Toss a ball. Doodle on scrap paper. Fantasize about your dream job – or even your dream vacation. Any enjoyable break from the daily grind is considered “play,” and the benefits go beyond those few pleasant minutes. Play can ease stress, dull pain, give you energy and boost your optimism, says play expert Stuart Brown, MD.

Play has evolved over millions of years as a biological process that helps mammals adapt and cope with unpredictable and stressful conditions. Dr. Brown believes it’s fundamental to our very survival, and he staked his career on the idea in 1996 when he founded the non-profit National Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, Calif., to promote awareness and research into the behavior. Now guided by a team of researchers, medical experts and business professionals, the Institute serves as a clearinghouse of information about play.

One idea the Institute imparts is that play teaches children and young adults how to relate in the world. For example, a pick-up game of basketball teaches us about fairness and how to negotiate relationships. Building a model airplane hones our problem-solving abilities. A lack of play, by contrast, can deprive one of these essential social skills.

How to Play Every Day

Playing can be as easy as sitting in a comfortable spot, clearing your mind and starting to visualize a positive memory. Think about the first time you rode a bike, painted a picture or fell in love. Really explore the details of those memories, and you should feel refreshed when you open your eyes.

You can take a more active approach that’s still easy on your joints, such as taking a cooking class, joining a book club or walking with friends.

“Seeking out something that is novel and different is important,” Dr. Brown says. “Don’t go through the same routine every time.”