Can rationality help us be playful? Can we be playful when we're solitary?

Play is usually interactive. It's about connecting with other people, or even with a pet animal. When people do "playful" things by themselves, it's usually for relaxation or practice.

The presence of a second person changes everything. You can react to each other, surprise or influence each other, create structure together. Group decisions are easier to commit to after a choice is made.

Many activities can be fun, engaging, and interesting, without being obviously "playful." A chess game can involve more mental concentration and stillness than is required of most people at their jobs, yet be a delightful hobby activity for the participants. We even say we "played" a game of chess. So why doesn't chess feel playful?

Partly, it's because play is usually physical. Even if we're just having a playful conversation, our body language and voices can bring a physical element to the exchange. Chess, like writing, reading, and many other fun-but-not-playful activities doesn't typically use our big muscles or our social muscles.

What about exercise? That's not conventionally playful either, even though it uses our muscles. Even athletics, like a game of tennis, can feel fun-but-not-playful, unless the participants are joking around and being social while they play.

It really does seem to be the social element that's key for a sense of play. If we watch a talk show, the participants often have very playful interactions, even though they're mostly just sitting in chairs talking.

Even in a social setting where both participants desire a playful conversation, though, it's often very difficult to achieve. It's so easy for even good friends to feel awkward, formal, and serious in each others' company. Coming up with a playful text message takes work for many people. Especially at first. If a conversation chain gets going that has taken on a playful tone, it might stay that way. Positive energy, a combination of kindness and rudeness, and not taking things literally all can be fertile ground for a playful conversation.

If you're leading a solitary life, though, is it possible to be playful? What about in these lonely times?

Can you think playful thoughts? After all, our inner world can often feel like we have multiple perspectives, multiple voices within us. Is it possible for them to have a playful interaction?

Can you find a sense of play in observing the world around you? Can you flirt with a building, joke with the sky, let the trees in on a little secret, tell a story to the sidewalk? I'm not just being poetic. I literally mean that it seems at least possible that there's a way to have a felt sense of playful interaction with the world of objects.

Certainly it's possible to have brief, playful interactions with strangers, especially if they're in a service role. There are ways to be friendly with the cashier at the grocery store.

What about in being creative, meditative, or just in the activities of daily living? Is there a playful way to clean the bathroom? To meditate? To write a song?

When I imagine trying to do any of these things, my first thought is that I would feel foolish, self-conscious, and pathetic. A person who's so needy that he resorts to seeking connection with the inanimate objects around him. I heard a story once about a man who was so lonely that he took to hugging a support beam in his house.

It occurs to me, though, that those reactions are coming from inside me. It's my self-talk and my imagination that anticipate that sense of bleak foolishness. Observing that, it seems to me that my self-talk and my imagination are responsible, at least in part, for depriving me of playfulness. Of even trying for it.

After all, I do many things just to see if they can be done. Some of those challenges are incredibly difficult. Sometimes I have little idea of how I'll approach it. By throwing myself into it, setting the goal, my intuition starts to devise a way forward. Maybe this could work.

Experiment 1

I try just standing up and seeing what might happen. My perception changes, almost immediately, to a quite different frame of mind than I'm used to. Suddenly I feel like I'm an actor on a stage, even though nobody is home. I feel the urge to take my shirt off. Why not? As I stand there, I notice that the white blanket on the couch looks like a cape. I imagine wearing it that way.

I walk around the house aimlessly. Sometimes I stand looking out the window, or at myself in the mirror in the shadows of the hall. In the kitchen, I find myself gazing at the reflection my kitchen table makes in the mirror, with my silhouette behind it.

I notice how my mind wants to give itself tasks and find distractions. To clean messes here and there. To walk around, set destinations for myself. Sometimes I tap on the walls. Sometimes I just look at objects: the box fan, the thermostat, the pots and pans. Most of the time, it's just a passive noticing. Sometimes, my brain imagines something silly I could do with them, like banging the pots and pans together.

There's a sense of achievement in the moments when I notice something beautiful, like the reflection in the window pane, or how my body looks in the shadowy full-length mirror in the hall.

Experiment 2

After writing all that down, I stand up again. Another experiment. This time, the mindset grows on me more easily. At first, I regard things around me: the drapes, the brick wall on the building outside my window, and my brain wants to find something in them, but I know that there's nothing there. This isn't something you strive for. It's something that should just appear.

Then I walk into the kitchen and look at the hanging fruit basket. I remember how it was given to me several years ago by a friend who was living with me. I observe that I don't usually go back through old memories, especially not when I'm alone. Then I remember a more recent memory associated with it. A week ago, I came home from a trip, and a potato in it had gone bad - liquified - dripping the most foul-smelling brown liquid. Even after cleaning it up, it took half a day for the smell to disappear.

I look around at the messes that need to be cleaned up after a full day of activity. The boxes of cleaning supplies that just arrived because I'm trying to keep a cleaner house. I think of the reasons why I'm doing that. And so many of the other forces that define my life: school, work,  my efforts to maintain my social life. It all feels very big. And very small. 

I look at the pots stacked on top of the refrigerator. It looks sloppy. But what can I do? It's the practical way to store them. I regard the cabinet drawer that opens with an awful, nails-on-chalkboard squeaking sound. Will I get around to sanding it down at some point? Then I look at the print I made of the elephant hawk moth, Deilephila elpenor, the moth that can see full-color vision in dim starlight. I think about how I learned to make block prints. Notice how I like the rough texture of the print, and the childish simplicity of the lines of its body. How if I don't pick it apart, it looks beautiful and unusual. I think that perhaps Deilephila elpenor is a metaphor for this project, of learning how to be playful in solitude.

Experiment 3

I stand up briefly again. For less than a minute. Surveying the kitchen again, I get this conception of how it would be to be a relentless, fast, machine-like worker in my own life. One who cleaned every mess as fast as possible, then immediately transitioned to sanding down that cabinet drawer, to organizing the fridge. That threw on music as I worked. Now as I sit here writing this, perhaps one who spontaneously breaks out dancing all in the middle of that frantic activity. A sense of being magnetized to the world, controlled by it almost like a puppet, drilling down deeper and deeper into what needs to be done until, perhaps, hitting impenetrable rock. Or oil. Or fossils.

Then again, I think about this sense of playfulness. How right now at least, it seems to demand slowness, and stillness. There is the mode of compressing as much accomplishment and activity into the shortest time interval possible. Losing the meta-level and burning yourself up in sheer obvious activity. But don't you lose something like that? Would it be good to practice both, to switch? Is there something important for me to learn in this playful stillness? Am I being playful? Is there also something to drill into in the stillness? Not measured in checking off tasks from a list, but in some other way?

Experiment 4

I won't recount everything I think and experience this time. Suffice to say that my thoughts begin with deep melancholy, dwelling on many sad aspects of my life, the world we live in, the dysfunctions, the ways people fall through the cracks, and the ways we try to escape.

Then it hits me. If I'm not playful, it's because I relentlessly dwell on sadness and dysfunction and a sense of lack.

What if I choose to think about experiences from the day that were pleasant? Or found a playful way to think about the experiences I had?

I reflect on the COVID-19 test I had today, and imagine that it was like having my brains twisted like spaghetti around a fork. The chipper nurse who registered me for the test. How I'm waiting for an iPhone with a functioning camera to arrive in the mail so I can take pictures for Tinder, how I'm going to have to figure out how to pose, to be a show-off. I think to myself, "this is going to be fun!" I begin to feel as though I'm having a conversation with myself. That I'm playing with myself.

Experiment 5

There's a few stalks of lavender in the vase on my kitchen table. I stole them from the church.

Normally, I would just stare vacantly at them. Or I'd say something like "I took them from the church," stated as a dull fact. But now, it's I stole them from the church. As if I'm letting myself in on a little secret. That I've been up to something a bit mischievous.

Experiment 6

It occurs to me that I've never felt playful while cooking a meal. It's been work. An attempt to impress. A learning effort. Never play, though. Except once when I was little, and my mom let me throw everything in the spice cabinet into a "cake." I thought it was poisonous and fed it to the birds. Not out of malice. I was just a bit of a stupid child, really. Wasn't thinking overly hard about the birds' wellbeing. I'm sure that if I'd thought twice about it, I'd have found something else to do with it, but instead I took it out and sprinkled the crumbs in the grass.

The links of all the activities I've done for serious motivations, with a serious attitude, spread out before me. What unites them? There's something missing from all of them. It's a story. It's caring. A sense of heart, of play, of connection to myself. It's something I think has been available this whole time. The story I've been telling has been largely bitter, paranoid, anxious, jealous, self-deprecating, sarcastic, arrogant, dull, serious, and wounded, for a very long time. I put a smile on my face. I'd really like to change that.

Experiment 7

My thoughts putter around. A birthday party from two years ago. A woman I met there who I flirted with and haven't spoken with, a friend of a friend. I realize that I still have a bit of a crush on her. The feeling actually registers in my heart. It's not a mental realization, not a plan, not a "what if I got in touch with her?" or a "I should ask my friend if she's single." It's just an emotion, a pleasant twinge, nice to have all on its own.

I double check the name of the woman I matched with on Tinder, but whom I haven't heard back from yet. Her name is the same as the one from a song I liked when I was a kid and haven't listened to in many years.

I check myself out in the mirror. I realize that after changing my grooming habits dramatically, I feel attracted to myself in a way that I haven't ever experienced before. It's a nice feeling.

All I'm doing is gently encouraging my mind to land on pleasant memories, objects with good associations. No need to control or actively seek them out. It's like my mind is a butterfly that has finally learned to seek out flowers to land on. Sometimes it's "in between" thoughts, just traveling, or blank.

I think I should give my house a name.

Experiment 8

My brothers' jade plant is half-hidden behind a wall, peeking out around it with two of its branches. It's in a big, beautiful clay pot with Chinese dragon designs all around it. Right next to the shoe rack. Needs better Feng Shui!

There's a way of paying attention to objects so that they reveal themselves to you. If you stare hard at a point on the wall, it feels neurotic. There's nothing there. But allow your gaze to trace over the whole house, and suddenly you're in a place that's full of memories, potential, and meaning. This is my house. I live here. It's a place where I can invite guests in, where they feel privileged to feel welcome. It's a place that I rent, but that is mine for as long as I am doing so. I remember when I first moved in. I remember when I didn't have a house, when I lived out of my car for a summer. I think about the other people living nearby: the intriguing apartments filled with plants, Christmas lights, and comfortable-looking furniture across the alley. Who lives there?

I should pick out my favorite houses, and imagine the lives that people lead there.

Experiment 9

Think about linoleum tiles. Somebody designed the color scheme on these ones. They're sort of flecked with different shades of blue and white. It's kind of pretty, actually. Did the linoleum tile designer hope that somebody would appreciate the way they make the kitchen floor look a bit like an abstract archipelago of sandy cream tiles and blueish watery tiles?

Experiment 10

I'm looking at the stove. At first, it seems tiny, cramped: this is all I can afford. Then it changes. It's cozy. It's all I need. I imagine hanging up a little earthy bundle of plants behind it. A rose or a bundle of grass. Just to mark it. To give it some love. Maybe it would catch fire. But in any case, I don't need to. It's enough to practice that mental shift. To see the thing, to honor it, to appreciate it for what it is, to find beauty in it.

Experiment 11

Other things I think about. A stone I brought back from Iceland transports me back there. Looking at the fingerling potatoes I bought makes me think of my breakfast tomorrow morning. Black coffee, potatoes chopped thin with eggs, green onions, and hot sauce. I so rarely think about meals the next day, or even later the same day.

There's a garden spider on a web outside of my window. I draw up close to peer at it. Hairy legs, a pattern of white crosses on its abdomen. The web blows in the wind, rippling the spider just a little closer to me as it hangs in the darkness. I wonder if spiders can feel cold.

Experiment 12

Among many other observations, one thing I notice developing is an awareness of how my mind can look at things in two very different ways. One is gentle, detached, and moves like light over the surfaces of things. The other is piercing, aggressive, and tunnels like a deep borer digging a tunnel. The latter is all to easy for me. It's the default. I like the developing ability to have gentle thoughts.

It occurs to me that in all our investigation here on Less Wrong about the problems of rational thought, the difficulties of synthesis, and how bias and emotion affect our judgment, it's never seemed quite possible to bring it all together. The problem of good thinking feels impossibly large, for even one single issue. The arguments endless, the proofs too large for the mind of humanity.

I have an inkling. I'm standing in the hall, and becoming aware of all the machines and electronics that are running in the house. My computer. The lights. The refrigerator. And I can hear an airplane flying overhead, a car outside. Smoke is thick in the air from wildfires. A physical awareness of the constant energy usage dawns on me. How little I think of these things most of the time. Every appliance in my house is sucking in energy through a straw from some central power source. So is every other apartment, in every building, throughout this city, and in every city.

The activity is relentless. Manipulation of words on the computer. Of bits, of atoms. The construction company that builds houses, that built my house. The factories refining raw materials into useful ones, and turning those into products that people put to use. The way that sometimes, it comes together in ways that feel meaningful, useful. The side effects, of waste, of CO2 entering the atmosphere, and how it heats up the woods and leads to the forest fire, and how the smoke in the air is keeping me from running, and how this virus and these smokey days are destroying what could have been beautiful and social times in my and in our lives. The argument stops being words on a page. It's a connected series of images and objects that simply are related. Science has allowed my mind to move, to wander the globe, in ways that make sense.

This is what it feels like to understand something. Rationality isn't fundamentally argumentative. It is fundamentally experiential. It is observational. It is imaginative and visual. The reason why winning an argument never works is because you have completely missed the mark when you argue. Convincing somebody is about helping them to see as you see, to help their mind learn how to wander in the directions you know it's capable of. To help it see the turn it consistently misses and convince it to open certain doors and have a look inside.

So there is a reason why we are stuck right now on this earth.

We are missing the art of opening doors in each others' minds, guiding each other along new paths, and allowing ourselves to be guided. Instead, we are erecting arguments, slogans, screeds, that separate people into camps: those who disagree and reject the thing wholesale, and those who agree and add more links in the chain. Some places relationships and online spaces are nothing but collections of these steely monuments, landmines, booby traps, flags, orders, coded messages, propaganda.

Or maybe that is just my mindset at its most paranoid. Perhaps the fault is not in the words. Maybe this is an era of an extraordinary flowering of the human mind. It may be that we are only just beginning to learn how to open ourselves to it. When we stand outside these word-gardens, these strange sculptures with messages we won't understand until we've meditated among them, they seem frightening to us. Who build them, and why? What am I doing here? This experience feels like an intrusion in my life.

Perhaps there is a way of finding playfulness with the world-sculptures, too. Connecting with them, just like tonight I've been able to connect with a reflection in the window, with a stone, with a fruit basket, with the sight of the community center next door, with my own body, with a spider on its web in the darkness, with a white blanket folded on the couch that looks like a cape I might wear.

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1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:11 PM

I have a few unconnected thoughts. A disjoint reply to a disjoint post:

  • "The first virtue is curiosity." A lot of these experiences are seeing with fresh eyes.
  • This reminds me of mindfulness meditation.
  • This reminds me of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book about being friends with household objects.
  • Children play to learn things. Maybe adults should too.
  • A few weeks ago I was walking alone at night in the middle of a small street. On a whim I started to dance, but it just made me feel more alone. Even when I've been silly in the past, I was silly with friends. I doubt that I could ever think a thought to myself that will make me laugh as hard as the funniest things my friends have said to me or that I have said to them. Maybe I could play myself if I tried soft enough, but why should I when voice chat is a few clicks away? Maybe rationality can be playful, but why should it be solitary?
  • Did you really play alone if you tell another person what you did? You wanted to see if you could produce a certain kind of solitary experience - and then you shared the experience on the internet.