In recent years, I’ve received a lot of comments about “working too hard.” I find this incredibly hilarious because of how frequently I would welcome comments for being “lazy” when I was younger. At first, I had trouble understanding how wanting to work hard and do your best could be a bad thing. Denzel Washington said, “You’ll never be criticized by someone who is doing more than you. You’ll always be criticized by someone who is doing less.” 1 I don’t think anyone is actually worried about me working too hard. I believe they are confused about why I’m working harder than they are.
Most people value play more than work and optimize their schedules to minimize their work time and maximize their playtime. Especially in the United States, this is how our culture and media have conditioned us to think. 4 There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. For many, playtime is necessary to spend with their family, friends, and loved ones. As an avid enthusiast of video games, movies, and comics, I hold deep value in entertainment. We all grew up with the same belief: to idolize superstars, and one day you’ll be them. After all, this is the American Dream.
However, with depression being a rapidly growing epidemic 3 in our country, it’s important to wonder, is the American Dream broken? We’ve been taught to think the opposite of work is play, but they are actually the same thing.2 Play is an opportunity to focus your energy, with relentless optimism, on something you enjoy doing. What we consider to be work is when we must focus that same energy on things we do not enjoy. It’s no wonder why we choose to maximize our playtime and do the things we enjoy. So why do we have growing rates of depression when we’re so good at prioritizing playtime?
We experience two key symptoms when we’re depressed: a sense of pessimistic inadequacy and an apathetic lack of activity. For many of us, this can likely be because the activities we enjoy don’t yield much productivity or help us advance our goals and position in life. However, to better understand someone truly satisfied, we can reverse these two traits and see someone who is: optimistic of their own capabilities and invigorated with a wealth of activity. For many, including myself, this is a learned trait acquired by turning your work into play.
In Japan, this concept is known as Ikigai, 6 and this is a practice that has been studied for centuries. The core principle is that to achieve your “reason for living,” you must find your work that fulfills your 4 needs:
- What you are good at
- What you love
- What you can be paid for
- What the world needs
In America today, we abuse play as an escapist tool to satisfy our first two needs while viewing our third and fourth needs as “hard work.” I’ve always wondered why I don’t play video games as much as I used to in recent years. I make some time when a new title comes out that excites me, when there’s an opportunity to enjoy some time with friends and family, or when I’m doing research for my own work. However, my playtime had dropped significantly from when I was younger, and I would be playing almost every day. I think the answer to my question is now clear to me. I stopped playing video games because I found an even better game: making video games. The time I’ve spent playing never went down. In fact, it’s gone significantly up. I just found a game I can play, which satisfies all 4 of my human needs!
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