

He has spent 30 years of research in how playful people live and work — mainly to make more understandable the “mysterious process by which they come up with new ideas…”  

“They work long hours with great concentration” while projecting an aura of enthusiasm. This suggests, he says, “a genetic advantage.” But it is “surprising” how individuals “in their 70s or 80s” recall childhoods plagued by illness.

In spite of the carefree air that many playful people affect, most of them persist when less driven individuals would not. Playful people alternate between imagination and “a rooted sense of reality,” he maintains.

Although psychological research considers introverts and extroverts, playful individuals, seem to exhibit both traits. Noble Prize winning economist George Stigler said “One of the most common failures of able people is a lack of nerve. They’ll play safe games. It’s in innovation you have to have to play a less safe game. If it’s going to be interesting, it’s not predictable that it’ll go well.”

“Most playful people,” de Koven says, “are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective as well.”

“Perhaps the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all playful individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. According to a recent study, people who have a sense of humor and a playful nature are more likely to find a romantic partner.

A team of U.S. researchers surveyed 250 undergraduate students to test their hypothesis for why humans, unlike other animals, continue to play in adulthood. Researchers found that both genders listed “sense of humor,” “fun-loving,” and “playful” among the most important traits they desire in a potential long-term partner.


Tait Trussell is an old guy and fourth-generation professional journalist who writes extensively about aging issues among a myriad of diverse topics.

Meet Tait