Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

When we were kids, we played for hours. We would play games where we pretended to be adults, where we replicated “real” jobs and had “real” families, where we counted fake money and parented fake babies – all while anticipating the day these activities would become a reality. We were so immersed in our imagination that time seemed to fly as we played “grown-up”, but the ironic thing is that these activities become tedious or monotonous for those who really do them in the real world.

So, what’s the change? Why could I clean my house for six hours straight with the biggest smile on my face when I was eight years old, but if someone told me to do that now I wouldn’t look at it the same way?

It is the concept of play. It is such a natural thing to do when we are young, but as we grow older, “play” doesn’t seem to fit into our organized and task-focused lives. We are more likely to do things to get results, not just for the sheer joy of playing. But, having a playful mindset towards work and extracurriculars has been found to be a powerful source of motivation and satisfaction for adults. By emphasizing the intrinsic motivations rather than the extrinsic ones, such as doing an activity because it brings us inner joy rather than to crush the competition or impress other people, we experience rewarding and pleasant feelings that we feel compelled to replicate. 1 That is the kind of motivation we had when we were kids; we didn’t play “grown-up” to out-play our siblings (or maybe some of us did), but most of us played and played and played because it brought us true joy and we wanted to continue that experience. This mindset is not exclusive to kids, but can be brought into every area of our adult lives. What about your job…your hobby…your schoolwork…your extracurricular activity… brings you happiness? Focus on that, and let go of the endless stress we put on ourselves to beat people or be perfect. When we do things out of love and joy, not only do have a much better time, but we often discover we have better results, too.

Originally published in the USC Performance Science Club Newsletter.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis