Wright Foundation | May 1, 2018

The Secret to Happiness: What You Can Learn from a Kindergartner

When was the last time you watched kids playing? Maybe it was your own children, nieces, nephews, or grandkids. Maybe you babysat for a friend or went to their house.

Do you want more fun in your life? Would you like to feel happier and more like a kid again? The secret to happiness is something we can learn from children. They know that true happiness comes from breaking down our barriers, learning to engage, experiment, learn and PLAY!

Not long ago I was visiting with a friend—a mother of two boys ages 3 & 4. These two little guys knew how to PLAY! I watched them as they got out their toy workbench. They had a small plastic hammer, screwdriver, and saw.

Now, we’d expect they’d play “building,” right? Surprisingly, no. I asked them what was going on with their clearly engaging and elaborate play.

“This guy is a plane,” Simon told me, referring to the saw. “Then Davey has the sword,” referring to the screwdriver his little brother was holding. “He has to fly in this guy over the mountain before he falls in the lava. Then he has to get the bear with his sword, but I’m the wizard and I’m going to put a spell on him.”


This was pretty wild, fun, and involved play (at one point I believe Davey hit Simon with the saw and there were tears). Mom sat back, coolly watching.

“Do they always get this involved in their play?”

“Oh yeah—this is totally normal stuff at our house.”

How Kids Show Us the Secret to Happiness

When kids play, sometimes they get quite serious. Yes, there’s an element of fun and joy to play (of course), but it’s also completely engrossing.  Play is mindful. Kids play to learn, it’s true, but it’s not all mimicry of “real life.” Davey might not grow up to become a bear-fighting pilot-fencer. Simon probably won’t become a wizard.

Remember when you were a child and played with your favorite toys, making up stories with your action figures or stuffed animals?

One day you were a zookeeper and veterinarian.

One day maybe you were a princess or prince.

One day you were an architect of great cities.

One day you were a movie hero or heroine, saving the day.

Didn’t it feel great?

Then, as we get older, what happens? A friend tells us our uninhibited play is “babyish,” or “there’s no such thing as…” We start to learn boundaries. Around age 7 or 8 we start to reign in our play to a specific set of parameters and socially acceptable guidelines.

As we become adults this reigning in continues. Even if we play on a community sports league or throw back a few glasses of wine and dance at a wedding, we’re still self-conscious. We’re still worried about doing what’s socially acceptable—what we think we should do. How we should “adult.”

In truth—what would happen if you allowed yourself to push beyond those barriers and really PLAY?

I recall an “aha” moment as I was writing my book The One Decision, which I actually went on to share in the book:

To play is to be fully alive in the present moment. In a here-and-now interaction with yourself or someone else, play will encourage you to grow and be nourished. When we are at play, we are curious, experimental, and open to new possibilities.
In fact, just the other day I saw how the principles of aliveness and play were woven into my experience. At some point in the morning, hard at work on this book, I began to feel drained. Then, I tuned into the stirring piece of music playing in the background, bounded out of my chair, and twirled around with arabesques as the song played. I was a prima ballerina! Then my writing felt like play as I toyed with ways to express theses concepts.
Throughout the morning, as I worked, I danced a jig to Irish music pouring through the speakers, read jokes out of a good joke book out loud, lit candles at our home altars, and prayed for my writing.
In the middle of another full session of writing, I took a break, prayed, and did a meditation for the soul of a friend’s grandmother who had recently died. After working all morning, I took a magnificent bike ride in the countryside, was moved to tears when thinking about an inspirational story of one of my personal heroes, and went to lunch with Bob, where I read a hilarious passage from a book aloud and we laughed until we cried, attracting the attention of our waitress, who shared our joke, and wound up chatting about her upcoming move to another state.
That evening, I shared a luscious barbecue outside on our picnic table while watching the sunset, and warmed up with a dip in the hot tub in the twilight.
As I reviewed just a few instances of my play during the day, I am now reexperiencing all the aliveness with myself dancing, with the book, and with Bob. I was truly nourished and believe I grew, and am growing even more, as I write this.
–The One Decision

The Rules of Being an Adult

Play is the secret to happiness. When we play, we’re engaged and allowing ourselves to “let go.” We’re having fun. We’re challenging ourselves. Play strengthens our connections with others and is good for our relationships. Life becomes an experiment, where trial and error are allowed and encouraged. Rules no longer apply.

So, how can we take these ideas of play and incorporate them into our daily lives?

Let go of these self-imposed rules. Allow yourself to engage with others. Be emotional, be alive, and imaginative. Learn, discover, create! Allow creativity to flow through you—don’t worry if you’re not good at it or compare yourself to others. Let go and jump in.

Children are constantly discovering. This is why the world is so full and interesting to us as kids—we’re stimulated by all there is to take in. We can get our sense of wonder and aliveness back, simply by allowing ourselves to experience something new.

Want to figure out how to start playing?

Visit a museum and spend time really examining and getting drawn in by a piece of artwork. Go to a concert and get swept into the music. Listen to the radio or an album and dance!

Take on a creative pursuit you’ve never attempted before—painting, dancing, theater (plenty of pretend and imagination), comedy, or another form of expression. Sculpt with clay, decoupage, or paint. Allow yourself to freely experiment.

Play a sport, throw a ball, hit with a racket, swing on a swing. Don’t feel like you need to be athletic to go for it. Ride a bike or scooter. Roller-skate! Do an activity even if you fear a minor scrape or injury—part of play is allowing ourselves to experience hurt—physical hurt, OR the emotional hurt of embarrassment or self-consciousness. It’s okay.

If you attend a sporting event or watch your favorite sport, get into it! Part of the fun is rooting for a team based on arbitrary factors, luck, and circumstance. Cheer for the home team or cheer for the away team. Simply have a good time.

There are no rules that say you can’t eat dessert for breakfast, occasionally. There’s no rule that says you can’t eat dinner on your living room floor, you can’t wear a bold color, or you can’t sing along when your favorite song comes on (wherever you are).

Play is spontaneous and fun.

Find opportunities to turn the mundane into play too. How can you make a game of your next trip to the supermarket, project at work, or household chore? It sounds difficult but think like a kid. Can you time yourself? Challenge yourself somehow (talk to every person you see wearing black shoes at the store, pretend you get 10 points for every accounting error you find on a spreadsheet, or clean the house doing your best Mrs. Doubtfire impression)? You can still get serious work accomplished, without taking it too seriously.

Play is the secret to happiness; a way to awaken and enliven our souls. It leaves us feeling energized. It fuels us toward new ways of thinking and new epiphanies. It keeps us feeling young, vibrant, joyful, and upbeat. If you want to experience a zest for life—play!

For more ways to discover purpose and joy in your life, please visit us a www.wrightfoundation.org. We’re excited to share many of our courses available for download at a special, introductory price as well. Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to explore and learn more about yourself!

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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.

Photo by Myles Tan on Unsplash.