One day, deep, deep inside the Dark Forest, a lonely tree blossomed. All four of its blossoms gave birth to beautiful red flowers, with one of them even being a twin-flower. The beauty of these new-borns was evident; however there was no one nearby to witness this loveliness. Not even a bug or an ant. There were only other trees, tall, flowers-less, with dark, gloomy faces. If there was no one to observe its beauty, how can we know that it even existed on the first place?
However, in one moment, the silence of the Dark Forest was suddenly interrupted. A crusty sound of shattered leaves was approaching. It was a red-spotted tree, the most rear of all trees. These trees were so unique and rear that some people considered them to be mythological creatures. The strangest thing on these trees was that they could grow eyes, mouth, nose and ears, just like humans could. They could even move, although very slowly, if they sense something significant would happen. This particular red-spotted tree had grown his eyes, mouth, nose and ears long, long time ago. He was full of hope that beauty was somewhere near, hidden, and he used his every wakeful hour wandering restlessly through the Dark Forest looking for it. However, all he could find was dark, tall and gloomy trees that were not even aware of his existence. Years had passed by, and the red-spotted tree started losing his hope that he would ever find his happiness in the Dark Forest. When he was sad, his eyes would leak, he did not know why, but that made him feel a little bit better. Until one day, just as his hope began to fade away, when he was on one of his usual wanderings through the forest, he noticed a peculiar fresh and sweet smell. He started following this smell, moving as fast as his wooden body would allow him to move, and suddenly he saw something that he had been looking for ever since he opened his eyes for the first time. It was the most beautiful creation in the whole forest, the tree with red flowers. In that moment, the flowers could finally be seen and the red-spotted tree could finally see the beauty he was looking for. Then, the red-spotted tree looked around and noticed that not only the flowers were shining in their beauty, but also the dark, tall trees around them became lighter and brighter. The sunshine was piercing through their branches all the way to the cold ground. When he opened his eyes for the beauty for the first time, the red-spotted tree realized that he could see the world around him just as it really was, not as a dark and lonely place, but as a huge, bright space, full of wonders to be explored.
Research has shown that playfulness in adults is associated with:
– flow-experiences (Csikszentmihalyi 1975),
– enhanced group cohesion (Bowman 1987),
– creativity and spontaneity (Barnett 2007; Glynn and Webster 1992, 1993),
– intrinsic motivation (Amabile et al. 1994),
– quality of life (Proyer et al. 2010),
– decreased computer anxiety (Bozionelos and Bozionelos 1997),
– positive attitudes towards the workplace, job satisfaction and performance, and innovative behavior (Yu et al. 2007),
– even academic achievement (Proyer 2011)
– character strengths, such as humor, creativity, zest and hope (Proyer, 2011),
– subjective and physical well-being (Proyer, 2012).
One of the most amazing and most fulfilling experiences one can have is being in the “flow” or having an optimal experience. This concept was suggested and thoroughly investigated by a Hungarian psychologist M. Csikzentmihalyi. Being in the flow means that a person is fully immersed in an individual activity (e.g. creating music, writing, dancing, reading), or in a social activity, a board game, chess, or by participating in a stimulating conversation with our friends. Flow experience has been reported across various cultures, and it has been described in the same way, regardless of person’s age, gender, social status, etc. The most crucial characteristic of flow activities is reported experience of enjoyment while performing. In the same time, a person can act effortlessly, without worrying about everyday problems and frustrations. Sense of time is changed, it seems that the time simply flies while experiencing the flow. In addition, the flow experience is followed by a sense of control over performance and this eliminates worry that we might underperform or make a mistake.
Although, creative individuals and experts can enter optimal experiences much easier than other people might, there are certain characteristics of flow activities that can be managed in order to facilitate flow in everyday life.
1) In order to achieve an optimal experience it is necessary that the level of the task difficulty is neither too high or too low depending on the person’s skill level.
If the task is too difficult, then we might become anxious and stressed out. On the other hand, if the task is too easy, one might get bored quite quickly. A flow activity demands a certain skill level which needs to be acquired in order to be successful in it.
2) Flow activities demand high attention resources, with no or just minimal attention left for other stimuli. This might be the reason why people experience that sense of self disappears, as well.
3) The task has to be structured with clear goals and feedback. Having a clear, positive feedback while working, provides us with a signal that we are on the right track which energizes further efforts.
Optimal experiences are autotelic (Greek, “auto” self, and “telos” meaning), in other words, they are self-rewarding and self-contained. This intrinsic motivation for the activity itself and the following enjoyment is provided by the sense of achievement and control over its development. In order to initialize a flow experience, one has to invest some effort, but once when the activity starts to provide a positive feedback it becomes self-rewarding.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what kind activity you prefer as long as you have mastered its rules, and you fully engage your attention in it. If you do this, your efforts will be immensely rewarded with providing you with: “… a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushes the person to higher levels of performance, and leads to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transforms the self by making it more complex. In this growth of self lies the key to flow activities.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Playful individuals more frequently utilize adaptive, stressor-focused coping strategies and are less likely to employ negative, avoidant, and escape-oriented strategies