Gratitude Challenge, Epilogue

So, here we are, the end of the gratitude challenge. Well, technically, that was yesterday, but I majored in English, so I can afford to fudge things a bit. For those of you who aren’t familiar (though you should be, since I’ve been doing this for the last three weeks), here is the TED Talk by Shawn Achor, from whom the idea for the gratitude challenge derives:

The idea is that, by following the relatively simple structure of the gratitude challenge for three weeks, you will end up with a more positive outlook on life. You see, you have to train your brain tho think more positively; the brain, like any other muscle, won’t do anything unless you work it out. For a lot of us – and by us, I am referring specifically to those of us with mental illnesses, though I imagine there are a fair amount of other people who could benefit – we tend to think about the world very negatively. When I was at Menninger, I went through several tests by a psychiatrist, and at the end, when he told me the results, I wasn’t sure I could be any less surprised. You see, he told me that I have a very pessimistic worldview, even though I have some rather unrealistic hopes about a better world. Aside from a very few people, I assume that most others are up to no good, and will take any opportunity they can to hurt, annoy, or otherwise inconvenience me.

That is, or was, essentially true. I found it was generally easier to just assume that almost everyone was out to do me wrong, because it saved time when it did happen. I trust few people, and I am very suspicious; I feel like I constantly have to watch for trouble when out in public. The gratitude challenge was, in part, meant to try and change that. Finding new things to be grateful for each day, and making a list of people to be grateful to and why, and trying to keep my body and mind in shape were all meant to help me to be more positive.

I think it has worked. Not by great leaps and bounds; three weeks isn’t enough to change decades of habit, after all. And I am by no means the best judge of my behavior; while I feel like I have been more positive, and generally happier, and easier to be around for at least the last week or so, it isn’t based on any specific observations. It’s just a feeling I have. I don’t think I have been as suspicious or hostile towards other people, especially strangers; I think the gratitude challenge has something to do with that, along with a little help from a few SuperBetter quests. You could probably ask people who know me, though, and see what they think; maybe a few of them will be kind enough to comment here on that topic, should they feel so inclined.

So, what was each part of this challenge supposed to do? I set out the parts of the challenge, but never mentioned why. I’ll go over that now.

1. The three things a day to be grateful for? Research shows this will significantly improve your optimism even six months later, and raises your success rates significantly.

2. Journaling about a positive experience in the last day? This is a strategy to help transform you from a task-based thinker, to a meaning based thinker who scans the world for meaning instead of endless to-dos.

3. Exercising for ten (or more) minutes per day? This trains your brain to believe your behavior matters, which causes a cascade of success throughout the rest of the day.

4. Meditating (or doing breathing exercises) for two minutes per day? This will help you undo the negative effects of multitasking. Research shows you get multiple tasks done faster if you do them one at a time. It also decreases stress and raises happiness.

5. Writing a message of gratitude for one person each day? This significantly increases your feeling of social support, which in Mr. Achor’s study at Harvard was the largest predictor of happiness for the students.

These explanations were acquired from Shawn Achor’s article for the Huffington Post, 5 Ways to Turn Happiness Into An Advantage.

Now that I have taken the challenge, and completed it, and I think it has helped me out, I hope more people will think about doing so. It’s been a good way to spend the last three weeks blogging here, and I look forward to the challenges ahead of me with a (cautiously) optimistic view.

The How of Happy

I’ve been watching a lot of TED Talks lately. Yeah, yeah, so sue me. They show a lot of them in our groups. But this most recent one I got from SuperBetter, the game designed by Jane McGonigal that I mentioned several entries ago. It is all about the science of happiness. Yes, happiness can be scientific. Dan Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard, tells us why and how.

So happiness all comes down to choice. Not only does it come down to choice, but it also comes down to us being stuck, essentially, with the choice we make. When we are left in a situation where there is uncertainty in the choice, we tend to think about it so much that we make ourselves miserable. Here, I’ll use an example (sorry, this example assumes a male, because that’s what I am; I imagine it is easily reversible for women). Say a guy talks to a woman. While talking to her, he says that he has feelings for her, and asks if she would like to go out. Now, if she says yes, happiness will probably result. If she says no, there will be disappointment, but ultimately happiness will probably result. But if she gives him an answer and then gives him the option of changing her mind later, the guy will be miserable because he’ll constantly be wondering if his choice was the right one.

Not a perfect example, I’ll grant you. But it seems that happiness comes down to two things – choice and our ability to change that choice. There’s a well-known quote that I’d like to use here, from a man named Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Anyone familiar with AA and other 12-step programs will be familiar with this, the Serenity Prayer. This is a quote that leads to happiness. When you accept that you cannot change some things, no matter how horrible they might be – in DBT, we call this ‘radical acceptance’ – then you will, in the long run, be happier than if you try to obsess about changing something you just can’t change.

Happiness is possible to synthesize, it turns out. We just need to be shown how to do it. It won’t be easy, I imagine – there are things I know I can’t change that I still want to change anyway. But accepting some things won’t change – like accepting that I have depression, which will never go away – can help us to move on, and be happier with the things we can change. That acceptance is a key ingredient to happiness, it seems. So I’m going to try it out.

Breaking Reality

I mentioned last night that there was a book called Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. I’ve read it before, and I am reading it now, partially because I like the way she writes. I am also re-reading it, though, because I think that the ideas she puts forth have a lot of meaning, and could be very important for things like my treatment – and also my theoretical teaching style, should I get a teaching job. So, what does she talk about?

Largely, she talks about how video gaming, in all its forms, from World of Warcraft to Angry Birds to the tiniest Facebook game, have the potential to help us reach our potential. Games are important, especially to the people who play them constantly – when she wrote the book, back in 2010, the subscribers to World of Warcraft had collectively spent over 50 billion collective hours – or about 5.93 million years – playing it. She notes that that is about the amount of time mankind has progressed from its first ancestor standing upright. And that was 3 years ago – how much more has been played?  So what keeps people playing these games for such long periods?

Well, for one, our in-games avatars, or representations of ourselves – our characters, if you will – tend to look much cooler than us. Take, for instance, this picture of me:

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Now, contrast this with a picture of my character, a high-level human paladin (holy warrior):

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Our in-game representations are clearly far cooler-looking. But that’s just a surface characteristic. What games like this give us- and I’ll use World of Warcraft as a good example, though there are many others – are many things.

First, they give us a sense of achievement. Things happen to our characters in a game like WoW (an abbreviation for World of Warcraft); they gain levels, get new abilities, acquire new equipment, look cooler. This happens constantly, and so we feel like we are getting something out of it – but there’s always more to get. Second, we are challenged – but not unreasonably. There are thousands of quests in WoW, and as you progress through the game, each quest you get will, almost always, be just a little harder than the last – it will push your abilities just a bit further, make you pay just a little more attention, and make you feel just a little better when you achieve your goal. The quests aren’t unreasonably hard, and the game will let you know when you try something that is probably outside your capabilities.

Third, we feel like we affect the world around us. In the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, WoW introduced something called ‘phasing’ – if you completed certain quests, things in the world around you would change. Completing a group of quests for the Argent Crusade would cause a base camp for the group to be set up the next time you returned to the area – other players who hadn’t yet done those quests wouldn’t see the change, but you would, and so you felt as if your actions had consequences.

Fourth, and this was a bgi one for me, WoW was a social game. At its height it had over 11 million players around the world, divided up into hundreds or thousands of servers. Even though you almost never physically met many of the people around you, you could interact with their characters, talk to the players, and generally just feel like you weren’t alone. I joined a guild, or like-minded group of players, called Warforged, and while I never met any of the other players, I got to know a number of them online and through the characters they played.

Games can do a lot – make us feel happy, make us take risks, make us be more social. In one portion of her book, she talks about her game, SuperBetter, which she created to help herself get over a bad concussion, setting small, manageable goals for herself each day that she turned into quests that she had to achieve to fight off the bad guy,  her concussion. I’m using it now to help myself with my depression, and I think it helps. It even helps relax people – McGonigal talks about a survey of high-level executive, including CEOs, which found that 70% of them play computer games at work regularly, in breaks ranging from 15 minutes to an hour, “to feel more productive” (“Games at Work: The Recreational Use of Computer Games During Working Hours”, Leonard Reinecke. CyberPsychology & Behavior. August 2009, 12(4): 461-465).

So, when I think about games now, and about how they can be used, I think about something in the first section of the book: “What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?”

Well, what if we did? It’s something to think about.