SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient - Powered by the Science of Games - Jane McGonigal (2015)
Part 2. How to Be Gameful
Chapter 10. Secret Identity
How to Be Gameful Rule 6
Adopt a secret identity. Pick a heroic nickname that highlights your unique personal strengths.
This is the most playful of all the rules for gameful living. It requires you to have a sense of humor, and not take yourself too seriously. It also involves a bit of creativity and self-reflection to pick the right heroic nickname.
What is a secret identity? Think of it as an avatar for the real world. In video games, avatars are the heroic characters we play as. We see the virtual world through their eyes, and we draw on their special strengths.
As we saw in Chapter 3, playing a video game with a heroic avatar can bring out your heroic qualities in real life. But you don’t need a video game or a 3-D character to maximize your heroic potential. Your own imagination and creativity are strong enough to do the trick. Simply by adopting a heroic nickname, or secret identity, you can bring out some of your most important challenge-facing attributes, like determination, courage, and compassion.
Your heroic nickname could be inspired by fiction, myth, history, or even family legend. Here are some of my favorite secret identities from successful SuperBetter players. As you can see, they all highlight different strengths and struggles unique to the player.
“I’m going to be the Dread Pirate Rosie, after the Dread Pirate Roberts from my favorite movie The Princess Bride. I’ve always been secretly a swashbuckler at heart, but too shy and unfit to do much in real life. When I’m more secure about my physical fitness and self-confidence, I plan to learn to fence and sail.”
“My secret identity is Rodger Cole because it is the English version of my father’s name. This name gives me strength because my father always stayed calm, simple, and generous in any situation. I want to honor him and be strong like him.”
“I’m Psyonic Girl, like a comic book superhero. Sometimes negative emotions overwhelm me. But not Psyonic Girl! She is able to control her psyche at all times and can conjure her own feelings of well-being, happiness, and love.”
“I’ve gone with Dunky Dory—which sounds silly and makes me smile! Dunky, because my real name is Duncan. Dory, after Dory from Finding Nemo—I love this character because that fish takes everything in stride, doesn’t worry about any personal shortcomings, ‘just keep swimming.’”
“I’ve chosen Kingfisher Fire as my secret identity. It’s from a poem by my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, which includes the line ‘What I do is me, for that I came.’ I’m using SuperBetter to get better from a lot of different things, but I feel like all of them are barriers that get in the way of my being able to say, ‘What I do is me.’”
“I’m Mary Fuckin’ Poppins. As that genius woman once said, ‘Just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down!’ These days I’ve got a hell of a lot of medicine to swallow. This nickname also shows I have a strong sense of humor, which I think will be really important to me for not giving up and reaching my goals.”
“My secret identity is Sergeant Self-Care. Self-care is my focus on my way to becoming SuperBetter from PTSD. I’ve always put helping others at the top of my life’s to-do list. But I’m finding out that if I don’t love and care for myself first, I can’t do that for anyone else. I picked the title Sergeant because one of the most inspiring characters I’ve ever encountered is Sgt. Carwood Lipton from the Band of Brothers series. Sergeant Lipton was an actual soldier who fought as a US paratrooper in World War II. He was courageous even when put in terrifying situations and did his job to the best of his ability at all times. His ability to be humble and have a positive attitude while providing life-saving compassion for his fellow soldiers is truly an inspiration.”
Why adopt a secret identity? Although this rule seems quite playful, it has a surprisingly powerful impact.
A secret identity helps you focus on what researchers call your signature character strengths—the heroic qualities that are core to who you are.
Signature character strengths are different from one person to the next: determination, kindness, humor, spirituality, a sense of adventure, or love of learning. Figuring out your strengths will help you develop new strategies for reaching your goals—strategies that are customized for you and therefore more likely to work.
As you tackle different challenges, you might decide to draw on different strengths. Switching up your secret identity can help you do just that. When I was battling mild traumatic brain injury, I became Jane the Concussion Slayer—inspired by the fictional Buffy the Vampire Slayer—to bring out my courage and determination. When I was trying to get pregnant with my husband, I became Jane of Willendorf—inspired by the thirty-thousand-year-old curvaceous stone figure known as the Venus of Willendorf, presumed to be a fertility good luck charm. Becoming Jane of Willendorf helped me focus on different strengths: my ability to love and be loved. As your challenges and goals change, you may find it helpful to don a new heroic persona.
A secret identity has another surprising effect: it brings your allies closer—if you reveal the secret. Some SuperBetter players keep their secret identities to themselves. (After all, how many years did it take for Clark Kent to reveal he was Superman to Lois Lane?) But if you do choose to share your heroic persona, you will find that it’s a powerful way to communicate to friends and family who you want to become—as well as the strengths and powers that are essential to your journey.
Perhaps most important, a secret identity is the first step toward telling a heroic story about yourself. Researchers who specialize in post-traumatic and post-ecstatic growth have discovered that telling a heroic story about your struggles is one of the most important triggers for unlocking growth from challenge. It helps you discover not just your strengths but also your purpose: ways you can use your strengths to help others.
As the behavioral scientist Steve Maraboli once said, “If you are not the hero of your own story, then you’re missing the whole point of your humanity.”
In this chapter, I’ll teach you several fun ways to explore your heroic qualities and invent a secret identity. By discovering your signature character strengths and telling your own heroic story, you’ll not only get stronger yourself—you’ll inspire others to become happier, healthier, and braver, too.
Let’s start with a quick quest.
QUEST 35: Assemble Your Hero Dream Team
Getting superbetter means developing your heroic qualities—like bravery, kindness, humor, appreciation of beauty, leadership, or love of learning.
You can find these qualities in any heroic narrative, real or fictional—film, comics, TV, mythology, video games, literature, history, religion, social activism, or sports (to name some of the most likely places you might look for heroic inspiration).
Everyone is drawn to different heroic stories. Picking your favorite heroes reveals a lot about your character. Why? Because we’re usually drawn to heroes who embody the strengths we already have inside us and that we have the potential to develop even further. In other words, your favorite heroes are like a mirror for your own heroic qualities. This is true even if you feel like you haven’t done anything heroic in your life yet, or lately.
To find out more about your signature character strengths, let’s assemble your hero dream team.
A hero dream team is simply three or more heroes assembled to work together to achieve a common goal. Each one usually has a different strength or ability. You can find examples of dream teams everywhere in culture, from comic books to music to sports. Think of the Avengers, made up of the diverse superheroes Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, and Hawkeye. Or the Traveling Wilburys, a superband that included the Beatles’ George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty. Or the teams that play in the World Cup, when a country’s best soccer players join forces to face off against the rest of the world.
Your hero dream team could span every category of hero you can think of. Be as creative as you like. Why not have a hero dream team made up of Spiderman, the Buddha, Serena Williams, Sherlock Holmes, and your mom? (Can you imagine the adventures those five could get up to?!)
What to do: To perform this quest, pick at least three heroes. Whose character makes you feel like you could do anything, if you were more like them? Whose story inspires you to strive harder? Whose adventures embody the kind of life you want to lead? Here are some more brainstorming questions to help you assemble your unique dream team.
· Who is your favorite TV character?
· Who is your favorite movie character?
· What book character do you identify with?
· Who is your favorite professional athlete?
· Who is your most inspiring hero from history?
· Who fascinates you from mythology?
· Who is your favorite musician or band?
· Who is your favorite character from video games?
· What artist or creator inspires you?
· Whose life story intrigues you?
· Who do you think is the most interesting comic book superhero?
· Who in real life or fiction has overcome a challenge similar to yours?
· What spiritual figure exemplifies the kind of person you’d like to be?
· Who is your modern-day (real-life) hero?
· Who else—famous or not—do you admire?
Tip: If you’re stuck, do an Internet search for “top heroes in [your favorite medium—literature, film, comics, mythology, video games, history, the Bible, etc.].” There are inspiring “all-time great” lists for just about any kind of hero you can imagine.
My hero dream team is made up of:
Tip: If you have more ideas, don’t hold back! You can add as many heroes to your dream team as you want. The more, the merrier.
There’s one more superimportant step to this quest. For each hero you’ve picked, identify at least one skill, power, virtue, or character strength that you admire. If you picked Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi, for example, you might say “grit” or “competitive drive.” If you picked Queen Elsa from the Disney movie Frozen, you might say “the ability to embrace her own power and use it without fear” or “the courage to celebrate who she is.” Whatever you do, don’t skip this step! The more clearly you can articulate the strengths in your heroes, the better picture you’ll have of your own heroic qualities—whether they’re already in full force in your life or simply waiting to be developed and unleashed.
Now that you’ve identified a few of your favorite heroes and gotten a glimpse into your own heroic potential, you’re ready to hone in on just what makes you uniquely heroic.
Let’s not waste any time. It’s on to the next quest! (And a quick heads-up: this chapter is full of quests—more quests than any other chapter in this book. That’s because you are the true expert on your own identity. You are the best source of knowledge about your own heroic strengths. So instead of me giving you information, for most of this chapter, you’ll be tapping your own insight—with the help of some gameful guidance.)
QUEST 36: Spot Your Strengths
You have at least five powerful resources that can help you be resilient in the face of any obstacle.
These five powerful resources are your signature character strengths—the virtues that come easily to you and that bring you tremendous satisfaction when you exercise them. And according to two of the most important and widely cited researchers of happiness and well-being, Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Christopher Petersen, these strengths determine how you will best cope with adversity—and what will bring you the greatest joy and satisfaction in life.
Dr. Seligman and Dr. Petersen oversaw a team of forty researchers to identify these strengths. Together they studied nearly one hundred cultures around the world and tested 150,000 subjects in order to determine the full range of virtues that both bring happiness and increase our resilience every time we use them. They identified twenty-four different character strengths in total—now known as the Values in Action (VIA) strengths—and they are listed for you below.
What to do: I want you to read through the list, and pick the five strengths that stand out as describing you best. Don’t overthink it. If you prefer, there is a fancy 120-question online test you can take to figure out your top five strengths (and I’ll tell you how to do that in a minute). But in experiments I’ve conducted, most people can simply look at a list and pick out at least four of their top five strengths, compared with the results from a more formal test. So go ahead.
Which Five Describe You Best?
· Creativity: You show great imagination and originality of thought; you always go beyond traditional thinking.
· Curiosity: You love to explore and discover; you have an eager desire to know about new things.
· Open-mindedness: You are always receptive to new ideas or arguments and think things through carefully from all sides.
· Love of learning: You naturally seek out new knowledge, and mastering new skills is a passion.
· Perspective and wisdom: You have a talent for advising others and for making sense of the world around you.
· Bravery: You don’t shrink from challenge, threat, difficulty, or pain; opposition will not stop you from doing what is right.
· Persistence: You take pleasure in finishing what you start, and you follow through no matter what obstacles you face.
· Integrity: You strive to be authentic and genuine and are true to yourself no matter what.
· Vitality and zest: You live as if life were an adventure; you bring energy to everything you do.
· The ability to love and be loved: You are a caring person who creates very close relationships with others.
· Kindness: You take the time to do for others; helping comes naturally to you.
· Social intelligence: You understand other people, and can anticipate their feelings; you fit in naturally in many different social situations.
· Active citizenship and teamwork: You have a strong sense of social responsibility; you do your share and give back.
· Fairness: You treat others equally and fight for justice when necessary.
· Leadership: You inspire and motivate others; you are an effective organizer who makes things happen.
· Forgiveness and mercy: You give others a second chance and accept their shortcomings with grace.
· Humility and modesty: You value others as highly as yourself and don’t seek the spotlight; you let your accomplishments speak for themselves.
· Prudence: You are a careful, thoughtful person and rarely do things you regret.
· Self-regulation and control: You have tremendous willpower; you are able to control your thoughts and feelings.
· Appreciation of beauty: You notice what is excellent and beautiful all around you; you often feel awe and wonder.
· Gratitude: You express your thanks often; you appreciate the good in life and others.
· Hope: You expect good things to happen in your future, and you work to make your dreams come true.
· Humor and playfulness: You see the lighter side of life; you are always making others smile.
· Spirituality: You seek a higher purpose in life and meaning in all you do.
As you’ve probably already figured out from this list, a signature character strength is not just any skill or talent, like being bilingual, athletic, or a good computer programmer. The difference between an ordinary talent and a signature character strength is that your signature strengths speak to your deepest values, to what you cherish most, to what brings meaning and purpose to your life.
Example: You might be very good at cooking, for example, but psychologists would not consider that one of your signature character strengths. However, it could be a clue to them. If you feel incredibly satisfied whenever you cook for your family, one of your top strengths could very well be “the ability to love and be loved.” If you enjoy inventing new recipes, your probably have the strength of creativity. And if you find great pleasure in watching cooking shows and discovering new techniques, “love of learning” might be one of your strengths. Any of these deeper strengths would help explain why you derive so much pleasure from and devote so much energy to cooking.
Now that you know what a signature character strength is, have you got your top five? Good! If it’s not too tricky, try to rank them in order, with number one being the absolutely most essential to who you are.
Next step: Now write down your top five strengths and put the list someplace where you’ll see it often over the coming days and weeks. This list is a reminder that you have a unique combination of strengths that can and will aid you in any challenge.
Bonus mission: If you’re looking at your list and are not sure you’ve really captured your signature strengths, here’s a bonus quest that will also build your social resilience. Show the complete list of twenty-four strengths to a friend or family member, and ask him or her to pick your top five for you. To make it more fun, offer to do the same for them. Compare your lists and see if you agree with each other’s choices. If they pick totally different strengths for you than you picked for yourself, you might just have an abundance of strengths to work with. Nothing wrong with that!
Tip: If you want cold, hard scientific evidence of the fact that you do indeed have five of these strengths, there’s a special bonus quest just for you. Go to www.viacharacter.org/Survey, and take the scientifically validated strengths survey. This online survey contains 120 questions and takes ten to fifteen minutes to complete. It will give you a detailed explanation of your top five strengths—and even more confidence in the fact that you can effectively use them to solve problems and pursue your dreams.
You’ve completed two incredibly important quests already in this chapter. You’ve assembled a hero dream team and you’ve identified your own signature character strengths. Now it’s time to combine all this inspiration and self-knowledge . . . into a secret identity.
QUEST 37: Adopt a Secret Identity
Your next mission is to pick a heroic nickname that will inspire your SuperBetter journey and highlight your unique strengths.
There’s no wrong way to invent a secret identity. Here are some of the most common approaches taken by SuperBetter players. Try one, or try a few, and see which secret identity fits you best!
· Pick one of the heroes from your dream team list—and give yourself a heroic nickname inspired by their character and strengths. You can simply adopt their identity just the way it is (“I’m Iron Man,” “I’m the goddess of love, Aphrodite”), but I encourage you to customize or personalize it (“I’m Iron Man Casey,” “I’m Kelly, the Goddess of Love”).
· Combine two or more heroes from your dream team list into a unique new identity. Here’s how one SuperBetter player did it: “My secret identity is Captain Wonder. It’s a combination of two of my favorite heroes: Captain Picard from Star Trek, and Wonder Woman.”
· Give yourself an honorific and become the Queen of, King of, President of, High Priestess of, Sheriff of, or Princess of your favorite signature strength or unique trait. For example: Roger, the King of Curiosity; Mary, the Queen of Reinvention; or Jim, the High Priest of Rock ’n’ Roll Cooking.
· Pick a new middle nickname, like Jane “Adventure” McGonigal or Harry “The Bear” Smith.
· Try an online name generator that can create thousands of customized or randomized heroic names for you. You could become Valentine Dragonhowl, Tsunami Heartwarrior, or even Pudding Pathfinder. (Yes, that is a real suggestion!) I’ve included URLs for some fun fantasy and superhero name generators in this endnote.1
· Pick a fun adjective or title you could combine with your first name, like Chelsea the Great (inspired by Catherine the Great) or SuperTony (inspired by Super Mario).
One more idea: Scramble the letters in your name to make a new name. (My name anagrams to Ace Longing Jam, for example!) This idea is inspired by what a SuperBetter player, Meike from the Netherlands, decided to do: “My secret identity is Ekiem. I just used my real name backward. I am here to become a better version of myself, and I think we all have deep down in ourselves the abilities and power to do so. I am here to bring the hero that already lies inside of me to life . . . so, Ekiem!” Although this method may not explicitly call out your signature strengths, it does help remind you of your power for self-transformation. You can get help with anagrams using an online anagram server at http://wordsmith.org/anagram.
It’s your turn. What hero best represents your superbetter self?
My secret identity is: _______________.
This hero’s strengths, superpowers, virtues, and special abilities are:
Now that you have a secret identity, what should you do with it? Here are the top ways to celebrate your secret identity, as chosen by SuperBetter players:
Create a visual clue. Find an image that reminds you of your secret identity, and put it in a place where you can see it often. It might be on your refrigerator, by your mirror, or in your wallet. Or keep it digital: change your computer desktop image or phone background image to something that reminds you of your secret identity.
Adopt a mantra or call to action. Choose a short, powerful phrase that will remind you of your secret identity’s strengths and inspire you to leap into action.
Wear it with pride. You don’t need to wear a giant Superman “S” under your button-down shirt, but do consider picking out something small—a wristband, shoelaces, sunglasses, a piece of jewelry, socks—that represents your secret identity. Wear this item on days you really need to draw on your heroic strengths.
Pick a theme song. In TV and movies, heroes have a song or instrumental score that plays whenever they swoop in to save the day. Pick one for yourself. (Hint: Soundtracks are a great place to find dramatic music!) Listen to your song whenever your heroic powers need a boost.
Sneakily show it off. Hide your secret identity in plain sight. Take a new profile photo for a social media account that hints at your secret identity without giving it away.
Collect heroic quotes. If your secret identity is inspired by an existing character or real historic figure, collect a few favorite quotes from them. If your secret identity is completely original, collect quotes from the members of your hero dream team (from Quest 35), or anyone else you think your original hero would be pals with. Put your quotes in a journal, a quick-access file on your phone or computer, or on sticky notes you can hide around your house. You can even write your heroic quotes on tiny slips of paper, put them all in a jar, and use them as daily fortunes.
Immerse yourself in the world of your hero. If you’re inspired by a film or TV character, hold a movie night or rewatch your favorite season. If you’re inspired by a book character, reread your favorite book or read it out loud to someone else. If your secret identity is informed by a real-life hero, see if you can find a memoir by, biography about, interview with, or speech by them. Just make some time to truly enjoy the story that inspires you.
Reveal your secret identity to someone you trust. Share your alter ego with one of your allies, so they can see your heroic strengths and celebrate them with you.
Whatever you decide to do with your secret identity, remember that it’s an opportunity to be playful and creative, to honor the stories and heroes that really speak to you, and most of all, to find new ways to express and celebrate the best version of yourself—your superbetter self.
A SuperBetter Story: The Next Doctor
Josué Cardona, also known (to a select few) as the Next Doctor, is someone who can attest to the power of a good secret identity.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Josué, thirty, now lives in North Carolina, where he has his own psychotherapy practice. But when he started playing SuperBetter two years ago, he was still in school, trying to earn his counseling license and deciding what career step to take next.
“Taking on the secret identity had a huge effect on me,” he told me recently—before admitting that I was only the second person he had ever shared his secret identity with. (His girlfriend was the first.)
Josué’s SuperBetter nickname is a reference to the long-running British science fiction television series Doctor Who. “I adopted the identity ‘the Next Doctor’ because I wanted to get my counseling license”—or literally, to become the next psychotherapy doctor in the town where he lives. “But it was also more than that. I relate greatly to the character of the Doctor,” meaning the time-traveling hero known for saving civilizations while also helping ordinary people. “The name represented for me both the path toward completing my training and also taking on more of the heroic qualities of the character, including helping others, curiosity, love of learning, and integrity.”
Josué told me that adopting a fictional secret identity felt, surprisingly, like revealing his true self. “I saw the Next Doctor as an ideal self, what I wanted to become. But I also felt he was exactly me, just more. When I embraced the secret identity, it was like ‘coming out of the closet’ in a way about my own strengths. I suppose I was building up to it already. I was slowly becoming more comfortable with outwardly and actively displaying those strengths. Taking on the identity, it took it to a new level.”
As the Next Doctor, Josué went on to earn his license as a mental health counselor. He then decided to start his own private practice, even though it was financially risky. The risk has paid off so far, as he reports that his practice is successful.
I was most struck in talking with Josué by how much his secret identity has helped him cultivate the virtues he values most. He clearly is inspired by his secret identity to become a better counselor to others, in very specific ways. “On the television series, the Doctor has seen a lot and knows a lot. He’s traveled to every corner of the universe and through every moment in time,” he said. “And yet he sees each person as something new and special. He is infinitely curious about them and admires them. Whenever I see the Doctor talk about how great each and every person he’s ever met is, I remind myself that I want to make sure I make my clients feel the same way.”
Like many successful SuperBetter players I’ve spoken to, Josué has transitioned from formally playing the game to just living more gamefully. “I haven’t officially logged my quests or power-ups or bad guys in almost a year,” he said. “But those concepts are still with me. They are now a part of how I think. I use them with clients, too. They’re a part of my everyday vocabulary.” He has held on to his secret identity, too. Today he still keeps a miniature TARDIS, the Doctor’s time-traveling machine, on his desk at work as a reminder of the person he has committed himself to being. “I think about the Doctor all the time,” he said. “I’m still the Next Doctor, more and more every day.”
As you’re starting to see, adopting a secret identity can be a lot of fun. But it also comes with some serious benefits.
Now that you know your signature character strengths, and you have a heroic nickname to remind you of them, you can start to use these strengths to your advantage.
Over the past decade, researchers have shown that people who make it a daily habit to think about their character strengths experience three key benefits.
First, they’re more successful. People who are more aware of their strengths experience greater goal progress and achievement. (Remember, when scientists study the benefits of strengths, they aren’t talking about ordinary skills or talents. They’re looking at the twenty-four Values in Action strengths—the virtues you read about in Quest 36.) One study found, for example, that after selecting their own three-month goals, individuals were significantly more likely to achieve them if they first made a list of their character strengths, then purposefully applied them to the challenge.2 In fact, not only did they achieve more, they were also happier and more satisfied with their lives at each check-in over the course of the three-month-long study.
Knowing and practicing your strengths daily not only makes you more successful, it also makes you happier. One randomized, controlled study examined six different methods for improving overall well-being, including keeping a gratitude journal and communicating positive feelings to a loved one, among others. The single most effective intervention, it found, was creating a list of signature character strengths. Six months later individuals who had listed their strengths were significantly happier than they had been at the start of the study. Moreover, they were happier than anyone else in the study. And the more they continued to think about and practice their strengths daily over the six-month period, the happier they were.3
Finally, focusing on your strengths can help you cope more effectively with any illness, injury, or disability—from arthritis, cancer, chronic pain, and infertility to substance abuse, eating disorders, and PTSD.4 Studies have found that the more we think about and use our strengths during treatment or recovery, the more social, productive, and satisfied with our lives we are, even while experiencing significant health challenges. (All the signature character strengths deliver real benefit, but the strengths that seem to help most with this kind of coping are bravery, kindness, humor, appreciation of beauty, and love of learning. For that reason, some psychologists suggest cultivating these strengths in particular if you’re facing a period of treatment or recovery.) 5
That people who know their strengths and use them effectively are happier and more successful may seem obvious to you. But the reality is that all too often, especially when we’re facing tough challenges, we focus on our weaknesses instead of our strengths. Many of us find it easier to list a dozen personal flaws than to name a handful of character strengths. This is particularly true for anyone who deals with anxiety, depression, or self-doubt.
Of course, it’s important not to completely ignore our weaknesses. After all, that’s why we battle bad guys! But to get the full benefits of your character strengths, you have to think about them and use them daily. This is one of the best reasons to adopt a secret identity. Whenever you use your heroic nickname, you’ll be actively reminding yourself of your strengths.
It’s easy to start using your strengths with greater purpose. Your next quest will show you how.
QUEST 38: Seven Ways to Be Strong
What to do: Take a few minutes right now to brainstorm seven ways to practice your character strengths—and embody your secret identity—in daily life.
Examples: Here are some examples of how to practice a strength in new and different ways. (They’re inspired by the excellent resource “340 Ways to Use VIA Character Strengths” by clinical psychologists Dr. Tayyab Rashid and Dr. Afroze Anjum. Check out the complete list online—you’ll find the URL in the endnote.)6
If one of your strengths is love of learning, try learning a new word or phrase in a foreign language and using it in conversation today.
If one of your strengths is vitality/zest, try doing something that you already do ordinarily (like putting away laundry or walking the dog), but bring more physical energy to it, and notice how it feels.
If one of your strengths is social intelligence, try watching a TV show or film with the sound off, and see what emotions you can observe just through facial expressions and body language.
If one of your strengths is justice/citizenship, try spending fifteen minutes this week cleaning, decorating, or caring for a communal place like a park or a shared kitchen.
If one of your strengths is forgiveness/mercy, try planning out what your response should be the next time someone offends you. Remind yourself of your plan (rehearse it if possible), and periodically affirm, “No matter how he or she offends me, I will respond as I have planned.”
If one of your strengths is spirituality, try spending a few minutes today reading from a spiritual text, then discuss the ideas in it with someone you trust and respect.
Now it’s your turn: Pick seven ways of using your strengths and embodying your secret identity. (Be sure to base this list on your top five signature character strengths that you identified in Quest 36.)
Why it works: This is the same kind of intervention studied by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan. In their study, participants identified their signature character strengths and then brainstormed seven different ways of using them over the next week. After using their strengths seven different ways in seven days, participants were happier and more satisfied with their lives—not just during that week but for six months after as well.
You are now set up for exactly the same success. You have a list of seven concrete actions you can take to use your strengths with more awareness and purpose. Try to do one of these things every day, for the next seven days, until you’ve done them all. If you get distracted, or if you forget to use a strength one day, don’t worry—just pick the quest back up where you left off!
A SuperBetter Story: The Family That Plays Together
Aaron Winborn, a web developer and father of two young girls, started playing SuperBetter a few months after his diagnosis at age forty-four with the neurodegenerative disease ALS, also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. By the time he decided to adopt a secret identity (Aaron Skywalker, after Star Wars’ Jedi fighter Luke Skywalker), he had already lost all manual dexterity in his hands. Using voice-recognition software, he wrote me to say that he had just achieved his first epic win: moving into a wheelchair-accessible house so that he would be better able to navigate life with ALS.
Although he suspected that some people might not understand how a game could help with such a serious diagnosis, Aaron wanted to spread the word to other ALS patients about the difference a gameful approach could make. “I am under no illusions that positive thinking will do much for the outcome of my disease. Stephen Hawking aside, virtually no one survives more than a few years with this disease. But what SuperBetter can do, I believe, is to increase one’s quality of life, one day at a time.”
SuperBetter gave Aaron and his wife a concrete and positive way to help his two daughters, ages five and eight, adjust to the family’s new difficult reality. The girls were given special ally duties, such as helping him activate his most important daily power-ups—a series of “Superman flying poses” and “Jedi fighter training maneuvers” that were really stretching exercises designed to move his muscles and joints through their full range of motion. Adopting a superhero identity also let Aaron project an image of strength to his daughters, even in the face of a weakening physical body—which was very important to him, as a father, to do.
Aaron also invited a wider circle of family and friends to play, using power-ups and bad guys to communicate with family and friends about the progression of the disease, and to let them know exactly how they could help. He gave his closest allies roles inspired by the same Star Wars universe. One friend, Liane, became Liane-Wan Kenobi, Spiritual Adviser—a role inspired by Obi-Wan Kenobi, the mentor who trains Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Jedi. “As my spiritual adviser,” Aaron explained to me, “her special power is Cut to the chase.” In other words, she would be an honest, direct, and supportive partner in conversations about mortality and meaning of life that Aaron wanted to have. “She also has her own important quest: Assign weekly readings.” Each week she would share a reading from a different philosophical or spiritual tradition, which they would then discuss together.
Eventually, Aaron decided he didn’t need a secret identity anymore. He had become a real-life hero to many thanks to the incredible determination and love for his family that he continued to show as his ALS progressed. Sadly, Aaron passed away three years after his diagnosis, at the age of forty-seven. But the gameful approach was an important part of his coming to terms with the reality of ALS. “When someone has received a diagnosis of the ultimate incurable terminal illness, what they need more than anything else are superpowers. I want to thank you for reminding me of mine,” he wrote me. And then encouraged me to share his story: “I want to help other people to discover theirs.”
Adopting a secret identity has one more benefit that you need to know about, because it can transform the way you think and feel during the most stressful times of your life.
A secret identity can help you solve a problem that scientists call the self-reflection paradox.
When you’re facing a tough challenge, it’s natural to spend a lot of time thinking about it. But is it helpful or harmful to do so? Paradoxically, it’s both.
Psychologists Ethan Kross, a professor at the University of Michigan, and Özlem Ayduk, at the University of California at Berkeley, explain the paradox like this: “On one hand, countless studies indicate that encouraging people to reflect on negative feelings or stressful experiences leads to important physical and mental health benefits. On the other hand, an equally large body of research indicates that people’s attempts to understand their feelings or make meaning out of stressful experiences often backfire, entangling them in ruminations [or compulsive thought cycles] that make them feel worse.”7
Kross and Ayduk have been researching the self-reflection paradox for years, attempting to answer this question: “Why do people’s attempts to make sense of their negative experiences sometimes succeed, and at other times fail?” Their research findings reveal a surprising answer: to benefit from thinking deeply about your own personal challenges, think about your challenges as if they were happening to someone else.
The technique is called self-distancing, and Kross and Ayduk have completed several of the most important studies of it. “Self-distancing,” they explain, “is what happens when you take a step back when thinking about your own experiences and reason about them from the perspective of a distanced observer, like a fly on the wall.” Instead of getting caught up in your own intense feelings and the details of your experience, you look at the bigger picture.
According to their research, the most common sign of successful self-distancing is using “third-person” language. Instead of asking myself, “Why do I feel sad about the news I found out today?” I would ask myself, “Why does Jane feel sad about the news she found out today?”
Thinking about our own experiences in the third person can feel strange or awkward. If you heard someone else talking about him- or herself in the third person, you might think it the sign of a raging egomaniac, or at the very least a touch of eccentricity. (As Kross and Ayduk point out, the NBA superstar basketball player LeBron James famously talks about himself in the third person, as in “I want to do what’s best for LeBron James.”)
Fortunately, the experts don’t recommend that you talk or think about yourself in the third person all the time—far from it. You should use the self-distancing technique only when you need to get perspective on a very big challenge, a stressful situation, or a traumatic experience.
If you master the technique, you’ll experience a range of physical, mental, and emotional benefits. You’ll have less cardiovascular reactivity when you think about challenges, stresses, and traumas—meaning your blood pressure will be less likely to go up, and your heart rate will return to normal faster. And brain scans show that self-distanced thinking involves less activity in the subgenual cingulate cortex—the region of the brain that lights up when depressed individuals get stuck in negative thought patterns. In other words, self-distancing strengthens your body and reinforces a more positive neural circuitry.
A review of studies from the past thirty years shows that self-distancing works equally well whether you’re thinking about the past, the present, or the future.
The past: People who practice self-distancing experience less anxiety and distress when they recall painful memories or traumatic experiences.8
The present: Self-distancing enhances willpower.9 If you face a temptation, you’ll be better able to exert self-control if you take a moment to think about the situation from a third-person point of view. Instead of asking yourself, Do I want that candy bar?, ask yourself, Does Jane want that candy bar? It sounds like an absurdly simple trick, but it works. When you think of yourself in the first person, you’re more easily caught up in your momentary feelings and cravings. But when you think of yourself in the third person, you’re more likely to see the bigger picture, remembering your long-term goals and most important motivations (like being healthy for your loved ones, or having more energy later to work on your novel, instead of feeling sugar-crashed and guilty). Getting self-distance allows you to focus on the big picture, which helps you stick to your goals.
Self-distancing has another benefit in the present: it leads to greater engagement in constructive problem solving—which means getting less wrapped up in thoughts and being better able to focus on taking helpful action.10
The future: Self-distancing makes you more likely to adopt a challenge mindset, instead of a threat mindset, when you face new obstacles. As you’ll recall from Chapter 5, having a challenge mindset means feeling realistically optimistic that you have a chance to succeed, learn, or get stronger from a stressful situation, whereas having a threat mindset means focusing only on the potential risks and harms. People with a challenge mindset are, overall, happier, healthier, and more successful in achieving their goals than people with a threat mindset.11
The benefits of thinking about the future with some self-distance continue even after you’ve faced your obstacle head-on. In laboratory and real-world studies, immediately after tackling a stressful task, people who adopted a third-person perspective beforehand spent significantly less time doing negative postevent processing—or stewing on something that didn’t go well, blaming yourself, and just generally beating yourself up for not doing better.12
Finally, self-distancing dramatically improves psychological flexibility. You’ll remember from Chapter 7 that psychological flexibility is the willingness to do things that are difficult for you, in the service of your goals. When you think about your situation with self-distance, you are more likely to act according to your deepest values, even if you risk negative feelings, pain, rejection, or failure. In other words, self-distancing makes you braver.13
Now that you know all the benefits of self-distancing, you might be wondering how adopting a secret identity helps you practice and master this powerful technique.
A secret identity makes it easier to create self-distance when you need it most. Because you don’t normally identify yourself with the heroic nickname, using it creates just enough mental distance to get a better perspective about the challenge and stresses you face. See for yourself how it works—in the next quest!
QUEST 39: What Would a Hero Do?
What to do: Think about something specific that’s causing you stress, worry, or excitement. It could be something you are doing later today, or something that is far in the future. Whatever it is, make sure it provokes a strong emotional reaction (positive or negative) when you think about it.
Got it? Good. Now ask yourself: What would a hero do?
Not just any hero. Think about the hero you’ve already adopted as your secret identity. (If you haven’t figured out your secret identity yet, come back to this quest later!)
Recall the strengths, superpowers, virtues, and special abilities you’ve already associated with your secret identity—from creativity, courage, and kindness, to humor, justice seeking, or imperviousness to physical pain. How would your hero use these specific strengths to prepare for or deal with the challenge or obstacle at hand?
In other words, ask yourself: What would [your secret identity] do?
When you consider this question, be sure to use third-person language. Don’t say (or think, or write), “I would . . .” Instead, say (or think, or write) “Jane the Concussion Slayer would . . . ,” “Sergeant Self-Care would . . . ,” or “Mary the Queen of Reinvention would . . .”
Why it works: Asking “What would [your secret identity] do?” is a great way to get a little self-distance—and in doing so, give yourself smarter, more motivating advice.
Experts explain: “Small shifts in the language you use to refer to yourself—specifically, using your own name and other non-first-person pronouns like ‘she’ or ‘he’—enhances your ability to regulate your thoughts, feelings and behavior under stress.”14
Incorporating your secret identity into the process (instead of using your regular name) provides an added benefit: you’ll be able to focus on your signature strengths as a way to solve problems and take action more effectively and with greater joy. Dig deep into the strengths and powers you’ve identified as being important to your hero—they can be a springboard to a thousand different strategies.
I’ve used this quest effectively in my own life, so I know how powerful it can be. Earlier this year, when I was making purchases for our twins’ nursery, I was wracked with the kind of self-doubt and anxiety that is quite common in first-time parents. I worried constantly: Is this crib safe enough? Will my babies develop asthma or allergies if I don’t buy organic? And holy moly, there are five million different strollers to choose from! How in the world do I pick one? Every purchase left me feeling more insecure instead of more prepared! It was crazy-making. So I thought back to the secret identity I’d adopted while undergoing IVF treatment: Jane of Willendorf, inspired by the ancient fertility goddess the Venus of Willendorf. And I asked myself, What would Jane the fertility goddess do?
And then I thought: Every time Jane of Willendorf picks something out for the twins, she feels happy, because this is exactly what she hoped for! How could something she wanted so very much become a source of constant anxiety instead of a source of constant joy? She won’t let it. She is a fertility goddess! She is confident and her love conquers all. Just by stepping back and looking at the situation with a bit of distance, I realized that I was letting myself turn what should have been a joyful experience into a stressful one. But I could choose to celebrate every moment of preparation, just by summoning up my own superpower: the ability to love and be loved. From that moment forward, whenever I felt a twinge of worry, I relabeled it a “twinge of love”—and I enjoyed it!
Quest complete: By completing this quest, you will be able to get the same kind of fresh perspective on your own source of stress or worry. Good luck!
Now that you know how self-distancing works, let’s keep practicing.
Quest 39 was designed to help you think about your future. The next quest will teach you a powerful way to reflect on past stressful or upsetting events—without falling into the dark side of the self-reflection paradox.
QUEST 40: Tell a Hero’s Story
Your goal in this quest is to tell a quick story about a hero—you.
What to do: Every hero faces obstacles and setbacks. Think about something that sparked a negative thought or feeling in you, sometime in the past few days. It might be a moment when you were frustrated or disappointed with yourself, an argument you had with your romantic partner, an unpleasant conversation at school or work, a moment you found yourself annoyed or angry with someone else, when your feelings were hurt, or an experience that provoked some anxiety or self-doubt.
Do you have an experience in mind? Good.
Now tell a quick story reflecting on this experience. The purpose is to figure out Why did the hero feel or react that way?
You can think through your story in your head right now, or write it down, or talk it out with an ally.
Start with what happened and how the hero reacted. Then spend some time reflecting on the reasons for that reaction, as if it were a mystery you’re trying to solve.
Your story may also celebrate things the hero did to make the situation better—or notice things he or she did to make things worse. It may be a story of the hero’s strengths orvulnerabilities (or both!), because even superheroes always have at least one vulnerability.
Be sure to tell this story as if it happened to someone else—specifically, to your secret identity. As you think up your story, use third-person (self-distancing) language, likeWhy did Iron Man John react this way? or What might be an underlying cause for Dread Pirate Rosie’s feelings?
Quest complete: You’ve completed this quest successfully when you’ve told your hero’s story!
Why it works: Self-distancing shortly after a difficult experience helps you feel better and think more clearly about it for days afterward. In fact, research shows that the benefits of just one quick self-distancing quest should last at least one full week. During that time, you’re less likely to get caught up in negative memories. And if you do think about the experience, you’ll feel less distress and more acceptance. Over time the more you practice this technique, the less time you’ll spend caught up in unhelpful thought patterns that drain your energy, tax your body, and distract you from making progress toward your goals.
Eventually this technique of reflecting on daily events can help you tell the story of your entire SuperBetter journey. It’s a story you’ll want to tell and retell often, as you make sense of all the ways your life, and your sense of what is possible in your future, is changing.
Barbara Abernathy, Ph.D., has seen the power of heroic narrative up close in her own work. She is the head of the Pediatric Oncology Support Team, a nonprofit organization that provides free psychological support to children with cancer and their families. She is also an expert in post-traumatic growth. Based on her own work with patients and their families, she believes that storytelling and role-playing potential new identities are the cornerstone of post-traumatic growth.
“We learn about ourselves by the stories that we tell,” she explains. “In fact, we create ourselves through conforming to our own mythic story.”15
Crucially, Dr. Abernathy argues, our stories are not an outcome of the challenges we face or the lives we’ve already led. Rather, they are “a powerful, global coping strategy” that can actually transform the trajectory of our lives while we are still facing our toughest challenges. In other words, the stories we tell about ourselves can change what we think we’re capable of—and therefore what we do each day.
One SuperBetter player, Shelley, a forty-nine-year-old entrepreneur in Houston, says that changing her story was a key personal breakthrough. “While I endured chronic fatigue syndrome, I learned this story: ‘I am weakened, fragile, vulnerable to exhaustion and environmental overload.’ I hated that story. With my whole being, I hated it.” She knew she needed to write a new, more heroic story for herself. So instead of letting her illness wear her down and force her to stay in bed constantly and lead a smaller and smaller life, she became Big Life Shelley. With this secret identity, she told a very different story about herself. “‘I am capable, creative, giving, growing, unstoppable! I can lead a Big Life, even if I feel sick.’ I tell myself this story even when I am feeling grindingly slow instead of sleek, fast, and amazing. Especially when I feel crummy, I need to remember this story.”
A major life challenge of any kind—positive or negative—provides the opportunity for adopting a new role identity and creating a new mythic story. Dr. Abernathy frequently encourages the children and families she works with to consider the question: Who am I now? This is a good question for you to ask yourself, too—by way of adopting a new secret identity whenever you need one.
Who am I now? Your answer may change once, twice, or many times over the course of your SuperBetter journey. Allow yourself to become someone different, someone new, whenever you need to. Experiment with becoming someone stronger, wiser, braver, calmer, or sillier, someone with a higher purpose or with a laser focus, someone open to whatever the future holds. Telling a new heroic story is one of the best predictors of post-traumatic and post-ecstatic growth.16
So play with your identity. Tell new stories. Re-create the myth of who you are.
Let your secret identity be a powerful tool for you not only to practice your signature strengths and master the art of critical self-distance but also to reinvent yourself—again and again—and explore all possible best versions of yourself.
Skills Unlocked: How to Adopt a Secret Identity
· Pick a heroic nickname that conjures your signature strengths.
· Your signature strengths are the virtues and abilities that make you uniquely you. Use them to tackle your challenges, and you will not only be more successful, you’ll be happier along the way.
· Let your secret identity remind you to practice your signature strengths on a daily basis, and to keep exploring new and different ways to use your strengths.
· Use your heroic nickname to practice self-distancing, the powerful technique of reflecting on your own problems as if they were happening to someone else.
· Reveal your secret identity to people you trust. Tell your allies your hero’s story so far.
· Tell a new heroic story, or adopt a new secret identity, whenever you want to focus on a different set of strengths. Re-create your personal mythology to represent the stronger, braver, and happier person you’re becoming.