Meaning Mondays: The Purposelessness Edition

I’ve come up against it. And there’s no denying: I simply want more play in my life.

So far, my Meaning Monday activities have been fun, but they haven’t always felt like play. Because there’s a difference between fun and play, I’m discovering.

Of course, meaning making doesn’t hinge on either fun or play. It could, but that’s not a requirement. In fact, it can be anything we need it to be, from deep philosophical conversations to satisfying work to a day at the zoo.

But the operative word here is “need.” And it’s become clear to me that I need to up my play quotient in order to experience more meaning in life.

As I set about to explore this, I uncovered an unexpected truth: I get confused about what constitutes work and what constitutes play. They tend to get mixed together, creating a moderately tasty soup, but one that’s still lacking some key ingredients.

With that in mind, I decided to pick up my tools (paper and pen) and explore further by making a few lists.

First, I made a list of the things that always feel like play:

  • Listening to music
  • Playing board games and cards
  • Going out to lunch or dinner
  • Watching a movie
  • Singing
  • Dancing
  • Being in, or simply looking at, nature (or even just the garden out my door)
  • Reading a book (not work related)
  • A trip to the ocean
  • Hanging out; talking with friends (a small group)
  • Soaking in the hot tub
  • Poking around small towns and back roads
  • Going to coffee
  • Rambling along a wooded path or a city neighborhood
  • Spontaneous adventures – trying something new
  • Culture: museums, concerts, plays, talks, the symphony
  • A drive in the country
  • Playing with the cats
  • A quick nap in the middle of the day
  • Visiting arboretums, public gardens, and nature preserves
  • Sitting by the fire

Next, I made a list of things that sometimes feel like play and sometimes feel like work:

  • Cooking
  • Walking
  • Gardening
  • Yoga
  • Sewing
  • Meditation
  • Writing

Finally, I made a list of things that seduce me into thinking they’re play, but rarely are:

  • Shopping
  • Surfing (not the ocean kind)
  • Television

Okay. Good enough. But once I finished the lists, I was still missing a piece of the puzzle. Something hadn’t quite clicked into place.

And then, by pure luck (and perhaps a touch of serendipity), I came upon this quote from Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play:

I give myself over to at least three or four hours a day of…spontaneous free play. It could be reading or what I would call extremely low-quality rogue tennis, hiking, playing with grandchildren. But, you know, if a day goes by and I haven’t…had some sense of timelessness and freedom and purposelessness, I’ll probably be kind of ratty by supper-time.

Ah ha! That was my eureka moment. I jolted to attention. Maybe you picked up on it too? Did you hear this phrase?


And these words?


Look up purposeless in the dictionary and you will see another word: aimless. How often do we give ourselves over to aimlessness?

As a matter of fact, how often do we equate meaning making with purposelessness? I’d venture to guess almost never. We tend to think of meaning and purpose as two inseparable twins.

But what if the opposite was true too? What if meaning required both purpose and purposelessness? And what if that constant striving for purpose had pushed out a key ingredient of meaning: PLAY?

Oh, after I read this my world (and those lists I’d made earlier) were spinning. No wonder I’m drawn to choose more often from the purposeful list that blends both work and play.

No wonder I find it more difficult to give myself over, to surrender, to the purposeless activities on the first list.

Yep, I’ll be the first to fess up to that. You too? Come on, admit it. I know I’m not alone here. Scads of books have been written about how adults don’t play enough.

Well then. Here’s my new mantra for the month: PURE. PURPOSELESS. PLAY.

Not all the time, mind you. But I can definitely start with at least an hour a day, and work my way up.

What about you? How do you pick your way through the jungles of work and play, purposefulness and purposelessness? And if you’re one of those people who are gifted at purposeless play, please share your secrets here!



31 thoughts on “Meaning Mondays: The Purposelessness Edition

  1. You’re a blessed soul to be able to merge play and work!I was raised to never do anything that was not purposeful. Now I look for opportunities to do just that! I find that my body knows what I need. I’ll get achy, or dizzy, or just tired and I know it’s time to lighten up. Julia Cameron talks about the Artist Date. A few hours devoted to exploring one’s playfulness. It feeds the soul. Here, here to your mantra!!

    • Oh yes, the artist’s date. Such a great idea. I’ve read the artist’s way but never actually been able to do the date! Now something is shifting though. I’m also really glad you mentioned how you were raised, because we do so often get that message about being purposeful and not wasting our time with that “play” stuff. Thanks for you insights, Maryse.

  2. Now that’s an interesting concept “aimlessness”. I would have to put that in the category of “relaxation”. I am hesitant to use the word “aimless” because it goes against the grain of my purpose. (evil little grin here)

    I agree totally with the concept and would add, to make an aim to be aimless is again “directed attention”, so the respite from the thought, feeling, action would be worth the while. In the system that I follow, this is choosing to change your “centre of attention”. Getting into another centre if you will. If one is intellectually fatigued, why not consider changing to moving centre. One could accomplish this by walking the dog or any other form of physical exercise. One then gains force rather than lose it.

    Meditation is very good provided that one realises that it is impossible to stop thoughts. We can only decide which to go with and which not. (and that requires practice) I wrote about this in my post “thought parade”.

    How I relax and get “aimless” as you put it, is changing my centre of attention. One of my favourites is to look at and I really mean “look” at nature. No thoughts just feelings and wonder. This is easy for me because I live in the mountains close to nature. Time seems to stand still when I do this and I feel recharged after.

    Thanks again for making me “ponder” You have excellent posts and exercises.


    • Hi Eso – Thanks so much for bringing your ideas here. I love how you speak of just looking at nature. Wonder describes it so well. And that is the essence of aimless play – something that has no agenda, no prescribed outcome. I also think I’ve rebelled in the past against words like aimless and purposeless. But now I’m seeing a different angle.

  3. Hi Patty! I let the 6 yr. old in me come out for “recess” daily – this is a must! That 6 yr. old is still in everyone, it doesn’t go away when we “grow up”, we just get that ridiculous adult role playing thing that says be responsible, accountable, don’t waste time, work hard – yeah, sure, we hafta listen SOMEtimes, but let the little kid out for recess! You’ll be glad you did! And that, Patty, is simple play in a nutshell!
    (let’s have our kids get together to play sometime!)

    • I knew it, SuZen! I knew you would be someone who has a handle on purposeless play. And yeah, I’m more than ready to let the little kid out. Have been doing so, actually, for the past four days, and it is blissful. Yes, absolutely, let’s arrange a play date. Hugs!

  4. For me, work and play also often merge. I was a lot more compartmentalized in the way I approached the two when I was in my 20s but now, I love that work feels like play most of the time.

    But I do wonder if I’m getting enough purposeless play. I sometimes feel I need to put more work into carving out play time. Being the parent of a little one helps, although not so much last week. Still, what little time I have that’s not directly related to work or some kind of responsibility is rarely purposeless. Because I do think it’s important to empty out sometimes and not let purpose get compacted within us. I do let myself linger in bed a bit when I wake up in the morning instead of jumping out of bed. That should count, right? I wonder if writing and reading blogs count?

    BTW, I love that there’s a National Institute for Play!

    • Hi Belinda – Yes, absolutely, lingering in bed counts! Blog reading and writing? Probably not. Purposeless play is play that has no agenda, no expected outcome. So if your blog related activities are agenda-less (mine aren’t btw) then maybe yes. I’m just getting clear on all this myself. If you click on the Stuart Brown link in the post, you will find a TED talk where he describes this kind of play and its many benefits. Fascinating stuff! Oh, and about the overlap of work and play: I used to think I wanted it all to merge together in one big pot, but now I want more differentiation. Not sure why. I didn’t even talk about my actual work in this post, and while that can be very fun, I’m not sure anymore that I would call it play.

  5. Patty — This was FUN to read:~)I liked that your PLAY list was much longer than your other lists. I agree with you about shopping…my thing is that I hate grocery shopping!

    I didn’t know about the National Institute for Play. That’s cool!I’ll have to look it up!

    Anyway, you really got me to thinking about what I consider play. I think of play as completely forgetting time while I’m playing, really enjoying what I’m doing and I can’t be judgmental about it. I don’t get this often with work, but can sometimes get it when I’m writing.

    Lately, I’ve been playing with washable markers…the kind you buy for little kids. I draw something, use the markers on it and then use my water color brushes to wash over it. I have so much fun doing this! So far, I’ve been able to keep my critical gremlin away from these play sessions:~)

    As usual, great post my friend:~)

    • Hi Sara – I think you’ve hit on the essence of purposeless play with your washable markers. It truly sounds like there is no agenda but FUN! Isn’t it amazing to just let the agenda go and see what happens? I’ve been doing more of that these past few days, and loving it! And if you like the idea of the nifPLAY, you also might like the Stuart Brown link on the post – a TED talk. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Patty –

    Loving it – purposeless play. What a joy you bring to the world. It is way to easy for us to get lost in taking ourselves SO seriously when there is whole world to play with. Play is part of enjoying the journey as well as caring about the destination and I am sure we need both to be happy. You also remind me of the distinction between mastery and mystery – we always feel compelled to try and master life, yet appreciating the mystery it brings is vital for balance. Love your work – keep it up – and keep playing.

    Phil –

    • Hi Phil – Welcome! Thanks for stopping by. You’ve really hit it – mastery vs. mystery. Wow, I love that. I do believe we tend to spend much more time in the mastery part. Thanks so much for that reminder.

  7. Thanks for identifying a problem I didn’t know I had–that sometimes things that are supposedly for play feel like work, and vice versa. For instance, I love to read (I’m a writer, for goodness sake) but how often do I make myself read something work-related. Far too often. And there is far too little “giving myself over” to a book these days.

    • Yes, Charlotte, that idea of giving myself over really resonates for me. I do resist it, thinking I should do something purposeful. But just reading for reading’s sake…that’s pure joy! Thanks for being here.

  8. Excellent article. I love your list and the sharing of your find. It is so important to play to give ourselves over to play and to simply allow the flow of play in our lives. We are generally very busy with all of the non-play in our lives. We create time for play through increasing our awareness and we can also allow play in some of the have to things in our daily life if we change our perspective a little. Thanks for this reminder I would stay … but I am off to PLAY!

  9. Patty, wonderful article! I love your lists, esp. the second one. We often fool ourselves into “playing” when we’re really doing it for some purpose. Playing for no other purpose except the enjoyment is wonderful–it’s the time that we recognize what flow means.

    Thanks, great insights!

    • Hi Kaushik – Thank you! And absolutely, I’ve been experiencing that flow you speak of these past few days. I certainly can get it in some of those work/play activities, but there’s nothing like getting it from pure play. It rises above all other forms of flow. Thank you for your comment and reminding me of that.

  10. Patty,

    It seems that as soon as I hit publish on my post today, I knew the lesson would appear everywhere. So much of what I’ve been doing lately has been purposed – there hasn’t been a lot of purposelessness. I like to play, really I do 🙂 And that’s a key ingredient that I need to add back to my life.

    Thanks so much!

    • Hi Peggy – Welcome! Thanks for visiting. I think you’re in good company here. Lots of us get lost in our focus on purpose, and forget about the pure joy of aimless play. So I really appreciate your comment!

  11. I would say play for me is being silly. Which my hubs (I got that nickname from suZen)and I do daily.

    Play is not caring how loud I’m laughing or who’s listening.
    Play is allowing myself to be out of control giddy.

    I can’t get enough play with my grandchildren and we are meeting in Chicago in 10 days!

    I love the definition of play by Dr. Brown!

    • Love those words Tess: silly, laughing, loud, giddy. You bring a smile to my face. And it sounds like those grandkids really take you to that place of pure purposeless play! Wonderful, and thanks.

  12. Hi Patty – I really like your play list a good reminder of finding the things we need to make time for. I cook a lot and enjoy it but it is work. Sometimes just finding “play” activities is really the best way to enjoy.//Marc

    • Hi Marc – Welcome! I really appreciate you stopping by. I’m glad you like the list; lately I’m thinking we all need a list like this. I just finished dinner out with a friend (on my list) and we talked about that. And I know what you mean about cooking. I do love it and it can be fun, but not purposeless. Thanks!

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