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Adult play: What exactly is joy strategy?

TextKristen Bateman

We unpack New York’s latest wellness trend of playing like a kid and meet its founder Grace Harry

When I arrive at Joy Strategist Grace Harry’s townhouse in the calm and residential neighbourhood of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, she answers the door wearing an inflatable plastic crown, a leopard print shirt, denim skirt and fluffy slippers. She guides me to her living room where a table is stacked with toys of all kinds: colouring books, shiny magnetic pieces of plastic that can be stacked together, bouncy balls, cards, hula hoops and a beautiful buffet of fruit, homemade juice and other snacks. She tops my head with my own inflatable crown. 

I first heard of Harry’s unique service from her manager, who also works with New York legends such as the astrologer Susan Miller. Naturally, I was curious to know more, so I went to Harry’s house for a one-on-one joy session: an hour-long lesson in the art of play. A term coined by Harry last year, Joy Strategy can be simply described as the act of playing (like a little kid might do) as a means of accessing joy. So far, she is the only one teaching it. But here in New York, it’s starting to take off, with Harry hosting one large-scale public event a month and a handful of private large group sessions and private one-on-ones in between. Each session can range anywhere between an hour to a full afternoon or evening, with prices varying from $650 to $2000, “depending on how many people and what is needed to crack them,” according to her manager. Tickets to her public events are more affordable at $35 a session. Ranging in all demographics, at this stage, Harry attracts clients mostly from word-of-mouth. Last month she hosted a “hooky day” as one of her public events at The William Vale (a trendy Williamsburg hotel). Adults of all ages registered to play with hula hoops and bumper balls, and participated in egg and spoon races as well as making hats and singing at the top of their lungs – all attempts to find joy in their lives. Next month Harry will host another one with activities ranging from wheelbarrowing to dressing up in costumes, dancing and acting – this one geared more towards families. 

The journey to Joy Strategist for Harry came naturally after a long career in music. As a music industry veteran from Brooklyn (she worked as Executive Vice President of Marketing/Creative Services at Island Def Jam Records and also held positions at MCA Records, Jive Records, and Geffen Records) Harry fell into a creative director role at a young age, meeting musicians and creatives within the New York City scene and pairing them together for special projects throughout the 90s. “I put other people who are friends of mine, who are creative, together,” she explains. “I have a friend who's an illustrator, so she did A Tribe Called Quest’s album. I had a friend who became a photographer, so she did work with De La Soul. I just cut and kind of hodgepodged artists together.” She later worked on marketing and creative aspects for artists including Jay Z, Beyonce, Rihanna, Britney Spears and a host of other major recognisable names, as well as becoming Usher’s manager and wife in the mid-2000s, until they split last year.

As a way of coping with the stress, anxiety and depression Harry experienced while working in the music industry over the years, exacerbated by multiple divorces, she tried pretty much every form of therapy, from life coaches to traditional therapists, until she finally asked herself the question: “When's the last time I felt so good, I was snorting out of my nose when I laughed or my cheeks hurt or I was just enjoying walking around for no other reason than to enjoy the day?” Then it dawned on her, she hadn’t felt that way since she was a kid. So she decided to start injecting a sense of youthful play into her life and that of her friends. She set up mini easels in her living room and did extensive test play dates on everyone she knew (with colouring books, hula hoops, singing and dancing) before deciding she had something worth bringing to the masses.

“I'm here to light people up" - Grace Harry

Inspired by her friends’ joyful responses, she rebranded herself as a Joy Strategist.  But despite the lofty title she maintains that she’s not teaching anything new; instead, she’s merely reminding people about what they’ve always known; how to play, let loose and find joy through childish pursuits. “I'm here to light people up,” she says, with a grin. “I'm lighting them up by reminding them about the shit they know, but forgot.” 

While the main component of Harry’s Joy Strategy is physical play, there is also an element of therapeutic conversation. For this, she draws on teachings from meditation workshops, yoga retreats, Ayahuasca journeys, breath-work training, therapy, and life-coaching. She also roots her practice in two of her favourite books: The Venus Sequence: Opening your Heart by Gene Keys (a book about how we use our daily lives and our relationships as the fuel of our spiritual transformation), and Maybe It's You: Cut the Crap. Face Your Fears. Love Your Life (“a no-nonsense, practical manual to help readers figure out not just what they want out of life, but how to actually get there) by Lauren Zander. “The combination of these books unlocked my birthright of joy and formed my methodology that everyone is their own expert when they are guided by their Northstar to joy. There are so many ‘experts’ in the world and I’m asking for people to stop looking for experts and to have people take a look inside their self. Children understand this but we have lost this as adults but we need to get to back to our inner expert.”

Before my one-on-one with Harry, she wanted to know my birth year and where I grew up in order to plan a playdate that seemed more realistic or relatable - for example, for someone who grew up in the countryside she might plan an outdoor activity like sack racing or hula hooping rather than painting or colouring. She also took a look through my social media. “Glancing into a person’s world through their social media, coupled with their age and city of origin gives me the entry point to disarm someone’s thinking,” explains Harry, who believes this can help loosen her clients up. For our session, Harry decided on building tiles because she thought I liked colour (true). It had a pretty profound effect on me, I was immediately taken back to one of the living rooms of my childhood houses where I once played with Legos. It was interesting to think of how long ago it was that I’d last participated in this activity. 

Though there is little research on the exact subject of Joy Strategy, given it’s only a little over one year old, it is scientifically proven that play can help people emotionally, physically and spiritually. According to a U.S. News and World Report: “Play has been scientifically proved to be good for the brain. All animals play, even though playing is not immediately productive and is sometimes dangerous...Play stimulates nerve growth in the portions of the brain that process emotions and executive function.” As the article suggests, play also helps us improve our imagination, helps us learn about things like fairness, allows us to make friends, delays mental decline, helps with problem-solving, and even help perform better academically.

"My session taught me about the importance of taking time out of my day to do silly things"

A similar sentiment was held in the now-viral New York Times article, “The Case for Doing Nothing.” In it, the author explains the concept of the Dutch word “niksen” which literally means “doing nothing” and the health benefits associated with it, such as feeling more productive and less stressed. As a society, we rarely focus on doing things that seem to not be on our never-ending to-do list (like doing absolutely nothing, or colouring for an hour). Perhaps, part of the process in becoming a healthier, less stressed and depressed society has to do with all of us indulging simple things such as hula hooping or staring out a window every once in a while rather than answering emails or even posting on social media. In the same article, research found that “daydreaming — an inevitable effect of idleness — literally makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas.” 

Personally, my session taught me about the importance of taking time out of my day to do silly things that aren’t work-related and have nothing to do with anything but myself. The more I played with the toys, picking up different coloured bouncy balls and jacks, the easier it became to let my guard down. We spoke about work, travel and even my boyfriend, and Harry gave me advice on how to make it easier to talk to my boyfriend when we disagree, and tons of ideas of what to do when I need a break from work and want to “play.” And yet even if her pieces of advice seemed simplistic at times (for example, her suggestions of colouring outside the lines or building whatever you want with coloured tiles as opposed to following rules), I felt like that was somewhat part of the point; to remind you what you knew as a child but may have forgotten as an adult. There’s no doubt that Harry has a natural sort of charisma about her and, to me, the session felt in some ways like a much less clinical, much less anxiety-inducing version of therapy. 

Although Harry is the only one teaching Joy Strategy at the moment, she believes it has the power to become extremely popular and even embraced by the mainstream. She’s already thinking of how to bring her practice to large corporations and bigger scale events such as Air BnB and music festivals like Coachella. “With wellness being so many different things, and outside of people's scope, people are really looking for another way to access joy that's simple and attainable,” says Harry. Indeed, with everything happening in the world right now – from burnout to rising depression and anxiety – people are looking to alternative treatments that don’t revolve around traditional therapy or doctors. So, how does she determine when her clients have found joy? “I don't,” she says, firmly. “I let them determine when they find joy.” So, next time you’re having a bad day try playing. You might be surprised. 

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