Bite-Sized Philosophy

Alan Watts On The Lost Art Of Play

How The Distinction We Draw Between Work And Play Makes Us Miserable

R. C. Abbott
4 min readJul 16, 2021

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Screen shot from Ingmar Bergman’s film The Passion of Anna. Black and white close up of a woman’s face. She seems to be in despair. The subtitle says: I didn’t think that life would amount to such daily suffering.
Photo credit: CriterionBabe. The Passion of Anna 1969, Ingmar Bergman

In one of Alan Watts’ classic essays, Work As Play, he draws our attention to a common philosophical error: misunderstanding the very nature of work and play. He describes our sense of play or having fun as something that does not produce a useful result:

We are delighted by it because it’s not useful. It doesn’t really achieve anything that we would call purposive work. It is simply what we call play.

The Separation Of Work And Play

He then goes on to explore our insistence on keeping the work we do separate from play.

But in our culture we make an extremely rigid division between work and play. You are supposed to work in order to earn enough money to give you sufficient leisure time for something entirely different called having fun or play.

This is a most ridiculous division. Everything that we do, however tough it is, however strenuous, can be turned into the same kind of play as shooting an arrow into the sky or spinning a prayer wheel.

This is a really important idea. It might not be a stretch to say that in many places around the world, stress is treated as a status symbol. If someone is rushing around, pulling their hair out, getting lots done we think: wow, they must be really important. The stuff they’re doing matters. Look how stressed they are. They think: wow, I must be really important. I’ve got all this urgent, useful stuff to do that can’t wait because it’s so important.

Alan suggests that we are caught up in this never-ending depression-producing cycle as we feel it is our duty:

Why are they doing it? Well, we say, one must live. It’s…

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