‘This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.’ – Alan Watts.

I’ve been thinking about how to write this post for quite a while now. I stumbled across this quote on www.thewayofmeditation.com.au and if the truth be told I am yet to read much of Watts apart from the excerpts I stumble across from time to time online. However, the quote above is so simple and informative I couldn’t resist writing about it and exploring whether or not it can help you live a better life.

My sudden urge to write this post came about today after a plumber came round to our house to fix our hot water that had abruptly stopped working. I never caught his name, but he was so happy and helpful, he never stopped smiling and laughed at the complications that were thrown in his way. This obviously isn’t an uncommon thing, there are people who exude happiness and joy into the things they do. However, if I paint the picture of our student house at the moment, it will make this man’s demeanour more impressive.

Having just had exams and dissertation deadlines, people have stopped cleaning up after themselves. In the kitchen, plates are sticking together and surfaces are left unwiped for days. One of the fridges has started to grow new life forms and a pungent smell has been brought with these colonisers. The main bathroom has a tendency to collect a centimetre of dust a day that gathers on a bathtub, toilet and sink that are many decades old. Needless to say, a collection of lazy students and a rather sorry looking bathroom does not combine to provide much emphasis for a clean space. Finally, the cupboard under the stairs has been used to collect pieces of furniture, suitcases and shoes over the last few months. This is also the location of various fuses and switches all related to the boiler, electrics and water. Unfortunately, the plumber had to contend with all of this as he waded through the mess of the kitchen, navigated the old bathroom and removed various items from the cupboard.

For some this would have been a nuisance and for others perhaps it would just be a routine part of the job. However, this man took everything in his stride with a smile and laughed at the state of our dirty house and the problems he had with its bizarre, old structure. I think this exemplifies what Watts means when he says ‘instead of calling it work, realize its play.’ Not to be angry at a situation and label it boring or irritating, but to revel in whatever it is you are doing, enjoying it and laughing all the while. This is exactly what the plumber did.

Another implicit message in Watts’ quote is that one pathway to a happy life is through our perception of the world. If we tell ourselves that the task we are doing is fun, then it seems we will be far more likely to actually have fun whilst doing it. There will be some who immediately say we can’t have this approach to everything. One morbid objection may come in the form of someone grieving; we can’t possibly tell ourselves that this process is a happy or a fun one. I’m not sure there is an argument against this, but I think Watts’ suggestion should be applied elsewhere.

If we approach those tasks we usually call mundane or boring that make us feel angry or irritated and realise these things are play then we will be well on our way to being happier. Of course putting this into practice is easier said than done, when I originally began thinking about this post I intended to write about one task I realised was play for each day of the week – I failed! However, I did reapproach a couple of mundane tasks with a smile on my face and the attitude that I should be happy that I have the liberty to be doing these tasks. A great example is cleaning. Contrary to the current state of our house, I am clean and tidy. After first reading Watts’ quote a couple of months ago I made a concerted effort to realise that cleaning was play and not work. Much to my surprise, I did have a good time cleaning and this continued in the times after where I have cleaned with this mindset. Furthermore, the times when I have cleaned the kitchen and stumbled across a bowl or plate left unwashed by housemate, rather than get angry I would be happy to wash it up and continue with the task at hand.

Other examples include proof reading people’s assignments, making the bed, changing lightbulbs and walking in the rain. Each time I realised that work was play I had a great time and it really lifted my mood for the rest of the day. Furthermore, when I have re-perceived work as play, the activities that I would usually consider as fun where made even better. Ultimately, I can say my mood was improved by approaching tasks with this attitude and being in a better mood is something most people would want to pursue.

As you may remember there is another part to Watts’ quote:  ‘be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now’. This is the tool that helps you realise that what you are doing is play. Completely focus on every detail of what is happening. How you are breathing, what your hands are doing, how your body feels, how the environment around you is reacting to your actions. Some aspects may work better for you than others. Focus on all or some of these details and they can amaze and mesmerise you into realising that what you are doing really is play.

I’m not sure whether it is the real secret to life, but it’s certainly worth trying! As always, comment any thoughts, questions or problems below.

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