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drawing of happiness and play connection

❝All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. But if the only reason for which Jack plays is that he can work better afterward, he's not really playing.❞ -Alan Watts

People can sometimes become obsessed with exercise and workouts, especially at the beginning of the year (New Year's Resolutions, anyone?). I occasionally get asked what I do to work out. And my answer is that I don't work out.


That's right. A workout, as I define it, is something I have to do in order to stay fit. For me, a workout is lifting weights. A workout is doing hill sprints.

I don't work out. Instead, I play squash and pickleball. I run. I bike. I hike. I walk my dog.

In other words, I play. If I play, I don't have to worry about any extra benefits I might get, because I play for the sake of playing. That happens to be healthy, but that's not really why I do it.

If I viewed squash as something I had to do to be fit, it wouldn't be as fun, and I wouldn't want to do it.

But that's just me. How do you play? Why do you play?

Note: Don't take health and fitness advice from someone who draws pictures that look like a middle-schooler drew them.


There are a few ways people tend to think about play's role in their lives. One quite popular view is to see play as a reward. You can go outside and play once your chores are done. You can play video games once you eat your dinner. You can sleep when you're dead.

The common theme is that play is something that we want to do...

drawing of wanting to play

...but we only get to do it once we do the hard work required.

On some level, this makes sense because it feels like it could be a motivator for us. I need to get some work done, and therefore, I use play to motivate me to get my work done.

While this may make sense with short-term projects, it's less likely to be a good idea for long-term projects, or even life itself. The first issue is that you don't have to look far to find examples of people who put off their "play" until some point in the future and didn't make it there. It's the person who worked hard and wanted to play in retirement, only to pass away a year after retiring. It's the person who put off their happiness until some point in the future that never came. Author Bronnie Ware wrote that this is one of the top regrets people have on their deathbeds.

drawing of play as a reward for work


A second school of thought is to view play as a prerequisite to doing productive work. This has become more popular in recent years, and it sounds good on the surface. It gives you permission to play first and then do your work.

drawing of wanting to work pruductively

The argument is that play is something that recharges the batteries so that you can go on with your work more productively. This argument further says that waiting until you're done working in order to play will lead to burnout.

drawing of play as a prerequisite for work

This view isn't without its downsides, though. The main point this argument makes is that our focus should be number one on our work.

drawing of productive work

If the point of play is simply to do better work, then it's not really play. It's another chore to be done. Play becomes part of your work.

drawing of play becoming work

The Three Dimension Meaning in Life Scale assesses three dimensions of meaning in life: coherence, purpose, and significance. Coherence is the feeling that your life makes sense. Purpose is having direction in life. Significance is the belief that your life has value.


A third view is that play should be done for no other reason than the play itself.

At this point, it might be helpful to discuss means and ends. Ends are end results. Ends can be thought of as goals, outcomes, or objectives. Means, on the other hand, are the things you do in order to get the ends you hope for.

The second view - the view that play is a prerequisite to work - treats play as a means to better work, which is the end.

To treat play as a chore defeats the purpose of play. It treats play as an extrinsic activity. That is, it's something we do so that we can get something else. That could be more productive work, recognition, trophies, and so on. The common theme is that play is only done to get something else in return.

drawing of extrinsic play

The alternate view is that play should be an end. That sounds simple and doable, yet it's not without nuance. While it's true that the first view - the view that play is a reward - treats play as the end, it's also true that there are means to get to that end.

Treating play as an intrinsic activity bypasses any necessary means. It's not held hostage by something you need to get done first, and at the same time, it's not something you do for some other reason.

It's almost as if play becomes both the means and the ends. It's something done for the sake of itself. No rewards, no hidden agendas.

Just enjoying life. Why? Because you want to enjoy life.

drawing of intrinsic play


None of this is to say that there aren't benefits to playing. Depending on how you define "play," there could be physical benefits, psychological benefits, and yes, even productivity benefits.

There are benefits, but as Viktor Frankl has said (with regard to meaning), it cannot be pursued and must ensue as the unintended side effect.

This view dispels the perception that you should play to get some sort of direct benefits from playing.

drawing of pursuing play

Because, like happiness and meaning, the more you aim for it, the more difficult it becomes to hit.

drawing of play cannot be pursued

If you play for the sake of playing, without expecting anything in return, then you're using play intrinsically.

drawing of play for the sake of play

The paradox is that when you let go of any expectation of getting something in return for play, the benefits of play sneak in.

drawing of benefits of play must ensue

How can you design your life around what you consider play? How can you help ensure you'll look back on your life with nostalgia and pride and avoid regret? Once you know that, you're in a position to use your money as a tool to help you get there.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Ben-Shahar, Tal: Being Happy Burkeman, Oliver: The Antidote Dunn, Elizabeth & Michael Norton: Happy Money Emmons, Robert: THANKS! Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness Millburn, Joshua Fields & Ryan Nicodemus: Essential Robin, Vicki: Your Money or Your Life Seligman, Martin: Authentic Happiness Sivers, Derek: Hell Yeah or No Sivers, Derek: How to Live Whelan, Christine: The Big Picture



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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