Happy Never After

Jill Stark


There is a small park near my apartment with a running track around it. When things were bad, I would go there and make myself do laps. I walked religiously, wearing out the tread on my sneakers day after day like a slow-motion Forrest Gump. It didn’t always make me feel better, but it never made me feel worse, and on the days when it felt I could rely on nothing, that was good enough.

Walking was a critical part of my therapy. I knew from experience that when I didn’t move my body regularly, my mental health suffered. The endorphins released during exercise would lift my mood and help burn up some of the cortisol and adrenaline that heightened my stress. But I couldn’t face the running, weight training, and boxing I usually enjoyed. I was too exhausted. And the thought of being around healthylooking gym bunnies pushing themselves to the limit was like torturing myself with a vision of a future I couldn’t reach.

So instead, Veronica prescribed a daily brisk walk for at least 30 minutes. It would get me out of the house, which was beginning to feel like a locked cell. Getting out of bed was a huge struggle, but I just had to make myself do it. Even on the days when I walked around the park with tears streaming down my cheeks, at least when I looked at my Fitbit at night and it said 10,000 steps, I knew I had achieved one thing.

And slowly, the walking began to improve my mood.

The evidence around exercise as a treatment for psychological problems is strong. Trials have shown that depressed adults who take part in aerobic exercise for 30 to 60 minutes a day improved as much or in some cases significantly more than those taking antidepressants. As Norman Doidge had told me, you can put your brain into a more receptive state to mind-training exercises through regular physical activity, which triggers neurotrophic growth factors, making it easier to consolidate neuroplastic change. I’ve learned over the years that if I want to give myself the best shot at staying well, exercise is an absolute non-negotiable.

The park I visited regularly was an off-leash dog park, which wasn’t something I’d noticed until one day the fact announced itself to me in a manner that felt like divine intervention. In this instance, the supreme deity presented himself as a floofy little white dog, racing past me, fuschia-pink tongue lolling from the side of his mouth, ears flapping behind him like windsocks. Trampolining off the toes of my sneakers, he tore his way from the path to the grassy expanse of the oval with a look of such unadulterated joy on his face that it stopped me in my tracks.

My dad insists that cats and dogs don’t smile. He is wrong. This ball of floof was grinning. He was so happy I suddenly realised I was laughing — a sound I hadn’t heard for some time.

I took myself off the walking track to the boundary of the oval and sat on a bench bathed in sunshine. I watched the little dog run from one end of the ground to the other and back again as his owner threw a ball. He ran with the unbridled bliss of a creature who was just happy to be outdoors on a sunny day.

From that afternoon, the dog park became my go-to place when I needed a pick-me-up. Even if I didn’t feel it within me, I could witness what it might be like to live in the moment and have zero fucks to give. I could remember that sense of abandon and the simple satisfaction of being able to roam free, unrestrained by the tightness of life’s leash.

My favourite time to visit was just before dinner, when it was still light and people converged on the park as the sun dipped behind the trees. There was always a chatty, neighbourly atmosphere as people bonded over their dogs’ playfulness. So although I remain a committed cat person, watching pooches of all shapes and sizes frolic in that park has become one of my purest pleasures. It reminds me that these joyful, untethered moments are possible if I cultivate the space to play.

Much like dogs, little kids view the whole world as a playground. They run at full tilt, dance without caring what anyone thinks, and find wonder in the things adults have learned to overlook. Children play simply because it’s fun. Then they grow up and are told that playing is selfish, foolish, and indulgent. In a world that values busyness over downtime, play is an activity that so many of us have left behind. If you examine your life, how much of ‘leisure’ time feels just like work in another guise? Running around from jobs to social engagements, family obligations, and sporting commitments can feel like plodding along on a conveyor belt of duty.

As we get older, the child part of us that wants to run through a park like a dog off the leash is crushed under the weight of guilt, self-consciousness, and the chase for approval from the tribe. We forget what truly brings us joy and spend our time trying to please others. In therapy, Veronica made a point of placing the child at the centre of the work we did together.

She asked me to draft a list of all the fun things I liked to do and pencil in time every week to commit to them. I had to treat this time as I would if I were meeting a friend or going on a date; there was no cancelling. It had to be a priority. It couldn’t be functional activities like going to the gym, which might produce fun as a by-product but still served the more adult purpose of keeping fit. And it didn’t have to involve spending money. This was the stuff I liked just for the sake of it — the things we would do as kids without thinking twice about guilt, embarrassment, or the opinions of the crowd. It was hard at first to know what those things were, which made me realise just how disconnected I was from my own needs. But slowly, I began to compile a list.

On warm days, when the sun streams in my lounge-room window, I’ll often find Hamish lying on the rug, a deliciously smug look on his face as he soaks up the rays. He looks so happy I’ve often felt like joining him. So I put ‘basking in the sun’ on my list of fun stuff, and the next time those life-giving rays shone down, I lay next to my cat and just drank in the warmth. I began to schedule in time to sing, smashing out show tunes from Glee and Frozen in my lounge room, and I took bike rides with no destination, just to see where I’d end up. One day, during a walk around the park listening to Gaga through my headphones, I felt an overwhelming urge to run into the middle of the oval and dance. I looked around and saw people everywhere. I bolted for the grass and cut loose anyway — a silent disco for one.

In those times of play, I felt so alive. It was as if I was welcoming home a side of me that had been in exile. This was an integration of the child with the adult, and in those moments I was whole. Veronica said it was a process of rediscovering my ‘true’ self. All too often, we follow the pack or pursue goals for others who want to live their dreams vicariously through us.

We do what is expected, not what is nourishing. Much of this is shaped by the issues we bring with us from childhood. ‘We are born with a true self, but that self is subjugated in order to meet the demands and expectations of our parents, and to please them,’ Veronica told me. ‘We then repeat those patterns with the other significant people in our lives and that true self becomes more and more squashed, and obscured from sight.’

Therapy was about clearing away those demands and expectations and allowing room for my true self to emerge as I built a more balanced and fulfilling life. Making space for activities that were just for fun helped strengthen the connection with that emerging authentic side. It was so important to let myself off the leash. Just as I had when I was a kid — when my brother and I had a list of indoor games and another for outdoor games, which we consulted when we were stuck for something to do — I drafted a list of fun things and rediscovered my dormant playful side.

I first became interested in the importance of play during that precarious year between my first book coming out and the breakdown that followed it. I was looking for ways to try to slow down the speeding thoughts in my head — ways that weren’t drinking or medicating myself. I wanted to feel free, to let go. Loretta suggested we try No Lights No Lycra, a dance class held in the dark, with no steps and no teacher, where being immersed in the joy of movement is the only objective. Dancing had always been something I loved, and the idea of being able to dance like no one was watching — while a challenging concept for my anxious mind — really appealed.

We went along on a chilly spring evening and I made a promise to myself to leave my inhibitions at the door. When the lights went down I had no idea what to expect. But the music started and it just happened: we danced. This was not alcoholtainted, show-pony strutting at a flash city nightclub. We were sober, in a church hall basement in Melbourne’s inner north on a wet Wednesday evening, with the lights off. The darkness acted like an invisibility cloak and everyone just let go, completely lost in the rhythm. I let my body move in whatever way felt natural. It was utterly intoxicating. More than 120 people had paid $5 to dance the way we did when we were kids. It was silly and freeing and joyful. Every song, whether sublime (soul diva Aretha Franklin) or ridiculous (’90s Eurotrash Aqua), was met with the same heady abandon. Bodies pulsed and swayed and leapt. For 75 minutes, the floor was a heaving mass of life. By evening’s end, I was riding a high of euphoria. I walked into the crisp air, steam rising from my head, and realised I’d been blissfully lost in a state of play.

No Lights began in Melbourne with two dance students who wanted to offer a non-judgemental space to ‘bring people together to experience freedom of self-expression and joy’. It has since gone global. I wondered what was driving this need to be free, and whether the runaway success of the movement is suggestive of a culture itching to find a way back to playtime. In an era where we’re overloaded with work, technology, and seemingly endless bad news, it makes sense that there would be a collective yearning for simpler times. But I discovered that taking time to play is more than just a childish indulgence. It’s a primal drive. And, according to a growing band of researchers, sociologists, and health experts, if we want to ease our emotional discomfort, it’s exactly what more of us should be doing. I spoke to Dr Stuart Brown, a pioneering play researcher and psychiatrist from the National Institute for Play in California — a not-for-profit committed to bringing the ‘unrealized knowledge,practices and benefits of play into public life’. He told me there was an emerging evidence base that showed playtime in adulthood is the gateway to vitality, can promote a sense of belonging, and may actually be critical to human development. Bizarrely, his fascination with the subject began after extensive research into the backgrounds of violent inmates, including Charles Whitman, who killed 17 people and wounded 41 others in a shooting from the top of a tower at the University of Texas in 1966. The common theme among offenders, he discovered, was ‘play deprivation’ as children. The research backs up animal models that show play opens new connections in the brain, boosting social and emotional competency. Play deprivation can cause problems with mating, stress, and resilience, as well as immune system deficiencies. ‘Although we can survive into adulthood without it, we don’t survive socially, emotionally, cognitively with any kind of fullness without having a healthy play background that continues throughout life. It is a sustaining, important part of being human,’ Brown told me.

Whether it’s dancing in the dark, rolling around on the floor with a pet, or just belting out our favourite songs as we strum the air guitar, play for play’s sake has been shown to have significant positive effects in education, parenting, workplaces, and even in fostering community cohesion. In Brown’s book, Play: how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul, he defines play as any activity that is deeply engaging, joyful, and done for its own sake, without consideration of time or an expected outcome. He writes, ‘When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?’

Reading the obituaries of people who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Brown was struck by the thread that ran through so many of the tributes. Lost loved ones were remembered not for their titles or achievements but for the joyful times when they were in a state of play. After interviewing several thousand people, he found the most successful were those who had the opportunity to live their lives in harmony with their play nature: ‘We know from a number of anthropological studies that in civilisations and cultures that incorporate a good deal of play there is increased co-operation, great altruism, more sharing and less violence.’

Dozens of cities are starting to integrate the play ethic into urban landscapes as a means to foster greater social interaction in public spaces. London’s Swing & Be Free project put swings into bus stops, encouraging incidental fun for commuters. In Montreal, a giant collective instrument made of 21 musical swings was set up in the city centre. In Stockholm, a piano staircase in a subway underpass led to a 66 per cent increase in people using stairs over the escalator.

Google, Lego, and Red Bull are among the businesses prioritising playfulness as a building block of creativity and innovation. Workplaces are being reconfigured as adventure playground–style offices complete with scooters, hammocks, mini soccer pitches, lolly dispensers, and tyre swings. In healthcare, a 2011 trial of play therapy involving 35 nursing homes and 400 aged-care residents, using clowns and ‘humour therapists’, led to a 20 per cent reduction in levels of agitation among dementia sufferers and significantly reduced the need for anti-psychotic medication. The program has since been rolled out at 70 agedcare facilities across Australia. ‘Smile Study’ chief investigator Dr Lee-Fay Low, from the Dementia Collaborative Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, told me that nursinghome residents were often bored and lonely, with little chance to experience humour. ‘Giving them an opportunity to play changes them. It gives you enjoyment, it gives you opportunity to express yourself, and helps you make a connection with other people, and those are critical things for mental wellbeing at any age,’ she said.

But while once our playfulness would have been cultivated when we were kids, these days, overprotective parenting, shrinking backyards, and increasing pressure to achieve academic success are contributing to a reduction in play time for children. Even in kindergartens, children are often given homework and expected to reach academic benchmarks instead of listening to stories or playing in the sandpit. Brown is another proponent of moving away from the ‘teach to the test’ school culture. He wants to see play at the forefront of education, arguing that this feeling of ‘flow’ is the optimal state for learning.

If you’ve found your flow, you’ll know it. It’s state in which nothing else matters. It’s the rapturous abandon of a virtuoso violinist’s solo performance. Or an athlete pushing their body to the limit. It’s when we’re ‘in the zone’, so immersed in what we’re doing that we’re completely lost in the moment. Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, from the Quality of Life Research Centre at Claremont Graduate University in California, is the architect of this psychological concept. He believes accessing this state of transcendence is the key to a meaningful life. If we cultivate the skill and make space for flow, we’ll have more productive workplaces, smarter schools, and contented communities. When he came to Australia to speak at a happiness conference a few years ago, he told me that the way we live in this age of technology is hindering the ability to find our flow: ‘The constant interruptions make losing the self in whatever you’re doing much more difficult. People need to learn how to turn off their cell phones and not be glued to their computers all the time.’ If you want to bring more flow into your life, he recommends ‘cycles of solitude’ for days or weeks at a time — in which we’re less socially stimulated, allowing greater focus.

While our culture obsesses over happiness as an end goal, flow is the act of finding joy just for the sake of it. It’s doing the things we love without expecting a specific outcome or a reward. For me, this means less screen time and more time reacquainting myself with the little kid who just wants to dance or sit in a sun trap. Finding my flow is something I have to actively cultivate. But when it happens, it’s a life-affirming treat. I’ve gone back to boxing, and when I’m hitting the pads, lost in a fierce combo of hooks, jabs, and uppercuts, it’s one of the few times I can’t hear my anxious inner monologue. It just stops. Time stops.

I’m learning not to feel guilty about making room for play. It’s not selfish, it’s a protective factor for my emotional health. As play researcher Brian Sutton-Smith says in his book The Ambiguity of Play, the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression. So I continue to take myself on dates, dance with my nieces in supermarket aisles, and sing at the top of my voice while running. It doesn’t mean I can avoid the necessities of adulting. I still have to do my laundry, pay the bills, and find enough work to service my mortgage. I still have periods of sadness and struggle. But the more I let myself off the leash and take care of that little kid inside me, the easier the grown-up stuff is to manage.

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Happy Never After Jill Stark