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Key to mental health: Learn how to play

Play your way to a fuller life

Europeans work to live. Americans live to work. We've all heard the adage. Or as a European colleague of mine put it even more bluntly: Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus. But that doesn't mean Americans can't learn to live a more enriched, less work-driven life. Read on to for the key to your mental health - learning how to play.

Overwhelmed Businesswoman

Americans and their relentless work ethic

Having spent this past year in the heart of Wallonia, Belgium, I can tell you there is some truth to such stereotypical assertions.

In my daily conversations with Belgians, many have been quick to ridicule the Americans for their love affair with the relentless "work ethic" that makes them live a life that is all work and no play.

"All you Americans think about is work" has become a standard mantra in virtually every opening discussion about the American way of life – something I had initially resented hearing, but have since grown accustomed to. My lack of enthusiasm about defending the American Way came with the knowledge that the typical American worker puts in nine to ten weeks more than his or her European counterpart.

Americans are on the road to burn out

There was actually a time when most Americans had enough free hours to socialize at the local bar and get away on the weekends.

However, access to and availability of cutting edge technology allows Americans to work smarter, but we also end up working a lot harder. Ask your colleagues, friends and family how they are really doing, and you are bound to hear stories of desperation and burn out.

Indeed, according to Boston College sociology professor Juliet Schor, the typical American now works 47 hours a week – at least 164 more hours than only two decades ago. In a similar vein, Sloan Family and Work Research Network issued a fact sheet claiming that the combined weekly work hours of double income couples with dependents under 18 has increased by an average 10 hours per week, from 81 to 91 hours in the past twenty-five years.

Make time for play

Playtime – a simple, intrinsic human need – has been the ultimate casualty in the battleground of our neurotic productivity. As a culture, we see productivity as the ultimate virtue, and idleness or play as weakness or a character defect.

As work gobbles up our lives, we fail to relish and live in the moment, and we've forgotten the sheer delight of play. To really savor life, however, we must indulge in this most intrinsic need.

"Play is an opening to our very being," writes Lenore Terr in Beyond Love and Work. "It allows emotional discharge, with the added benefit of carrying no risks."

Melissa McCreery, a clinical psychologist based in Washington echoes similar sentiments: "Play rejuvenates us. Play and fun energize us and provide gratification – a life worth living. Play takes us out of our thinking, analyzing mind - which is often overly focused on the past or the future – and brings us in touch with the present and with ourselves." Most adults perceive play as a luxurious indulgence, but it is essential to health, happiness and deep fulfillment.

As we are being asked to work longer hours, the need for play should not be something we only talk about, but should be actively sought after. Here are some suggestions on how to incorporate more play into your daily routine.

Next page...Five ways to play

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