August 14, 2023 • Article, Third Third, Third Third Journal
“Now that you are retired, it’s time to play pickleball all day, every day.”
That’s the message from the front of a retirement card. It reflects the growing popularity of pickleball in the United States, especially among older adults. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the country. An article in TIME observes, “More than half (52%) of core [pickleball] players—those who play eight or more times a year—are 55 or older, and almost a third (32.7%) are 65-plus.” If playing pickleball all day, every day isn’t your cup of tea, perhaps you’d rather have the poster that proclaims, “Retirement To Do List . . . Play Golf.”
Both the card and the poster bear witness to the popular view that retirement is mainly a time to play. For some, it’s pickleball or golf. For others, it’s cribbage or Wordle. For many retirees, travel is a delightful form of play, as is hanging out with friends or grandchildren. No matter the form it takes, play can be seen as the main point of retirement. “You worked hard for decades,” or so the story goes, “now it’s your turn to play.”
But, I wonder, is this a good way to think about retirement? If we want to flourish in the third third of life—to live fully, fruitfully, and faithfully—where should play fit into our lives? Can play help us flourish? Or might it actually get in the way?
Purpose, Play, and Flourishing
Academic research demonstrates that living with purpose is essential to living well as we age. For example, researchers in Australia examined the connection between purpose and well-being among older adults. Their findings “indicated that older adults with a higher sense of purpose showed higher levels of functioning across a range of aging well measures and greater longevity relative to those with a lower sense of purpose” (Note 1). A meta-analysis of 70 studies of purpose and aging found “strong associations” between purpose and “psychological well-being and low levels of depressive symptoms” (Note 2). So, if you want to flourish in the third third of life, you need a clear sense of purpose.
Play, however, doesn’t seem to help us have purpose. In fact, one of the most common scholarly definitions of play affirms that it is “purposeless, all-consuming, and fun.” Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of The National Institute for Play, writes in his book Play: “One of the wonderful things about play, one of the elements that makes it play, is its apparent purposelessness” (Note 3).
So, if purpose is essential for third third flourishing and play is essentially purposeless, then it might seem that play is at best irrelevant to and at worst harmful to flourishing.
But this conclusion, though worth taking seriously, doesn’t tell the whole story. It does, I believe, alert us to the fact that if we envision the third third of life in general and retirement in particular mainly as a time to play, we will diminish rather than enhance our flourishing. This does not mean, however, that play is necessarily irrelevant or harmful. It all depends on how and why we play.
You see, there is a sense in which play is purposeless. When I play, I’m not trying to produce something of value. Rather, I’m enjoying the experience of play and the freedom from the need to be productive. But the purposelessness of this experience ironically can serve a purpose. As Brown writes, “Again, one of the hallmarks of play is that it appears purposeless. But the pervasiveness of play throughout nature argues that the activity must have some purpose after all” (Play, p. 30). Play, as it turns out, can do good things for us when it’s part of a full, balanced life.
Why Older Adults Play?
Scholars have begun to wonder why older adults play. What motivates them? What reasons do they have for playing? What is the purpose of older adult play?
Brown observes that all play “offers a sense of engagement and pleasure.” A recent study sought “Reasons why older adults play sport.” The researchers identified three main reasons: “maintaining health, feeling and being part of a community, and taking advantage of opportunities to develop relationships.”
Not all older adults play physical sports. A surprising number do play digital games, however. A recent AARP study found that there are 52.4 million 50-plus digital gamers in the United States. That’s 45% of third third folk, by the way. Though “gaming is primarily used as a means of having fun, reducing stress, and passing time,” 70% of older gamers believe that gaming is an important part of healthy aging (Note 4). A study conducted by Fandom found that 76% of 65+ gamers play because “it helps them to keep a healthy, younger mind.” 71% agreed that digital gaming “helped them to bond with friends and family.” Third third women, by the way, are more apt to be gamers than third third men.
So, whether you’re engaged in physical sports, digital games, card games, board games, or you name it, chances are you’re doing it for the sake of physical, mental, and relational health. The act of play may have a kind of essential purposelessness, but playing can indeed serve valid purposes in the third third of life.
The Benefits of Play for Older Adults
Scholars are beginning to study the benefits of play for adults, including older adults. An article in The Washington Post affirmed, “The importance of play for children is well documented. Now researchers are turning their attention to its possible benefits for adults. What they’re finding is that play isn’t just about goofing off; it can also be an important means of reducing stress and contributing to overall well-being.” A German professor of psychology reported on the conclusions of his study in this way: “The main aim of the present study was describing how playfulness in adults relates to physical and psychological well-being as well as the pursuit of enjoyable activities. The findings are encouraging in the sense of support for a positive association between playfulness and different indicators of well-being. The relations of playfulness with life satisfaction, the cognitive aspect of subjective well-being, replicated earlier findings well” (Note 5).
A team of Israeli scholars adds, “Playfulness might be an important characteristic of cognitive functioning and emotional growth, which are both key components of healthy aging” (Note 6). Why might play make a difference in our brains? Stuart Brown comments in his TED talk, Play is more than just fun: “Nothing lights up the brain like play. Three-dimensional play fires up the cerebellum, puts a lot of impulses into the frontal lobe — the executive portion — helps contextual memory be developed, and — and, and, and.” To put it simply, play can help our brains to be healthy, something that becomes increasingly important as we get older.
Play and Relationships
Play can also nurture and enhance our relationships. This is surely true when we gather with friends for pickleball or bingo. But it can also be true if we share our digital game experiences with others (Note 7).
I experience the relational benefits of play daily. Many months ago, my adult children encouraged me to play Wordle, the popular online word game. Each morning we’d play the game on our own and share the results via text. Every now and then we’d complain about a strange word or compliment each other on a job well done. Nothing relationally deep here, but a pleasant, regular relational connection. Since we began, we’ve added a good friend into the mix and another game, Connections, which challenges you to find associations among groups of words. Success at Connections requires a supple mind and broad cultural awareness, neither of which are my strong suits. But I love the game, nevertheless.
Now, I do not doubt that Wordle and Connections are exercising my brain in a helpful way. Both games demand that I use my intuition and learn to think outside of the box. I play these games for fun, to be sure. That’s the main reason. I enjoy the challenge. But I don’t know if I’d play as regularly as I do without the relational engagement these games provide. This means, by the way, that my daily gaming experience is helping me to flourish. (See my article, “Relationships are Essential for Third Third Flourishing.”)
As you think about the third third of your life, including retirement if that’s in your plans, you’d be wise not to imagine years of nothing but play. If you want to flourish, you need a sense of purpose that motivates you to make a difference in this world. Living only for yourself and your own pleasure just won’t cut it if you want to thrive as you get older. Moreover, you don’t want to be so focused on play that you miss the work God has for you to do in the third third of life.
But play can contribute to third third flourishing. It can “light up” your brain. It can improve your physical health. It can deepen your relationships or help you form new ones. It can give you joy and lift your spirits.
So, if pickleball is your thing, by all means, play pickleball. Or golf, or Wordle, or whatever. Just don’t play all day, every day. Also, though play entails a kind of purposelessness, you’d be well served to play games that exercise your brain and/or your body while they connect you with other people. Moreover, don’t forget that as you make room for play in your life, be sure your days also are filled with purposeful living, using all that God has given you for God’s purposes.
Note 1: T.D. Windsor, R.G. Curtis, and M.A. Luszxz, “Sense of Purpose as a Psychological Resource for Aging Well,” Developmental Psychology, 51(7), 975–986. 2015.
Note 2: Martin Pinquart, “Creating and Maintaining Purpose in Life in Old Age: A Meta-Analysis,” Ageing International, 27(2), 90-114, Spring 2002.
Note 3: Stuart Brown, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Penguin, 2009), p., 29.
Note 4: The 50-Plus Gamer of Today and Tomorrow, by Brittne Kakulla, AARP, April 2013.
Note 5: René T. Proyer, “The well-being of playful adults: Adult playfulness, subjective well-being, physical well-being, and the pursuit of enjoyable activities,” European Journal of Humour Research 1(1), 84-98.
Note 6: Amiya Waldman-Levi, Asnat Bar-Haim Erez, Noomi Katz, “Healthy aging is reflected in well-being, participation, playfulness, and cognitive-emotional functioning,” Healthy Aging Research 4:8, February 2015.
Note 7: Amanda K. Hall, Enmanuel Chavarria, Vasana Maneeratana, Beth H Chaney, and Jay M. Bernhardt, “Health Benefits of Digital Videogames for Older Adults: A Systematic Review of the Literature,” Games Health Journal 1(6), Dec 2012, 402-10.
Banner image by Joan Azeka on Unsplash.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.