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Play & Building Your Anti-Depressant Brain

For years I’ve been studying what makes people happier and more resilient. I’ve looked at my own life, I’ve analyzed the experiences shared by clients and students, and I’ve studied the research from a psychological and neuroscience perspective. What the research points to, and what I’ve witnessed personally and with clients, is that each and every one of us possesses a core set of natural anti-depressants. When we tap into those natural anti-depressants, it helps shifts our brain activity in ways that make us less susceptible to depressive moods and thoughts. One of the most accessible and fun natural anti-depressants that can help break a bad mood and encourage positive neural activity is Play!

In my book, Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion I describe play as “a flexible state of mind in which you are presently engaged in some freely chosen and potentially purposeless activity that you find interesting, enjoyable, and satisfying.”

Here’s a great video from SoulPancake that shows adults that don’t know each other playing together:

What did you notice?

What I noticed were adults who were put in an enriched environment where the cues elicited play. Through play, they became more engaged, more open, and most of them seemed to genuinely enjoy the experience.

Research from Marion Diamond at UC Berkeley showed that rats in an enriched environment with toys and playmates showed growth in their cerebral cortex, which is the part of the brain that’s involved with cognitive processing. The rats in the enriched environments ran mazes quicker than those whose environments weren’t enriched. What’s more – the rats in what could be regarded as a “depleting environment” absent of toys and playmates showed a reduction in the thickness of their cerebral cortex.

This type of research has been repeated over and over with similar results. Engaging play reduces stress, and promotes creativity, productivity, openness, while revitalizing our sense of aliveness. It is literally a natural anti-depressant.

So, how can we create more enriched environments for ourselves, our children, our pets, and society as a whole?

One answer lies in understanding how our brain responds to cues. Most of the time our brain is making automatic decisions, and cues in our environments are influencing those decisions. If we’re often alone, there’s a lack of nourishing people in our environment. This cue is more likely to lead to depression and anxiety because we are naturally a highly social species. But, if our environments afford lots of access to playmates, these playful cues create more resiliency.

Encourage play at home and at work

Consider whether your environments at home and at work elicit cues of play. It’s good practice to be conscious of those cues. Routinely ask yourself how you can create more cues in your environment to elicit a more playful neural response.

Many companies are starting to create more enriching environments because the research is clear that it leads to happier, less stressed, more loyal, and more productive employees. If your workplace doesn’t have a program, look for ways in which you can help enrich the environment – create a joke board, take mini-breaks where you intentionally watch a short video like the one above, or hang out with nourishing people as a source of connection.

At home, consider what play means to you. It may be something you’d like to do, but a nagging voice in your head told you it wasn’t important, or “there are more important things to do.” (In Uncovering Happiness, I call these “Negative Unconscious Thoughts” or NUTs, because we often feel nuts when they’re around!) Maybe you want to pick up the camera more, reconnect with old friends, read a pleasurable book, or make a date with yourself to do something out of your routine that feeds you (the latter one is how I got started).

In the US, we see playtime as a luxury because we tend to overvalue work and productivity and our minds often tell us that play is unproductive. This is one of the biggest lies that our brain tells us. The research is clear – those that integrate play into their lives are more likely to run the mazes of life faster and more efficiently!

There are other tricks to uncovering a more playful life and to finding playmates, but the first step is always going to involve looking at our current cues and formulating ways to create more enriching, playful environments. Then, we need to actively create these enriched environments for ourselves even in the face of our NUTs or criticisms from others.

Being mindful of play and routinely engaging it in your life can create positive neural shifts that, when practiced and repeated, can build resilience and lead to an increased sense of self-worth and happiness.

Take a moment and share with us below – what does play mean to you? How do you bring it into your life? Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

This post originally appeared on

Play & Building Your Anti-Depressant Brain

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is creator of the six month online program A Course in Mindful Living, author of the book Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler: Quick Exercises to Calm Your Mind, the premier eCourse Basics of Mindfulness Meditation: A 28 Day Program, the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations. Join The Now Effect Community for free Daily Now Moments and a Weekly Newsletter. Dr. Goldstein is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles.

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APA Reference
Goldstein, E. (2018). Play & Building Your Anti-Depressant Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 May 2018
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