I have a phrase I say to some of the buddies I play football with when they get a wee-bit too intense. You can tell they’re too intense because of the scowl on their face.
“Play with joy,” I tell them.
I say this when it looks like someone needs to take it down a thousand and I say it with a smile to remind them that we’re playing a game and the point of games is to have fun. When people are having fun, they tend to perform better.
I started thinking about playing with joy recently when I was stressing out a bit about an important upcoming meeting. Just thinking about the meeting was making me anxious.
I finally told myself that the only way the meeting would be successful was if I was at my best and I’m always at my best when I’m having fun. I know my stuff, I told myself; I just need to relax and talk shop. That did the trick. I knew I needed to be prepared but stressing myself over the meeting was not going to help; enjoying myself would.
When you look at the most successful, the most remarkable athletes, the one thing they have in common is that they play with joy. That joy shows up on the field at every turn. I think of the broad smiles that Kirby Puckett & Torii Hunter played with when they sported Twins jerseys.
I’ve always loved watching Brett Favre play–never moreso than this year, of course–because he shows such love of the game. He plays with joy:
One of the byproducts of playing with joy is getting “in the zone.” This phrase is used by athletes to describe a heightened state of consciousness where everything seems to go on autopilot and become effortless and it is in this state that athletes are at the top of their game. Your reflexes are quicker, your senses become more acute and time seems to slow down.
Kirby Puckett claimed the baseball got bigger when he was in the zone.
I’ve experienced this occasionally playing football but I’ve also experienced it when painting, writing, and in the course of my professional life.
And that, gentle reader, is my overall point: Be conscious about playing with joy, remind yourself to do so. Life is too short to play with a scowl.
UPDATE 12/23/09: This post was partially inspired by the book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, which I am nearly finished reading. Lehrer cites Mark Jung-Beeman, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, whose research “has shown that people in good moods are significantly better at solving hard problems that require insight than people who are cranky and depressed. (Happy people solve nearly 20 percent more word puzzles than unhappy people).