Anthony DeBenedet

Alumni

Playful Intelligence

Five Habits to Boost Your Resilience Repertoire

By Katie Whitney

Spring 2021
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On the verge of burnout, Anthony DeBenedet, M.D. (Residency 2009, Fellowship 2014), made an unusual move. He was in his fellowship, and he had young kids — a situation that would be stressful for anyone. But his solution was one that most would not choose: He decided to write a book.

He picked a topic that he felt would help him get through this challenging period of his life. What resulted was Playful Intelligence: The Power of Living Lightly in a Serious World. Through true stories, DeBenedet’s book explores the effects and benefits of five playful qualities: imagination, sociability, humor, spontaneity, and wonder.

A small moment sticks in DeBenedet’s mind from when he was writing Playful Intelligence. His daughter, who was about 6 or 7 years old at the time, was telling him about something new she was learning in gym class. “Maybe hula hooping or pogo sticking,” he recalls. “I pulled out my phone, when she was talking … checking a text or email. She said to me, ‘Daddy, did you hear what I just said?’”

He hadn’t. She walked away.

“For her, that experience in gym class was a wondrous moment. I should have been there to share it,” says DeBenedet. “Here’s wonder. You missed it.”

The moment reminds him that none of us is done developing our coping skills. The five playful qualities he identifies in his book are just a handful of the ways we can handle the pressures of “adulting.”

“It’s not a magic bullet, but that’s the key. Nothing is,” says DeBenedet. The point is not to find the one coping mechanism you will need for the rest of your life, but to practice a multitude of skills to build up a resilience repertoire.

Here are five things each of us can do to tap into the qualities identified in Playful Intelligence and start to lighten our load.

1. Put your head in the clouds.

Imagination, more than any of [the other four qualities], takes more training,” says DeBenedet. “Think of your imagination almost like a muscle.” DeBenedet exercises his imagination by reading fiction (he was into Harry Potter when we spoke). But he says you could also do something as simple as watching a fantasy TV show. These kinds of “workouts” offer major pay-offs, since key skills, such as problem-solving and empathy, often rely on a good imagination.

2. Get lost.

There’s a difference between having good routines and being in a rut. When DeBenedet finds himself “running a little serious,” he takes a different route home. This bit of spontaneity helps get him into a lighter mood. Whether it’s taking a new path on your walk or trying a new recipe, you can allow yourself to throw out the mental map of your day. The simple act of rebelling against a mundane plan can be liberating.

3. Laugh early. Laugh often.

Improving your sense of humor doesn’t mean becoming a comedian. It’s simply about letting yourself laugh more. When DeBenedet first started lowering his threshold for laughter, he says, “It felt a little forced.” But now, “I don’t require Jerry Seinfeld or ‘The Office’ to make me laugh.”

On the other hand, seeking out comedy in movies and TV can help improve your humor skill. “That was always a big struggle for me, because I always felt like it was a waste of time,” says DeBenedet. “[But] I saw what it does for us as adults — helps us get through hard times and connect with other people, gives us a psychological distance from the pain. … When I’ve been with patients in really intimate times and hard times, that humor comes through in amazing ways.” Now he watches late-night shows without self-judgment, “feeling like I’m building that playful quality.”

4. Don’t make up your mind (about people).

When DeBenedet was writing about sociability for his book, he found a common thread in his patients, in the other subjects of his stories, and in the research and case studies he looked at. People who have playfully intelligent social exchanges resist first impressions. The other commonality he noticed was humility. “Even in their final hours, there is not a whole lot of talking about themselves,” he says.

In his book, DeBenedet offers a simple strategy for resisting first impressions. When you notice yourself focusing on differences, “try shifting your focus toward something you like about the other person or something you have in common.” This shift can keep you from “anchoring” — that is, forming an opinion that is hard to reposition.

5. Go through wonder rehab.

As with humor, lowering your threshold is the key to unlocking wonder. In that sense, wonder is the most childlike of the playful qualities DeBenedet identifies, since children generally access wonder more easily than adults. “As a child, wonder is really about curiosity and blasting off, whether that’s intellectual curiosity or emotional curiosity,” he says. Because of that, wonder rehab can be accomplished by thinking about warm memories from childhood or by observing children. DeBenedet also recommends finding a “mini-moment,” some small event, like an unexpected kindness, that you can marvel at.

For DeBenedet, wonder was the quality most lacking in his life before he wrote Playful Intelligence. “I don’t recommend writing a book when you feel like you’re on the verge of burnout. But it helped me,” he says. “I put myself through wonder rehab every day.”