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The Playful Advantage: How Playfulness Enhances Coping with Stress

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The Playful Advantage: How Playfulness
Enhances Coping with Stress
Cale D. Magnuson a & Lynn A. Barnett a
a Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism, University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, IL, USA
Version of record first published: 20 Mar 2013.
To cite this article: Cale D. Magnuson & Lynn A. Barnett (2013): The Playful Advantage: How
Playfulness Enhances Coping with Stress, Leisure Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 35:2, 129-144
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01490400.2013.761905
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The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation
that the contents will be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any
instructions, formulae, and drug doses should be independently verified with primary
sources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss, actions, claims, proceedings,
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Leisure Sciences, 35: 129–144, 2013
Copyright CTaylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0149-0400 print / 1521-0588 online
DOI: 10.1080/01490400.2013.761905
The Playful Advantage: How Playfulness
Enhances Coping with Stress
CALE D. MAGNUSON
LYNN A. BARNETT
Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Champaign, IL, USA
Research on playfulness has long focused on children, while the study of its expression
in adulthood has only recently been undertaken. This cross-sectional study investigated
the interrelationship between playfulness in young adults, perceived stress, and styles of
coping with 898 students from three universities. Findings revealed that playful individ-
uals reported lower levels of perceived stress than their less playful counterparts, and
more frequently utilized adaptive, stressor-focused coping strategies and were less likely
to employ negative, avoidant, and escape-oriented strategies. The results suggested that
playfulness serves a strong adaptive function with university students, providing them
with specific cognitive resourcesfrom which they can manifest effective coping behaviors
in the face of stressful situations. Speculation as to the role of playfulness in fostering
resilience is encouraged, and further empirical research on the therapeutic benefits of
playfulness should be undertaken from a causal perspective.
Keywords coping style, playfulness, resilience, stress
Introduction
Playfulness
Play has long been known to serve a vital role in human development (Schaefer, 1993; Singer
& Singer, 1990; Vygotsky, 1978) and recent evidence has suggested that some individuals
have a more natural predisposition to be playful than others, rooted in their personality
(Barnett, 2007, 2011-12, 2013; Bozionelos & Bozionelos, 1999; Glynn & Webster, 1992).
While play refers to its behavioral manifestations, playfulness has been defined as “the
predisposition to frame (or reframe) a situation in such a way as to provide oneself (and
possibly others) with amusement, humor, and/or entertainment” (Barnett, 2007, p. 955).
Evidence for the playful disposition has been reliably detected and measured with children
(Barnett, 1990, 1991a, 1991b; Lieberman, 1977) and, more recently, with adults (Barnett,
2007, 2011–12; Glynn & Webster, 1992, 1993; Guitard, Ferland, & Dutil, 2005; Trevlas,
Grammatikopoulos, Tsigilis, & Zachopoulou, 2003; Webster & Martocchio, 1992). These
empirical investigations have shown that different levels of playfulness can be readily
Received 31 May 2012; accepted 5 November 2012.
This article is based on the first author’s master’s thesis under the direction of the second author.
Address correspondence to Lynn A. Barnett, Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism, Univer-
sity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 104 Huff Hall, 1206 S. Fourth Street, Champaign, IL 61820. E-mail:
lynnbm@illinois.edu
129
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130 C. D. Magnuson and L. A. Barnett
identified by one’s peers as well as by the individual him or herself (Barnett, 2007) can be
regarded as a personality characteristic (Barnett, 2011–12, 2013) and is relatively stable
across time (Yager, Kappelman, Maples, & Prybutok, 1997). Research has also shown that
playfulness is a construct composed of four (Barnett, 2007) or five (Glynn & Webster,
1992; Guitard et al., 2005) dimensions, and it correlates with the propensity to be creative
(Glynn & Webster, 1992; Tegano, 1990), humorous (Barnett, 2007, 2011–2012; Peterson &
Seligman, 2004; Ruch & Proyer, 2009), intelligent (Glynn & Webster, 1993; Proyer, 2011),
and expressive (Bozionelos & Bozionelos, 1999). Qualitative studies have also suggested
that playfulness may predict health-related outcomes among older female adults who were
members of a social leisure group (Hutchinson, Yarnal, Stafford-Son, & Kerstetter, 2008;
Son, Kerstetter, Yarnal, & Baker, 2007; Yarnal, 2006). With these studies demonstrating the
existence of the playfulness personality disposition, the question has been posed as to what
function being playful might serve for the individual. Is it advantageous to be playful? Are
there certain benefits (or disadvantages) that accrue to the playful individual that are not
witnessed among his or her less playful counterparts? Does playfulness relate to positive
health, such as ameliorating the effects of stress and easier adaptation to chronic illness
(Hutchinson et al., 2008; Yarnal, 2006)? Since evidence has shown that the tendency to feel
stressed, coping styles, and playfulness to each be aspects of personality (Barnett, 2011–12;
Connor-Smith & Flachsbart, 2007; Woszczynksi, Roth, & Segars, 2002), it is reasonable
to hypothesize that they may all be related.
Perceived Stress
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) defined psychological stress as: “a relationship between the
person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or
her resources and endangering his or her well-being” (p. 21). This definition focuses on
a buffer between the individual and the environment that consists of stressors—termed
“cognitive appraisal”—which centers on the individual’s interpretation and reaction to a
stressful event (Lazarus & Folkman; Lazarus, 1999). Stressful appraisals are events that are
appraised as incorporating harm/loss, threat, or challenge. Events in the harm/loss category
have already transpired, whereas threat events are anticipated and foreseen but have not yet
transpired. Secondary appraisal invokes the evaluation of appropriate coping mechanisms,
by evaluating “the likelihood that a given coping option will accomplish what it is supposed
to” (Lazarus & Folkman, p. 35) and the likelihood that it can be effectively enacted. Cohen,
Kamarck, and Mermelstein (1983) noted that objective definitions of stress underestimated
the importance of an individual’s cognitive appraisal as a bridge between an event and
the coping process, and suggested that the term “perceived stress” be used to demote “the
degree to which situations in one’s life are appraised as stressful” (p. 385). The extent to
which one feels their life to be unpredictable, uncontrollable, and overloaded constitutes
perceived stress (Cohen & Lichtenstein, 1990; Cohen et al., 1983; Cohen, Tyrell, & Smith,
1993).
Leisure is one of the many contexts in which perceived stress has been studied (e.g.,
Aldana, Sutton, Jacobson, & Quirk, 1996; Bedini, Gladwell, Dudley, & Clancy, 2011;
Iwasaki & Mannell, 2000); however, only a few studies have connected playfulness more
specifically with stress. In a study directly investigating playfulness as a coping mechanism
in adolescents, Staempfli (2007) found that playful teens were less likely to experience stress
but that playfulness levels did not predict the coping mechanisms that were employed by
the participants. The measure utilized by Staempfli to measure playfulness was generated
specifically for and by her adolescent sample members, and no psychometric testing on
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Playfulness, Stress, and Coping 131
the assessment was presented. In a study with university students, Qian and Yarnal (2011)
investigated the relationship between playfulness, and the use of leisure as a strategy
to cope with stress. They found that psychological stress was inversely correlated with
levels of playfulness, and that “a highly playful university student, in order to cope with
psychological stress, is likely to seek companionship through social leisure and to enhance
mood through leisure pursuits” (p. 204). The suggestion that there is a causal relationship
between playfulness and social leisure in times of stress appears to be an extension of the
data beyond its correlational design.
Coping with Stress
A number of individual styles of coping with stress have been identified (for a review
see Skinner, Edge, Altman, & Sherwood, 2003) and cluster into categories. Examples of
these include emotion-focused coping versus problem-focused coping (Lazarus & Folkman,
1984) or meaning-focused coping (Folkman, 1997), and engagement coping versus disen-
gagement coping (also termed approach versus avoidance coping; Compas, Connor-Smith,
Saltzman, Thomsen, & Wadsworth, 2001; Roth & Cohen, 1986; Skinner et al., 2003).
However, these findings have been criticized (Skinner et al.) for their simplicity, significant
overlap, and lack of specificity in comprehensively delineating the many different coping
styles that appear to occur in the general population (Carver, 1997; Carver & Connor-Smith,
2010; Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989). Carver and his colleagues (Carver, 1997; Carver
et al., 1989) formulated 14 coping styles (Active Coping, Planning, Positive Reframing,
Acceptance, Humor, Religion, Emotional Support, Instrumental Support, Self-distraction,
Denial, Venting, Substance Use, Behavioral Disengagement, and Self-blame) that are more
predictive of differences in the ways in which individuals typically cope with stress.
Individual coping styles have been found to vary as a function of personality across
a number of situations and age groups (Bolger, 1990; Carver et al., 1989; Connor-Smith
& Flachsbart, 2007). In particular, studies have found that the leisure setting in which the
individual is most free to exhibit his or her personal characteristics may play a prominent
role by providing coping solutions consisting of both coping beliefs and coping strategies
(Iwasaki & Mannell, 2000), which serve separate purposes in managing stressors (Coleman,
1993; Coleman & Iso-Ahola, 1993; Kleiber, Hutchinson, & Williams, 2002). It is not
clear what the underlying mechanisms are that allow leisure experiences to help people
cope—research has begun to parse these positive effects into different situations, stressors,
and individual characteristics to learn more (e.g., Hutchinson, Loy, Kleiber, & Dattilo,
2003; Iwasaki, 2003; Iwasaki & Mannell, 2000; Iwasaki & Smale, 1998; Kleiber et al.).
While the empirical evidence has been sparse, and the relationship between leisure and
playfulness is modest (Barnett, 2011), it seems reasonable to hypothesize that individuals
of varying degrees of playfulness will demonstrate characteristic differences in their coping
styles and approach to stress.
Focus of the Study
The two overarching questions that guided this study were, “What is the relationship
between perceived stress and playfulness in young adults?” and “How do coping styles
differ as a function of the level of playfulness in the individual?” We hypothesized that
university students higher in playfulness would perceive they were under less stress due
to the inherent qualities of playfulness as a means to reframe their environment into one
that is amusing or entertaining, and hence, less stressful. In addition, we also conjectured
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132 C. D. Magnuson and L. A. Barnett
that levels of playfulness would show different degrees or styles of coping, although no
directional hypotheses were advanced in the absence of any literature upon which to draw.
The present study was cross-sectional in design, and we sought to address these ques-
tions by examining relationships between playfulness, stress, and coping among university
students. This population was chosen for the investigation for three primary reasons. First,
it is the population upon which the bulk of empirical work defining and measuring play-
fulness has been obtained, as well as examination of the correlates of playfulness. Second,
the significant rise among members of the college student population in issues related to
stressful lifestyles and inability to cope in productive ways requires significant attention.
For example, from 1999 to 2008, hospitalizations due to binge drinking and alcohol poison-
ing increased 25% among 18–24 year olds (White, Hingson, I-Jen, & Hsiao-Ye, 2011), and
one in four college-aged students report being currently depressed at a level that interferes
significantly with their normal daily functioning (Lindsey, Fabiano, & Stark, 2009). Third,
the use of university students constitutes a convenience sample across three universities
from which data may be collected in a relatively timely and accessible way.
Method
Participants and Procedure
Following approval from the university Institutional Review Board, we invited students
from 12 classes at three midwestern universities to participate in the study, for which they
could earn extra credit. Data collection at all three universities began in the sixth week of
the fall and spring semesters and continued until the week before the end of each semester.
The classes were all housed within recreation/leisure studies/kinesiology departments and
were all open to the general university as they were approved for general education credit.
From the demographic information we obtained, it was determined that more than 175
different majors were represented across these classes, and 152 majors comprised the final
sample of student participants.
A standardized announcement about the purpose and procedures of the study was
distributed to all willing instructors to read to their classes and post on their class elec-
tronic blackboard. The announcement was an invitation to participate in an approved study
that would entail anonymously completing a survey asking a variety of questions about
university students and highlighted the option to decline to answer a question that was
uncomfortable for the respondent. Students signed their name to a cover letter containing
the usual explanation of their rights, and it was immediately separated from their submitted
materials so that extra credit could be given and questionnaire responses could remain
anonymous. Other than the announcement, individual instructors were only contacted at
the end of the semester and given information to allow them to award extra credit to partic-
ipating students. All correspondence with participants was done by e-mail with the senior
author, including initial contact, questions, forwarding and return of the survey materials,
and a reminder to complete the survey three weeks before the closing date. Of the popula-
tion of 916 students, 898 accepted and completed the instruments, resulting in a response
rate of 98%.
The ages of the participants ranged from 18 to 27 years, with an average age of
20.1 years and a standard deviation of 1.6. Students with senior standing accounted for
19.9% of the sample; juniors, 34.2%; sophomores, 28.7%; and freshmen, 17.3%. More
than one-half of the sample were male (58.8%); 70.2% identified themselves as White
non-Hispanic, 11.2% were African-American non-Hispanic, 11.5% were Asian-American,
and 5.6% identified themselves as non-White Hispanic or Latino.
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Playfulness, Stress, and Coping 133
Instrumentation
Playfulness
The instrument measuring playfulness was developed in previous research and demon-
strated highly acceptable reliability and validity (Barnett, 2007). It consisted of 15 person-
ality characteristics (e.g., “spontaneous,” “energetic,” “clowns around”) shown to comprise
the playfulness construct. In response to the statement “Please indicate how you would char-
acterize yourself on the qualities listed below” respondents were asked to rate themselves
on a 10-point scale, ranging from “very little” (score of “1”) to “a lot” (score of “10”). The
mean of the items provided an individual playfulness score; higher scores demonstrated
a greater degree of playfulness. High internal consistency reliability was also obtained
utilizing the sample in this study (α=+.918; p<.001), consistent with that found in
previous studies (Barnett, 2007, 2011).
The mean playfulness score for the entire sample was 7.40 with a range of 3.47 to
10.00 (SD =1.09). Groups of Low, Medium, and High Playfulness were created, with each
group representing roughly one-third of the sample. Between groups, one mean playfulness
score on each side was eliminated to further separate the groups. A cumulative frequency
distribution on the playfulness mean scores identified the scores pertaining to the upper,
middle, and lower third of the sample. These scores, as well as those on either side of
each of these demarcation scores, were eliminated, to ensure that a more distinct separation
between the three playfulness groups was obtained. For example, 33.33% of the scores fell
at or below a mean playfulness value of 6.93. The next lowest and highest score (those on
either side of 6.93) were 6.87 and 7.00, respectively. Participants with scores of 6.87, 6.93,
and 7.00 were eliminated from the final sample, and those with scores below 6.87 then
became members of the Low Playfulness Group (n =277). Using this identical procedure
to determine the Medium and High Playfulness groups, the mean score corresponding to the
67.66 percentile was 7.93. The playfulness scores immediately preceding and following
this score were 7.87 and 8.00, respectively, in the frequency distribution. Participants
with scores of 7.87–8.00 were eliminated from the final sample; those with scores above
7.00 and below 7.87 were deemed the Medium Playfulness Group (n =310) and those
with scores above 8.00 constituted the High Playfulness Group (n =282).
Perceived stress. Cohen et al.’s (1983) Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) was utilized, as
previous research found it to be high in internal and test-retest reliability, as well as construct
and convergent validity (Cohen et al., 1983; Glasgow, Klesges, Mizes, & Pechacek, 1985).
High internal reliability was replicated in this study with members of the final sample (after
forming the Playfulness groups; α=+.829; p<.001). The PSS contains 14 questions (e.g.,
“In the last month, how often have you felt that things were going your way?”) to which
participants reply using a five-point Likert scale ranging from “never” (score of “1”) to “very
often” (score of “5”). Responses are summed and higher scores indicate the perception of
greater stress in one’s life. Although each of the items requests participants to think about
the previous month as they formulate their response, the high test-retest reliability indicates
that this measure of perceived stress is provides a more general assessment, extending well
beyond the past month.
Coping styles. Coping styles were measured using the Brief COPE instrument (Carver,
1997) which consists of two items measuring each of the 14 different styles. Respondents
reply to each item by choosing one of four response choices for each question: “I don’t do
this at all” (score of “1”), “I do this a little” (score of “2”), “I do this somewhat” (score of
“3”), or “I do this a lot” (score of “4”). The scale has been shown to be psychometrically
sound, and yields results comparable to the longer version (Carver). Examples of each of
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134 C. D. Magnuson and L. A. Barnett
the 14 coping style items, as well as internal consistency coefficients for sample members
in the present study are presented: Acceptance (“I accept the reality of the fact that it has
happened”; α=+.823; p<.001), Active (“I take action to try to make the situation better”;
α=+.846; p<.001), Behavioral Disengagement (“I give up trying to deal with it”; α=
+.824; p<.001), Denial (“I say to myself ‘this isn’t real’; α=+.899; p<.001), Emotional
Support (“I get emotional support from others”; α=+.886; p<.001), Humor (“I make
jokes about it”; α=+.789; p<.001), Instrumental Support (“I get help and advice from
other people”; α=+.845; p<.001), Planning (“I try to come up with a strategy about
what to do”; α=+.811; p<.001), Positive Reframing (“I look for something good in
what is happening”; α=+.807; p<.001), Religion (“I try to find comfort in my religion
or spiritual beliefs”; α=+.897; p<.001), Self-blame (“I criticize myself ”; α=+.864;
p<.001), Self-distraction (“I do something to think about it less, such as going to movies,
watching TV, reading, daydreaming, sleeping, TV, or shopping”; α=+.779; p<.001),
Substance Use (“I use alcohol or other drugs to let my unpleasant feelings escape”; α=
+.909; p<.001), Venting (“I express my negative feelings”; α=+.752; p<.001).
Data Analysis
Once all data were received and screened for coding errors and outliers, testing was con-
ducted for violations to assumptions before planned statistical variance analyses com-
menced. Tests for normality (Kolmogorov-Smirnov) conducted on each of the groups indi-
cated there were no violations (all p>.05). To test the homogeneity of variance assumption
that the spread of scores was equal in the three groups, Levene’s Test was employed on both
the perceived stress and coping style scores. The finding that the test was nonsignificant
(p>.05) for both the stress and coping data enabled the conclusion that the group variances
were not significantly different.
Preliminary analyses were then conducted to determine whether there were differences
between the classes within each of the three universities and/or between the universities
(summed across the classes) for each of the variables under study. Utilizing one-way
analysis of variance procedures, no significant differences were found between classes or
universities for playfulness, perceived stress, or coping style scores (all p>.05). Hence,
further distinctions by class or university were no longer retained in subsequent analyses.
To investigate the relationship between playfulness and perceived stress, one-way
univariate analysis of variance (ANOVA) was performed on the Playfulness Groups with
perceived stress as the dependent variable. The Sidak post hoc test was applied in the event
of a significant main effect (Field, 2009). The latter follow-up procedure was selected since
Levene’s Test was nonsignificant for this dependent variable.
The relationship between playfulness and coping style was investigated utilizing one-
way multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) procedures with the 14 coping styles
as dependent variables. Following a significant multivariate F-ratio, univariate analyses of
variance were inspected to determine the source of the differences among the 14 coping
styles; Sidak post hoc tests determined differences contributing to the significant Play-
fulness groups main effect since equality of group variances was determined through the
nonsignificant Levene’s test.
Results
Playfulness and Perceived Stress
Results of the one-way ANOVA contrasting the three Playfulness groups in their level of
perceived stress revealed a significant main effect [F(2,592) =9.40, p<.001]. The Sidak
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Playfulness, Stress, and Coping 135
post hoc test on the cell means indicated that university students in the Low Playfulness
group (M=2.00, SD =.38) reported significantly higher levels of perceived stress than
those in both the Medium (M=1.87, SD =.43) and High (M=1.85, SD =.34) Playfulness
groups (both Sidak tests p<.001). There was no significant difference between the Medium
and High Playfulness groups in their reported level of perceived stress (p>.001).
Playfulness and Coping Styles
The one-way Playfulness Group MANOVA for the 14 coping styles yielded a significant
multivariate Groups main effect [F(28,1696) =4.62, p<.001]. Table 1 displays the
group means, standard deviations, and the results of the follow-up univariate analyses of
variance on each of the coping styles. Follow-up univariate ANOVA’s revealed a significant
Playfulness Group effect for both Active and Acceptance coping styles. Inspection of the
cell means and Sidak post hoc testing indicated that the Low Playfulness group reported
less use of Active Coping and Acceptance than both the Medium and High Playfulness
groups. There was no significant difference between the Medium and High Playfulness
groups in the use of Active Coping or Acceptance to alleviate perceived stress (p>.05).
The univariate analysis resulted in a significant Playfulness Group main effect for
Positive Reframing. Post hoc tests showed that the Playfulness effect was due to differences
between all three playfulness groups. The use of Positive Reframing was determined to
significantly increase as playfulness increased.
TABLE 1 Cell Means, Standard Deviations, and Univariate Analyses of Variancefor
Coping Styles as a Function of Playfulness Group
PLAYFULNESS GROUPS (M, SD)
UNIVARIATE ANOVAs
Low Medium High (df =2, 862)
COPING STYLES MSDMSDM SD MS error F p
Active Coping 5.97 1.14 6.34 1.06 6.48 1.20 19.03 1.28 14.83 .001
Acceptance 5.83 1.29 6.13 1.22 6.29 1.21 15.68 1.53 10.25 .001
Positive Reframing 5.56 1.43 5.90 1.31 6.34 1.31 43.67 1.81 24.09 .001
Instrumental
Support
5.66 1.62 5.67 1.61 6.00 1.60 10.07 2.59 4.20 .015
Emotional Support 5.51 1.62 5.47 1.48 5.81 1.62 9.92 2.47 4.02 .018
Humor 4.98 1.53 5.25 1.54 5.58 1.69 25.21 2.53 9.98 .001
Self-distraction 5.50 1.25 5.67 1.28 5.86 1.36 9.07 1.69 5.38 .005
Self-blame 4.83 1.58 4.42 1.62 4.28 1.66 22.60 2.63 8.61 .001
Religion 4.58 2.02 4.11 1.94 4.89 2.20 46.28 4.21 10.99 .001
Planning 6.30 1.21 6.26 1.18 6.35 1.22 .59 1.45 .41 .664
Venting 4.72 1.34 4.60 1.42 4.57 1.42 1.86 1.94 .96 .384
Denial 3.22 1.31 3.05 1.31 3.27 1.41 4.04 1.81 2.23 .108
Substance Use 3.46 1.51 3.38 1.63 3.35 1.68 .87 2.59 .33 .716
Behavioral
Disengagement
3.35 1.24 3.25 1.31 3.20 1.34 1.65 1.68 .98 .375
following significant multivariate Groups main effect
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136 C. D. Magnuson and L. A. Barnett
Instrumental Support, Emotional Support, and Humor all exhibited significant Playful-
ness Group main effects. Post hoc tests revealed the three significant main effects were all
attributable to differences between the High Playfulness group and the other two playfulness
groups. Cell means and post hoc analyses indicated higher uses of Instrumental Support,
Emotional Support, and Humor between the High Playfulness group and the Medium and
Low Playfulness groups, which were statistically equivalent.
A significant main effect for Playfulness Group on Self–distraction was also obtained
in the univariate analysis. Post hoc tests revealed significant differences between the Low
Playfulness group and the High Playfulness group. There were no significant differences
between the Low and Medium groups or between the Medium and High Playfulness groups
(p>.05). Cell means showed higher uses of Self-distraction as a coping strategy among
those in the High Playfulness group compared to those in the Low group.
Univariate analyses also revealed a Playfulness Group main effect for Self-blame. Post
hoc tests revealed that the Low Playfulness group reported higher uses of Self-blame than
the Medium and High Playfulness groups.
For the coping style of Religion, the univariate analysis revealed a significant Play-
fulness Group main effect. Inspection of the cell means and post hoc tests indicated that
both the Low and High Playfulness groups reported significantly higher uses of Religion
than the Medium group. Post hoc tests also revealed there to be no significant difference
between the Low and High Playfulness groups (p>.05). Religion decreased from the
Low to Medium Playfulness groups and then increased from the Medium to High groups,
resulting in a U-shaped finding that differed from any of the other coping styles.
Univariate analyses revealed a nonsignificant Playfulness Group main effect for the
coping styles of Planning, Venting, Denial, Substance Use, and Behavioral Disengagement
(p>.05).
Discussion
In the present study, we sought to investigate the possible adaptive value of playfulness in
young adults by investigating whether the personality predisposition of playfulness relates
to university students’ perceived stress and/or the coping styles they characteristically
utilize in the face of those stressors. Overall, the findings indicated that playful individuals
experienced lower levels of perceived stress, and that while in many cases playful individuals
used similar coping styles, the frequency and ways in which the coping styles were used are
what separates playful individuals from their less playful counterparts. Playful individuals
may not substantially differ from less playful individuals, but rather notable distinctions
may emerge in how playful individuals perceive and experience stress. It is also likely that
they may differ in how coping styles are utilized and in the purposes that they serve for
each individual.
Playfulness and Perceived Stress
The analyses revealed that individuals low in playfulness experienced higher levels of
perceived stress than individuals with medium or high amounts of playfulness, as shown
also by Qian and Yarnal (2011). Perceived stress focuses predominantly on the individual’s
cognitive appraisal; only events appraised as taxing to one’s resources are deemed to be
a stressor (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). As such, playful individuals, while not necessarily
experiencing fewer stressors, may possess a different perspective during the initial appraisal
process. This may enable playful persons to evaluate what would typically be seen as a
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Playfulness, Stress, and Coping 137
stressful event to their less playful peers as not exceeding their resources, and thus as signif-
icantly less stressful. Conversely, it is also possible that the higher levels of perceived stress
of low playfulness individuals can be explained by their lack of resources. A significant
paucity of resources could thus yield the perception of even the smallest of stressors as
taxing. Playful young adults appear to have sufficient cognitive resources that they are able
to keep stressors in perspective or minimize their effect and prevent them from ubiquitously
affecting other facets of their life. Stressors, then, may become simply “bumps” in life for
the highly playful individual, while being interpreted as significant events for those who
are less playful.
Examination of the individual components of playfulness also helps to explain its pos-
itive relationship with stress. Playful university students are characterized as being active
and energetic (Barnett, 2007), and it has been shown that physically active individuals expe-
rience lower levels of perceived stress (Aldana et al., 1996; Schnohr, Kristensen, Prescott,
& Scharling, 2005; Starkweather, 2007). Further, descriptors that make up Barnett’s (2007)
factors of “gregarious” and “comedic” (e.g., cheerful, happy, friendly, outgoing, sociable,
and clowns around, jokes/teases, funny, humorous, respectively) are opposite to descriptors
that have described perceived stress, such as the feeling that one’s life is unpredictable,
uncontrollable, and overloaded (Cohen et al., 1983). In addition, research has shown that
happier people report less perceived stress (Chatters, 1988; Schiffrin & Nelson, 2010), and
happiness is also a significant component of playfulness (Barnett, 2007). Finally, recent
findings have demonstrated that Extraversion is the largest predictor of playfulness of the
Big Five personality dimensions and extraverted individuals have been shown to report
substantially lower levels of perceived stress (Burgess, Irvine, & Wallymahmed, 2010;
Ebstrup, Eplov, Pisinger, & Jorgensen, 2011).
Playfulness and Coping
Prevailing definitions of coping (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) are similar to conceptualiza-
tions of playfulness (Barnett, 2007; Glynn & Webster, 1992) in that both lay emphasis on
the ability to cognitively reframe situations to derive more positive emotional outcomes.
In addition, these explanations of playfulness are also quite similar to the literature that
views coping as predominantly a cognitive-emotional process (Lazarus, 1999). The coping
styles invoked more frequently by playful as opposed to less playful university students
were found to be more cognitive-emotional in nature, and more approach-and engagement-
focused (e.g., Active Coping, Positive Reframing, Acceptance, Instrumental Support) as
opposed to avoidance-and disengagement-focused. An additional finding was that while
both more and less playful young adults generally possessed the same coping resources,
more playful adults utilized adaptive and stressor-focused coping styles more frequently
than less playful young adults. Each of the playfulness groups reported the same top five
coping styles (Active Coping, Planning, Positive Reframing, Acceptance, and Instrumental
Support) and, with the exception of Planning, all had significant relationships with the
individual’s degree of playfulness. Highly playful individuals (and in some cases, those
who were moderately playful) consistently reported more frequent use of positive-focused
coping strategies than students who were low in the playful predisposition, which supports
and extends the findings reported by Qian and Yarnal (2011) with students at another
university.
Results further revealed that university students with at least a moderate amount of
playfulness reported using Active Coping and Acceptance more often than were those low in
playfulness. The same relationship existed with Positive Reframing, with the added finding
that those high in playfulness reported more frequent use than those with moderate amounts
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138 C. D. Magnuson and L. A. Barnett
of playfulness, indicating a linear rise in Positive Reframing as playfulness increased.
Individuals with high levels of playfulness reported seeking Instrumental Support more
frequently than those with medium or low levels of playfulness. Taken together, each of
these coping styles (Active Coping, Positive Reframing, Acceptance, Instrumental Support)
falls under what numerous authors have called “engagement coping” (Carver & Connor-
Smith, 2010; Skinner et al., 2003), which is a focus on alleviating rather than escaping
the stressor or related emotions. Engagement coping has traditionally been seen to include
more adaptive forms of coping than disengagement coping, which centers on escaping
stressor-induced problems and emotions.
Highly playful students reported higher uses of Emotional Support and Humor than
their moderate or low playful peers, while Self-distraction was reported more by individ-
uals with higher levels of playfulness compared to those with lower levels. The greater
use of Emotional Support further supports the notion that playful individuals are more
engagement-focused in their coping efforts. The explanation of the use of Humor is less
clear, although Connor-Smith and Flachsbart (2007) stated that the humorous aspect of a
stressor as a part of cognitive restructuring is another engagement-focused coping mech-
anism. The fact that highly playful university students reported significantly higher uses
of Humor supports Barnett’s (2007) findings that playfulness contains a “comedic” fac-
tor, and that Humor is a type of cognitive restructuring supports previous findings that
playful university students are highly adept cognitively (Barnett, 2007; Glynn & Webster,
1992; Guitard et al., 2005; Tegano, 1990). Similarly, the findings relating to the use of
Humor are consistent with this interpretation that playful individuals report higher uses of
Self-distraction, which may also be viewed as a cognitive-emotional strategy, and is at the
heart of several definitions of the playfulness construct (Barnett, 2007; Glynn & Webster,
1992). In their meta–analysis, Connor-Smith and Flachsbart (2007) noted that while Self-
distraction incorporated taking a break from a stressor, it “does [not] involve attempts to
avoid or deny problems” (p. 1082), further supporting the engagement focus of a playful
individual’s coping efforts and strategies.
The results of the study also revealed that university students with moderate or high
amounts of playfulness reported significantly lower uses of Self-blame as a coping style.
Self-blame has been associated with negative outcomes, both physical and emotional
(Moskowitz, Hult, Bussolari, & Acree, 2009; Smith, Lumley, & Longo, 2002), and in-
dicates a negative and unproductive internalization of the feelings of distress. No other
indicators from the present study point to moderately or highly playful individuals coping
in maladaptive or avoidant ways. This finding suggests that playfulness not only facilitates
individuals utilizing effective and engagement-focused tools, but also that they are much
less likely to employ negative, avoidant, and unhealthy tools.
The use of Religion as a coping mechanism also provided interesting results and added
new findings to the extant literature. Moderately playful individuals were significantly less
likely to report Religion as a coping style compared with low or high playful individuals,
indicating a decreasing use when low playful individuals are compared with those of
moderate playfulness. However, an increase is seen in comparisons of those from moderate
to those of high levels of playfulness. It might be that this finding related to the difference
in the items assessing the Religion coping style, and to the possibility that the authors
did not distinguish between religion and spirituality. Religion tends to be more social in
that individuals typically identify themselves with a religious group that mirrors their own
beliefs and characteristics (Templeton & Eccles, 2008), while spirituality tends to be more
individualistic and is seen in the context of one’s internalized beliefs without necessarily
conforming to those of a group. It is possible that individuals who turn to religion to
cope may be as playful as individuals who instead turn inward to their spiritual beliefs,
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Playfulness, Stress, and Coping 139
thus reflecting the lack of differences between high and low playful respondents. It can
also be speculated that the nature of playfulness could provide additional insight into which
individuals turn to religion and which individuals might be more likely to turn to spirituality.
Since playful individuals are more mentally dexterous (Barnett, 2007; Glynn & Webster,
1992; Guitard et al., 2005; Tegano, 1990), it may be more natural for them to develop and
turn to their own internalized beliefs (spirituality) instead of relying on external and group-
defined standards (religion) for coping. In the same way, less playful individuals may not
have the cognitive focus to embark on either defining or turning to their individual spiritual
beliefs and methods for coping, especially in times of high distress. It may be easier for
them to turn to traditional manifestations of religious coping, which would be evidenced by
participation in more formal gatherings and rituals. A distinction between spirituality and
religion among playful individuals can also be seen from a motivational perspective. Since
playful people have been show to possess higher levels of intrinsic motivation (Amabile,
Hill, Hennessey, & Tighe, 1994; Barnett, 2011–12), they may be drawn to the development
of the acutely individual and personal aspects of spirituality whereas individuals with low
amounts of playfulness may be drawn to the normative nature of their respective religious
inclinations and associations. These findings present an interesting focus for further research
and exploration.
It was also interesting to note that across all three playfulness groups the three least
reported coping styles were Substance Use, Behavioral Disengagement, and Denial. None
of these showed group differences that were significant, indicating that among the college
student sample having high, moderate, or low levels of playfulness was not indicative of the
frequency of their use of these particular coping strategies. The lack of significance for Sub-
stance Use may be attributed to its ubiquitous use on college campuses (Mohler-Kuo, Lee,
& Wechsler, 2003; Peralta & Steele, 2010), masking the more subtle effects of playfulness
and/or gender. There is an absence of literature relating Behavioral Disengagement, Denial,
and the two other coping styles (Venting and Planning) to playfulness, so that interpretation
of the absence of a relationship with playfulness will need to await further study.
Conclusions, Limitations, and Future Research
While there has been a history of research exploring playfulness in children, empirical
attention on playfulness in adults is in its early stages. This cross-sectional study sought
to build upon the extant research on young adult playfulness by delving into its possible
benefits by exploring interrelationships with perceived stress and styles of coping in uni-
versity students. The findings revealed that these individuals who were high in playfulness
experienced less perceived stress and engaged more frequently in adaptive coping styles
than their less playful peers. The results clearly indicated that these playful university stu-
dents had a propensity to attack stressors directly, and that they more infrequently utilized
less adaptive coping styles. This implies that playful individuals believe they have the
inner resources necessary to overcome their stressors and are typically successful in their
utilization of coping strategies. Coping styles that are maladaptive and internalize stress
(e.g., Self-blame) and those that seek to avoid or escape from the stressors do nothing
to effectively alleviate distress and were found more frequently in individuals with low
levels of playfulness. Moreover, since the students reported the same top five coping styles,
and playful students reported higher utilization for four of the five, it appears that playful
young adults may simply cope to a greater degree than their less playful peers. Since playful
university students were found to employ coping styles that were adaptive and engagement-
focused more often than those who were less playful, it might be assumed that this was a
result of consistently higher levels of perceived stress. However, a better explanation may
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140 C. D. Magnuson and L. A. Barnett
be that they more readily and swiftly employed effective coping styles whenever faced with
stress, effectively rendering the stressors innocuous. It seems to be the case that coping is
simply a more natural behavior for the playful young adult university student, especially
since both coping and playfulness are similar in their cognitive-emotional attributes.
These findings suggest that playfulness may serve a purpose much more extensive
than previously thought and that its benefits persist beyond childhood and into adulthood.
Adult playfulness may well contribute to the individual’s resilience through its unique
employment of coping styles in the face of stressful situations, as playful young adults
seem to see stressors as nondebilitating and attack them directly and readily. Further, this
resilience may also help explain why playful young adults perceive lower levels of stress.
With the ubiquity of changes in their social landscape and climate, the significant continued
aging of the population, and the unique challenges of the 21st century, there may be few
more valuable attributes to study and develop than the characteristic of resilience. In light
of the considerable demonstrated benefits of playfulness, an interesting question to pose
is whether it is possible to teach individuals to be playful. With the conceptualization of
playfulness holding that it is an aspect of personality, which is largely stable across time,
it seems that enhancing playfulness in an individual would be a challenging endeavor.
Viewing playfulness along a continuum from low to high (Glynn & Webster, 1992), rather
than as a dichotomy as it has been viewed in earlier studies, suggests that virtually every
individual possesses at least some amount of playfulness, thus permitting the adaptive
functions of playfulness to be learned or enhanced. If there are indeed some therapeutic
functions to being playful, the ability to instill or heighten this quality would be an important
undertaking, as stress has been shown to be increasing with this population (Lindsey et al.,
2009), to relate to numerous physical (Edwards, Hershberger, Russell, & Markert, 2001)
and psychological illnesses (Dyson & Renk, 2006; Hirsch & Ellis, 1996), and to carry over
into other domains of university students’ lives (Pedersen, 2012).
As with any study, the presence of limitations in the study must be recognized and
considered when seeking to apply the findings. Since the sample was university students,
the results cannot be generalized to the entire adult population or to those of the same
age but not enrolled in university. Differences such as socioeconomic status, years of
education, and race/ethnicity were not accounted for in this study, and although previous
investigations have found them to have a negligible effect on playfulness (Barnett, 2006,
2007), interrelationships with stress and coping may demonstrate some differences. As
with all forms of self-report data collection, the researchers operated under the assumption
that participants’ responses were truthful, although there was no way to establish their
veracity. While the above may be viewed as unlikely, due to the anonymous and confidential
assurances provided to participants, they cannot be completely discounted. In addition,
students were provided with the incentive of obtaining extra credit for their participation,
which, for the higher achieving student, is not as motivating as for the lower achieving
student (and thus serves as less of an incentive). Finally, this study was cross-sectional
in nature, and as such no causal relationships can be inferred. While these limitations
exist and merit mention, they should not distract from the significant relationships found
concerning the significant potential that playfulness has in the face of perceived stress and
in the successful implementation of adaptive coping strategies.
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... Playfulness has been argued to be crucial to the process of coping (Chang et al., 2013;Hess & Bundy, 2003;Magnuson & Barnett, 2013;Saunders et al., 1999;Staempfli, 2007;Yarnal, 2011). As Magnuson and Barnett (2013) showed, playfulness mediates the stress-coping process through its influence on cognitive appraisal. ...
... Playfulness has been argued to be crucial to the process of coping (Chang et al., 2013;Hess & Bundy, 2003;Magnuson & Barnett, 2013;Saunders et al., 1999;Staempfli, 2007;Yarnal, 2011). As Magnuson and Barnett (2013) showed, playfulness mediates the stress-coping process through its influence on cognitive appraisal. As a coping strategy, playfulness may mediate the interpretation and experience of stress (Hess & Bundy, 2003;Staempfli, 2007). ...
... Playfulness may also guide reframing stressful situations in a way that facilitates flexibility, reduces perceived stress, and improves resilience (Barnett, 2007). In addition, highly playful individuals use adaptive or engagement coping strategies more frequently than their less playful counterparts, although both groups used the same types of coping strategies overall (Magnuson & Barnett, 2013). Higher levels of playfulness result in greater flexibility when dealing with difficult life events (Bundy, 1993), supporting the notion that playfulness acts as a facilitator of stress and coping in adults (Qian & Yarnal, 2011). ...
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The COVID-19 pandemic created high levels of stress that negatively affect mental health and well-being. The stress and coping process is influenced by individual difference factors, such as personality, that impact perceptual processes and emotional reactions. Adult playfulness is a personality characteristic that may lead to better mental and physical health outcomes. We test a theoretical model to determine whether the two factors of perceived stress, perceived self-efficacy (PSE) and perceived helplessness (PH), mediate the relationship among playfulness and coping in adults (N = 694). Scores on the Perceived Stress Scale were high indicating high levels of pandemic-related stress. The SEM model demonstrated direct effects of playfulness on PSE, PH, adaptive, maladaptive, and supportive coping. Both dimensions of perceived stress were partial mediators in the relationship among playfulness and coping outcomes. Findings illustrate the pathways by which adult playfulness can amplify or attenuate the impact of stress perceptions on coping strategies. The importance of building psychological resources such as playfulness to boost adaptive outcomes in stressful situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic is discussed. Supplementary information: The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1007/s12144-022-02870-0.
... There is robust evidence for a positive correlation between playfulness and many positive outcome variables such as relationship satisfaction, well-being, creativity, levels of selfestimates and self-confidence (e.g., Yu et al., 2007;Barnett, 2011Barnett, , 2012Magnuson and Barnett, 2013;Proyer, 2013;Yue et al., 2016;Proyer and Brauer, 2018;Proyer et al., 2020). Proyer (2012) investigated the link between playfulness and various measures of personality and ability (e.g., ingenuity) in a sequence of three studies: Adult playfulness is positively related to gelotophilia (the joy in being laughed at), extraversion, and higher endorsement of culture (in terms of the Five Factor Model of personality), it relates to intrinsic goals rather than extrinsic goals, and is positively correlated with both self-perception of ingenuity and psychometrically measures ingenuity. ...
... These potential benefits of playfulness arise from various functions it serves in different domains. Several studies (Proyer, 2011;Magnuson and Barnett, 2013;Proyer et al., 2020) suggest that playfulness affects different settings including academic contexts, though in a unique way. Like other psychological constructs in educational contexts such as motivation and anxiety, it seems that individuals' playfulness is to some extent context and situation-specific, and it is not entirely an internal variable. ...
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... Much research has been done on the positive psychological effects of play on children, but the positive effects of adult play are often left out of these studies. Magnuson and Barnett (2013) found significant reductions in stress and an increase in active coping, acceptance, and positive reframing in adults who scored in the medium-high playfulness scale. Proyer (2017) defines playfulness with four main facets: (a) Other-directed; (b) Lighthearted; (c) Intellectual, and (d) Whimsical. ...
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... Play theory suggests that individuals initiate play to expand and recuperate their energetic resources (Berlyne, 1960;Celestine and Yeo, 2021;Ellis, 1973;Giddens, 1964;Magnuson and Barnett, 2013;Spencer, 1870). The affective-energetic states of employees can be described by work engagement, exhaustion, and job boredom (Schaufeli and Salanova, 2014). ...
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... Further, Brauer, Proyer et al. (2021) suggested examination of the playfulness-RS associations in the nomological net of age trajectories but also of important third variables that might also help to understand the present findings, as individual and dyadic level variables might play a mediating or moderating role for men's Other-directed playfulness in relationships. For example, prior studies have shown that playfulness relates to positive coping in individuals (e.g., Magnusson & Barnett, 2013;Proyer, 2014a;Qian & Yarnal, 2011) and considering the important role of dyadic coping (i.e., how couples deal with internal and external stressors) and dealing with conflicts for couples' RS (e.g., Herzberg & Sierau, 2016;Sierau & Herzberg, 2012), future studies should investigate and identify potential third variables that translate the effects of playfulness on RS. Further, research has identified several variables that contribute to understand differences in RS in the elderly. ...
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... Barnett, 2007;Bateson, 2015, Proyer, 2019. Playfulness had also been associated with a number of health benefits in adults in terms of psychological functioning and wellbeing (Proyer, 2012;Proyer & Ruch, 2011;Yue et al., 2016) and stress reduction and coping strategies (Magnuson & Barnett, 2013). Indeed, according to Diener and Chan (2011), playful adults live on average ten years longer than their less playful peers. ...
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