Playing With Depression

Depression at work costs US$ 1 trillion each year. Is there a solution from non-work, from outside of work, from play?

Beyond Medicine

Research published this year suggests that bouldering – rock climbing on artificial walls without a harness – is effective in fighting depression. After eight weeks of introductory climbing, symptoms of depression significantly decrease in adults. Researchers ascribe the benefits of bouldering to such factors as the constant focus required, the feeling of immediate accomplishment, the choice of skill levels, and the social aspect to the sport.

Rock climbing is the latest in a long line of extra-clinical, non-pharmaceutical activities that researchers have employed to successfully fight depression. Dancing, for example, has proven positive impact in decreasing depressive symptoms, whether defined as easy exercises to music or full on tango classes. Such forms of Dance Movement Therapy join the ranks of Chess Therapy in filling up the space where medication and talking therapies are not suitable, available or even effective.

Beyond Work

These three activities – climbing, dancing and chess – share several points of interest. Although it’s possible to perform them at a professional level, for the most part, we think of them as playful pastimes rather than as work. But there’s more. Each of them, along with surgery, served as a basis for initial studies into the psychological state of optimal experience, commonly called ‘flow’.

Flow is a feeling of total immersion in an activity. Flow theory was pioneered by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who investigated those who activities took their heads into ‘the zone’. Each found a certain activity intrinsically rewarding and motivating. And, while experiencing a loss of reflective self-consciousness, they felt a complete sense of control over the task at hand.

Beyond Boredom

Csíkszentmihályi published his first major book on the topic in 1975 called Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. There are some activities that represent a high level of challenge, but require a low level of skill. These produce anxiety and stress, precursors to depression. Then there are low challenge, low skill activities that make us bored and apathetic, the passive side of depression.

Flow can only be produced by bringing together high challenge, high skill activities. That means that many of the leisure activities in which we regularly participate – Csíkszentmihályi writes of the “dysphoric states” of television watching – do us harm. It also means that the work/play dichotomy becomes fuzzy, since we can find flow in both…or neither.

Beyond Surgery

Csíkszentmihályi studied the experiences of rock climbers, dancers, chess players and surgeons in his initial research into the psychology of optimal happiness. Most of us could attempt some form of the first three. But what about surgery? It’s interesting that surgeons have used the language of flow explicitly both in describing the pleasure they gain and ideal they strive for in their work.

An everyday alternative to surgical flow should fulfil these criteria. It must require a level of skill, even at its most basic, along with an increasing (and potentially unlimited) degree of challenge. It must provide a sense of immediate feedback, with clear goals and rules. Like surgery, it must involve the head and hands in harmony. And it must have proven benefits for depression. Here are three playful suggestions.

There are many ways to allow play into work, if we let it. From terrifying pitches to interview horrors, within the private or community sectors, play can refresh all aspects of workplace life. Play is the key to increasing productivity and mental health at the same time. Players call this a perfect win/win.