This simple trick will bring more happiness, success, and positivity into your life.
“The best way to create an optimistic world view is to practice gratefulness on a daily basis.”
~ Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage
The Tetris effect
Back in high school, I read a Stephen King novel called The Stand. In this book (spoiler alert!), most of humanity is killed off by a devastating plague, which is all described in vivid detail.
During this time, I remember seeing one of my soccer opponents sneeze during a game and then feeling genuine terror that I might contract an illness that would kill me. The feeling was so powerful that I could no longer focus on playing at all, and I spent the rest of the game avoiding him.
But that was just the beginning of what would be a strange experience for me. For the following weeks, my environment felt cold, dark, and strangely hostile. The world had lost some of its color and life itself had lost some of its shine.
Clearly, this novel changed how I perceived the world.
Has something like this ever happened to you, especially after binge-watching a TV series or binge-playing a videogame?
Have you ever found yourself hesitating to open the door to the basement because you expected a zombie to pop out? Have you ever had to think twice about stealing a car after playing a videogame like Grand Theft Auto?
Studies have found that when people devote enough time and attention to a specific activity, their perception of the world changes accordingly. This was originally called the Tetris effect (now Game Transfer Phenomena), named after players who began to see the famed Tetris shapes in their everyday lives after playing the game for an extended period of time (see here).
So, why does this matter to me? You ask.
It’s simple: our reality is shaped by what we consistently do and think.
And in a world filled with worry, stress, anxiety, and depression, I think this is really important news for all of us.
What you think creates your reality
In 1979, a group of 75-year-old men participated in a week-long study in which they were instructed to behave as if it was 1959 (see here). They were given ID badges with pictures of themselves from 20 years earlier, along with newspapers and magazines from that era.
Prior to the experiment, these men were tested on several characteristics we assume decline with age, including physical strength, posture, cognition, and short-term memory. As you might have guessed, they were also tested afterward; but, can you guess what happened to them?
When tested after the experiment, their scores improved in virtually every category. They were more flexible, had better hand-strength, and increased memory and intelligence. Even their eyesight improved by 10 percent!
Finally, when random people were shown before and after pictures of these men, they guessed, on average, that the men looked three years younger after the experiment compared to before the experiment.
Consider for a moment the implications of these findings. These men did nothing but change their mindset — they pretended to be younger — and they became younger. Their immersion in that belief changed their reality.
While we aren’t all 75-year-old men, we all share the same biology. If these men can change their reality, so can the rest of us.
But, I’m not old, you say, why should I want to change my reality?
Because if there’s one thing we’re really good it, it’s focusing on the negative, often to the exclusion of the positive.
The overly critical brain
How you ever noticed how critical the mind can be? You probably know someone who can find fault in anyone or anything. The warm, sunny day is too hot; the free meal at work is too salty; the concert last night was too loud.
Yet, society often rewards us for this kind of thinking. A critical mindset can be useful for identifying problems, which can be the first step toward resolving them.
What ends up biting us in the ass is that the criticism inevitably leaks into other aspects of our lives. We focus on the C on our child’s report card and ignore the As. We focus on our partners flaws instead of on what we love. We focus on all the annoyances and stresses of our vacation instead of enjoying the time we’re spending with our loved ones.
To some extent, we all have this critical, negative mindset. And to some extent, it takes a toll on all our lives.
So, we’re at an impasse. Although we don’t want to be the person who sees fault in everything, we also want to be able to use our critical eye to our advantage. What to do?
The good news is that the way we perceive the world mostly comes down to habit. The critical way we are naturally inclined to see the world is just a story we tell ourselves.
And it’s possible to tell ourselves a new story.
A new story
Amazingly, the human brain ignores about 99% of the information it receives (see here). Much of this information is ignored for a good reason. For instance, in a coffee shop we can’t pay attention to the conversation with our friend while simultaneously paying attention to the four other conversations going on around us. So, our brains ignore that information.
However, by constantly being critical, we are training our brains to focus on the negative to the exclusion of the positive. In other words, the more we focus on the negative, the more positive aspects of our lives will be clumped into the 99% of the information we ignore.
So, what can we do about our habit of focusing on the negative?
Simple: we can moderate it by developing a new habit.
Not a habit that stops us from seeing the real dangers and risks of life, or seeing problems that need solving, but one that opens our minds up to new opportunities and allows us to enjoy what we have.
The great thing about this new habit is that we actually become smarter by developing it! Negative emotions, which often accompany criticism, narrow our thinking and blind us to new possibilities.
On the other hand, positive emotions are associated with what has been called the broaden and build response, which opens our thinking to new possibilities. This response is where outside-the-box thinking (i.e., creativity) can flourish (see here).
So, how can we change our thinking so that we see more positivity and possibility in the world? The answer is actually very simple: we practice gratefulness.
How to practice gratefulness
We can change our perspectives by taking advantage of the Tetris effect — the idea that our reality changes depending on our thoughts and actions.
So, how do we change our reality so we notice more of the positives?
The answer is simple: every day, write down three good things that happened to you that day, along with why they were good.
That’s it. That’s all you have to do.
By performing this activity regularly, you are training your mind to focus on seeing the positive, just like you have trained your mind to focus on seeing the negative (except without really trying). This will help to balance out your mindset so that you can finally enjoy what’s right in front of you!
It’s been demonstrated that this practice will make you happier and give you a more optimistic outlook on life. The effects can even be seen months after you stop this practice (see here).
What do you have to lose? Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
This simple trick changed my life. I’m certain it will change yours.