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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.

Five ways to play

1. Cut the electronic umbilical cord

"The first step in incorporating more play into our daily lives is establishing clear boundaries of when you're working and when you are not," says Lauree Ostrofsky, communications consultant and certified life coach based in New York.

Because of the convenience and pervasiveness of gadgets from laptops, and blackberries to PDAs, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish work-time from leisure. "To do so, look at a typical day and determine how much of that time you spend with electronics," Ostrofsky advises. "Consider how much of that day you're productive using these. Be honest about when you're surfing around, playing Tetris, giving yourself tethered-downtime. Instead of using technology to give you space from work/chores, stand up, look around, challenge yourself to fill that space with something other than a gizmo."

Instead of slouching on your desk, tapping text messages, for instance, meet a friend at a cafe. Establish a real connection filled with all the joys and nuances only a face-to-face encounter can bring. Europeans know this all too well, and gather at the end of a hard day's work in the rich traditions of cafes drenched in the aromas of coffee and wine. Instead of playing the fleeting fields of virtual reality, play a game of cards with your colleagues. If you are an avid iPod listener, why not visit live concerts in your area? Live directly by engaging in real tasks, in the real world with real connections.

2. Bike, bike, bike

One of the most striking features of European towns and metropolises is the number of workers – men in suits, women in heels - making the short pilgrimage to the nearest metro, or to their final destinations on bikes.

So why not get up earlier than usual and pedal away to work if you live in a bike-friendly locale? Says bike commuter Lee Gilbert, president and CEO of, a company specializing in bike safety gear: "In so many ways, commuting by bike feels more like playing rather than commuting. It is a great way to cut loose and play on your way to work."

If pedaling to work is not an option, you can still use the wheels to run errands, visit friends or do light shopping. With the movement to go green coupled with a tight economy, there has never been a better time to take up this carbon-free, two-wheeled mode of transportation. Your bank, body and our planet will thank you.

3. Abandon your comfort zone

Sometimes all it takes to introduce play into our lives is to break out of our hard-wired habits. Most of our lives are structured, our actions planned and risks coated. Get off the beaten track and throw caution to the wind. Challenge yourself to take new risks.

Perhaps you can even "take a step back in time to recall a favorite childhood activity," says Dr Benjamin Olshin, professor of philosophy in Philadelphia. "In the process, get a renewed sense of wonder about the world around you. Indulge in a double-scoop ice cream cone or get your face painted."

In my quest to recapture my favorite childhood activity, I recently dabbled in oil painting. As I tuned in to my teacher's message on opening ourselves to the moment, and the foregoing of any preconceptions, fears and rules, I found myself merrily dipping into the thick swirls of multi-hued lustrousness, allowing my brush to just free-fall on the canvas. As my delight deepened, I briefly forgot about the frenzy of the outside world, and felt unbound from its customs. The normal codes of behavior did not matter; I was in a temporary world inside the mundane limits of my everyday world, where living in the moment reigned.

Some people undergo the same ardor when they are traveling. "Leaving behind the trappings of my city, and exploring unfamiliar grounds allows all my senses to come alive," says a Dutch colleague of mine, who, like many of her fellow country men and women, travels several times a year. A lot of good comes from just abandoning our everyday routines.

4. Discover the voluptuous art of cooking

When US poet laureate Charles Simic was asked what advice he would give people who are looking to be happy, he said, "for starters, learn how to cook."

There is a lot of truth in this statement. As human beings, we eat three or more times a day – yet much of the joy possible when cooking has been turned into drudgery through an over-reliance on fast, industrialized food.

"Like industrialized sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor and paltry thing," laments Wendell Berry in the book Pleasures of Eating. We hurry to the next fast food joint, or devour the thousandth microwaved meal at the greatest possible speed, noisily and violently, all with a remarkable obliviousness to its effects on our general well-being.

Cooking, by way of visual and sensory immersion in the moment, can help you modify these empty, uninspired habits. Choose seasonal fruits and vegetables, preferably at the local farmer's market, as many Italians, Spaniards and Greeks do, making it a weekly ritual to buy and select colorful, seasonal produce.

Then go ahead, dance away, putter around in the kitchen; slice, dice, mince, whip, roll, chop and toss up as you let the subtleties of smell, colors and flavors tickle your senses. Let the kitchen be your biggest playground. Cooking can be just as merry and imaginative as drawing, painting or dancing. Better yet, make it a family affair, if you can.

5. Immerse yourself in nature

Diane Ackerman, in her eloquent book Deep Play, captures precisely why it is important to play in nature. "Playing in nature rejuvenates the spirit while deepening insight," she writes. "Lose yourself in it, and time will shimmy, the world will recede, and a sense of harmony will enter your bones."

Sixty-two year old Patricia Lorenz, who abandoned her play-less life in Wisconsin in exchange for Florida, has become deeply acquainted with the wonders of water. Although she still works full-time as a writer, when her muscles tighten up from ample time in front of the PC, she heads out to the ocean "to kick, float, swim and watch the clouds overhead."

Almost in the manner of a kindergartener, Lorenz marvels at her new explorations: "Last week, I discovered by scooping up big handfuls of sand on the bottom in the water that the sand is filled with teeny clams. When you drop them on dry sand and then scoop a handful of water on top they come to life and burrow themselves into the sand out of sight right before your eyes," she says gleefully. "I feel like a kid again. An hour at the beach, playing in the water is worth 50 hours at the psychiatrist's office."

Now go find your favorite spot, be it the forest, beach or the ocean and enliven your senses, soaking up the sound of the birds, and the colors of the season.

Play your way to a fuller life

Play allows us to take refuge from the frenzied pace of our modern lives. In essence it is a "sanctuary of the mind" as Ackerman writes, where one is exempt from the roles and routines that dictate our almost clock-work existence.

Finding time to play is as easy as injecting some of these habits into daily life – and before you know it you might become a little less conditioned to routine, and more accustomed to delight. Edwin Arlington Robinson, the American poet, may have said it best: "Life is the game that must be played."

More ways to live a fuller life

Top tips to banish bad moods
Put an end to Nature-Deficit Disorder
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5 Natural ways to improve your mental health
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