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
We all already have the power within ourselves to think and live gamefully—and to become stronger, happier, and braver as a result. It’s just a matter of putting that power into concrete actions, within a gameful structure.
SuperBetter gives you that structure, in seven simple rules to play by whenever you want to tackle a challenge or make a positive change in your life. Those seven rules will make it easier for you to draw on your natural gameful strengths—the four strengths discussed in Part 1:
· Your ability to control your attention and therefore your thoughts and feelings
· Your power to turn anyone into a potential ally and to strengthen your existing relationships
· Your natural capacity to motivate yourself and supercharge your heroic qualities, like willpower, compassion, and determination
· Your ability to play with purpose: to confidently face challenges head-on instead of trying to escape them
The seven SuperBetter rules you’ll learn in Part 2 have been validated through scientific study and data analysis. The stories presented come from the more than 400,000 players who have tested the SuperBetter method to improve their own lives. The recommendations are drawn from an analysis of more than 10,000 unique challenges tackled by players—from “finding a new job” to “having a healthy pregnancy” to simply “getting back on my own two feet.”
More formally, the University of Pennsylvania conducted a randomized, controlled trial of the SuperBetter system. (The study was led by Ann Marie Roepke, Ph.D. candidate, the researcher who coined the term post-ecstatic growth.) The study determined that playing SuperBetter for thirty days significantly reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety and increases optimism, social support, and self-efficacy. The study also found that people who followed the SuperBetter rules for one month were significantly happier and more satisfied with their lives.1
Additionally, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center conducted a clinical trial of the SuperBetter system to help rehabilitate young patients with concussions.2 This study, three years in the making, was funded by the National Institutes of Health and was designed to find out the best ways to use the SuperBetter method in a medical setting. Quantitative results from the trial and interviews with patients and doctors strongly support the finding that a gameful approach improves optimism, decreases anxiety and suffering, and strengthens family relationships during rehabilitation and recovery. The study was led by OSU College of Medicine faculty member Lise Worthen-Chaudhari, who has twenty years’ experience in rehabilitation research and who says, “I haven’t seen anything else that does what SuperBetter does so well, in terms of increasing social support, motivating patients to do things to take care of themselves, and giving caregivers concrete and positive ways to help.”
You can learn more about both the Penn study and the OSU trial in “About the Science” at the end of this book.
So how will you get superbetter? Just take it one gameful rule at a time. Each chapter in Part 2 includes:
· One rule for how to be gameful
· Stories about successful SuperBetter players and how they followed this rule
· One major scientific principle that supports this rule, with a quick dive into the research
· Practical tips for following the rule in daily life
In Part 2 you will meet many SuperBetter players who in interviews share their stories of growth and triumph. (And I have stories to share, having used the SuperBetter rules not only to heal from a mild traumatic brain injury but also to train for my first marathon and to successfully complete IVF treatment—which resulted earlier this year in the birth of twin daughters!)
SuperBetter players, as you’ll see, come from all walks of life and play for all kinds of reasons. They are people like:
Josh,* twenty-five, a computer programmer who suffered with depression for years but never had the courage to tell any of his friends or family about his struggle. In his own words: “SuperBetter helped me finally tell two people what I’ve been going through, my brother and a close friend. That may not sound like a lot, but for me it’s huge. I’ve never spoken to anyone about my depression. It has been this huge secret, a huge weight. Just being able to finally talk about this alone has helped so much. I would not have had the courage to do this outside the context of this game.”
Beckie Tran, thirty-six, who suffered from insomnia for twenty years and cured herself by playing SuperBetter for two months. In her words, she went from being “a chronically sleep-deprived half-person” to being “someone who sleeps like a baby every night—something I thought I would never, ever, ever achieve.”
Joyce Curwin, sixty-seven, recently retired, who wanted to “find a new spark in life”—and especially “a way to be sexy to my husband again.” Playing SuperBetter for thirty days was the perfect springboard for her new life, helping her jump-start a writing practice and leading her husband to remark that she was, indeed, “looking sexier than I have in decades! What could be better than that?”
Kamalah, thirty, a bank officer who had a very difficult time working through her grief over her father’s unexpected passing. She followed the seven SuperBetter rules for a month to find a better balance between her sadness and her desire to live joyfully. “I was completely stuck before I tried SuperBetter. It was like I had no control over what I was thinking or feeling. I’m not sure why it worked exactly. I think SuperBetter made it possible for me to start finding the positive again, even though it didn’t take the sadness away. It helped me honor my father by living more fully again.”
Eric, thirty-eight, a lifelong gamer who started following the SuperBetter rules “to lose weight and get in shape.” After losing twenty-five pounds in six weeks of play, he said, “I guess I was surprised to realize that I could do small things every day to make a big difference. I was avoiding even trying because I didn’t really think I could do it. By treating it like a game, it wasn’t such a big deal, and I didn’t have to worry about failing. That’s the kicker. I finally stopped worrying about failing, and that’s what made me successful.”
Sonja Rauwolf, forty-two, a stay-at-home mom who introduced her friend with a new diagnosis of multiple sclerosis to SuperBetter. “I wanted to show her that I was willing to be there for her. I wanted to do something concrete. I feel it has greatly improved our relationship already. By playing together, I now have an easy way to show my support. Even if it only takes me a minute a day to check in on the game, to let her know we’re in it together.”
Phillip Jeffrey, thirty-one, a photographer and cancer patient who is living with a rare, advanced blood cancer. He plays SuperBetter as “Phillip the Creative Cancer Fighter.” Although this fatal disease has no known cure, Phillip decided to use the SuperBetter rules to help get the most out of each day and to combat the draining side effects of chemotherapy. He says, “Playing SuperBetter has been one of the most positive experiences of my life. It gives me a sense of purpose and control over how I feel. Even on bad days, I am committed to completing at least one quest. I get out of bed every single day because of this game. It has added so much meaning to my life, playing this game, and reminding myself that even with cancer, I can be creative, I can be accomplished.” Three years later he has experienced several periods of remission and is still completing quests.
Marilyn, fifty-four, a middle-school teacher who “doesn’t have any major problems—I just want to get SuperBetter.” She isn’t currently facing any big obstacles in her life, but she does want to feel happier, healthier, and more confident. She is like many of the 400,000 people who have helped us study the SuperBetter method: she wants to live more fully, build resilience, have more happy years ahead, and become stronger in the face of any potential challenges in the future.
Part 1 explored the science of why games make you so good at tackling tough challenges. Part 2 will teach you how to apply these gameful skills to everyday life.
Whether you’re getting superbetter from a trauma, an illness, or an injury, or you just want to become the best possible version of yourself, this part of the book will teach you everything you need to know to use your gameful strengths to unlock the powerful benefits of post-ecstatic and post-traumatic growth.
Are you ready to lead a life truer to your dreams and free of regret? If so—let’s play!
Chapter 5. Challenge Yourself
How to Be Gameful Rule 1
Challenge yourself. There are thousands of ways to get happier, healthier, stronger, and braver. Decide what real-life obstacle you want to tackle, or what positive change you want to make first.
Here’s an interesting fact about games: we almost never feel hopeless when we play them.
It’s true. Psychologists have studied the top emotions during game play, and genuine anxiety and pessimism are extremely rare. Even when we’re losing or struggling, we’re vastly more likely to feel determined and optimistic than panicked or powerless.1 This is true even of professional athletes and poker players whose careers and livelihoods are on the line when they play.2 That’s because—as you’ll learn in this chapter—the psychology of games naturally makes it easier for us to manage anxiety more effectively, to focus on opportunity rather than threats, and to fear failure less.
Why? Because when we play a game, we focus on goals and growth. We seek out challenges voluntarily, and we savor the difficulty. We play not to avoid losing but to find out what we are capable of. And we believe that victories even against great odds are possible.
What if you could bring this gameful mindset to your real-life obstacles? Is it possible, or even wise, to feel the same optimism, courage, and curiosity in everyday life, where the stakes are higher and failure has significantly more consequences?
Yes, it absolutely is possible and wise to bring a gameful mindset to real-life obstacles. It’s called adopting a challenge versus threat mindset—and as you’ll see in this chapter, the research shows it works.
A challenge is anything that provokes our desire to test our strengths and abilities and that gives us the opportunity to improve them. Crucially, a challenge must be accepted. No one can force you to tackle it. You have to choose to rise to the occasion.
Here are some of the challenges SuperBetter players have tackled successfully by adopting a gameful mindset:*
· Battling stress at the job from hell
· Getting debt-free
· Donating my kidney
· Working on my stammer
· Being pregnant while on bed rest
· Liking myself and believing others like me, too
· Doing the Gospel work
· Recovering from a bad breakup
· Twenty-one-day sugar detox
· Coping with migraines and fatigue
· Adult ADHD
· Becoming awesome at being self-employed
· Preparing for divorce
· Less lazybones
· Not falling into funks or flying off the handle
· Raising a happy, successful child with autism
· Completing my first triathlon
· Being a better man
· PTSD from a car accident
· Recovering from a stroke
· Coming out to my family
· Quitting smoking
· Rape aftermath
· The fight against cancer
· Recovering from the death of my life partner of twenty years
· Embracing life with enthusiasm
· Transforming into a survivor
Some of these challenges are entirely self-chosen, a positive life change that the player wants to make. Many of them, however, are challenges no one would ever choose for themselves—an injury, an illness, a trauma, a loss. You might think that these kinds of challenges would be resistant to a gameful approach. They’re too serious, too painful, too life-or-death to “play around” with. Fortunately, this is not the case. In fact, a gameful approach to problems works even better for the uninvited challenges that life throws at you than for the positive changes you decide to make.
That’s why I recommend tackling something that is truly an urgent goal for you—whether it’s living free of anxiety, finding a new job, changing your diet, flourishing despite chronic pain, or jump-starting your love life. Tackle an important problem in your life, even if it seems overwhelming right now or out of your control.
In fact, tackle it especially if it overwhelms you or feels out of your control. Gameful thinking and acting work extremely well in situations where we can easily become hopeless and give up. Indeed, according to data from more than 400,000 SuperBetter players, the more overwhelming the problem or daunting the challenge seems to you, the more effective the gameful method seems to be. That’s because everything about it helps you develop more control and exercise more power in situations where you feel powerless or have self-doubt. So don’t hold back. Pick a tough challenge for yourself that you feel will truly change your life.
If you’re seeking post-traumatic growth, your challenge could be:
· To manage an injury or illness more effectively
· To get through a difficult ordeal as best you can
· To solve a problem for yourself or your family
· To recover from a trauma
· To overcome any kind of obstacle
Here are the ten most common post-traumatic growth challenges that SuperBetter players have chosen to tackle (ranked in order, with number one being the most common):
1. Beating depression
2. Overcoming anxiety
3. Coping with chronic illness or chronic pain
4. Finding a new job or overcoming unemployment
5. Surviving a divorce or family separation
6. Healing from a physical injury, including traumatic brain injury
7. Bouncing back from a school or career setback
8. Recovering from PTSD
9. Thriving with a learning disability or neurological disorder (often tackled by a parent and child together)
10. Grieving the loss of a loved one
If you’re seeking post-ecstatic growth, on the other hand, your challenge might be:
· To adopt a new habit
· To develop a talent
· To learn or improve a skill
· To strengthen a relationship
· To make a physical or athletic breakthrough
· To complete a meaningful project
· To pursue a lifelong dream
· To make any other positive change in your life
Because everyone has different dreams and talents, post-ecstatic goals tend to be more varied. Some of the more popular ones we’ve seen among SuperBetter players include eating healthier, finishing a degree, writing a book, sleeping better, “doing something that scares me,” starting a business, getting better at managing stress, losing weight, running a 5K or a marathon, learning to meditate, starting a family, saving for and planning a dream trip, helping a friend with a personal challenge, making a difference for a good cause, being a better parent, and being a better husband or wife.
You may be facing serious adversity or trauma in your life right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pursue post-ecstatic growth. Many SuperBetter players have successfully reduced anxiety, depression, and pain by pursuing a meaningful personal goal or dream. You may feel more motivated and optimistic right now about tackling a positive goal than about focusing directly on an illness or trauma. That’s totally okay! There’s no right or wrong challenge to tackle first.
Have you got an obstacle in mind? Good. But before you dive in, there’s a skill you need to master. It’s called cognitive reappraisal, and it means changing how you think and feel about a stressful problem in your life.
How does it work? There’s actually a very simple trick—a scientifically validated method—that I can teach you right now. It helps you turn anxiety into excitement, and it’s the easiest form of cognitive reappraisal to learn.
It turns out that anxiety and excitement are, physiologically, the exact same emotion. Whether you are anxious about something or excited about it, your body responds in a nearly identical “high arousal” state. You have excess energy, you may feel butterflies in your stomach, your heart rate may increase, and so on.
This means that when you’re feeling anxious about a problem, it’s much easier to try to get excited about solving it than to try to calm down. In order to calm down, you would have to slow your heart rate and reduce your adrenaline. That’s not easy, especially when you’re facing a stressful situation. But to get excited, you don’t have to change how your body feels at all. You just have to change how your mind interprets what you’re physically feeling.You can reappraise the adrenaline rush and the increased heart rate as signs that you’re actually enthusiastic and eager or even exhilarated.
It’s easy to do. Based on mind-body science, Harvard Business School researcher and psychologist Alison Wood Brooks has devised an incredibly simple trick to turn anxiety into excitement.3 Are you ready to learn it? All you have to do is this:
Think about something that usually makes you nervous—not something truly traumatic, but an everyday situation where you personally would like to experience more confidence and less negative stress. Perhaps it’s public speaking, or taking a test, or asking for a raise at work, or flying, or going to a party alone. Even better, if you have something specific on your horizon that’s making you nervous—a tough conversation you need to have, a doctor’s appointment, getting feedback on your work, a first date—concentrate on that. Whatever it is that gets your nerves going, keep imagining it, and wait until you feel the telltale butterflies in your stomach.
As soon as you feel your nerves, say I’m excited or Get excited to yourself. Out loud. Say it a few times. I’m excited. Get excited! That’s it—that’s the whole trick. According to Dr. Brooks’s research, this is literally all it takes to make people less anxious, more optimistic, and more successful in solving problems or undertaking stressful tasks. When we’re not thinking anxious thoughts, we’re free to use that mental effort and physical energy to be creative, focus on the problem, and otherwise get stuff done. This explains why, in Dr. Brooks’s lab, participants not only felt more optimistic but also performed better at high-stress tasks (like singing in front of judges) when using this technique.
The key to making the Get excited! technique work is to be open to the possibility that you are, in fact, at least a little bit excited about whatever you think you’re anxious about. Could something good come about as a result? Is there any reason to be hopeful about what might happen? If so, you truly might be excited, not anxious.
This is not just a mind game you’re playing with yourself. The line between feeling anxiety and experiencing excitement is exceedingly thin. Your body reacts the same way to both, and your brain can’t always tell the difference. This means that most of the time, you have a real choice between feeling anxiety and feeling excitement. Game players and athletes exercise this choice all the time. It’s why a football player can feel excitement instead of terror when someone is chasing him down the field, trying to violently tackle him.
Don’t hesitate to use this power to your advantage, especially when it’s as easy as saying two little words. It will not only make you feel stronger and happier in the moment, it will also improve your ability to tackle tough obstacles and achieve your goals.
The Get excited! technique works best for situations where the stakes aren’t too high and you simply want to get a better grip on your nerves. But you can also use your powers of cognitive reappraisal for much more serious problems.
When faced with a truly significant adversity, you can use cognitive reappraisal to view it as a challenge you’re capable of meeting, rather than as a threat that will overwhelm or harm you. This is called replacing a threat mindset with a challenge mindset.4 And it’s the number-one rule of living gamefully.
In a threat mindset, you focus on the potential for risk, danger, harm, or loss. You feel pressured to prevent a negative outcome rather than to achieve a positive outcome. A threat mindset often occurs when you have low self-efficacy—that is, if you feel it’s outside your control or ability to change the situation or to avoid negative impacts.
In a challenge mindset, you focus on the opportunity for growth and positive outcomes. Even though you acknowledge that you may face risk, harm, or loss, you feel realistically optimistic that you can develop useful skills or strategies to achieve the best possible outcome. You prepare yourself to rise to the difficult occasion by gathering resources and drawing on your personal strengths. People with high self-efficacy find it easier to adopt a challenge mindset. So do people who spend a lot of time playing games.5 In fact, “challenge-seeking” is one of the most common personality traits of frequent game players.6
Every time we play a game, we approach it with a challenge mindset—and you’re going to learn how to bring this mindset to real-life goals and obstacles. But first let’s talk about why a challenge mindset matters.
Psychologists have been researching challenge versus threat mindsets for more than thirty years, studying how they impact people’s ability to handle stress and adversity. Here are the main differences they’ve found:
When you operate under a threat mindset, you’re more likely to develop anxiety and depression in addition to whatever struggle you face. As a result, your ability to perform under pressure suffers. Meanwhile, instead of developing helpful coping skills or finding new resources, you’re more likely to engage in escapist and self-defeating actions, like social isolation, drug and alcohol abuse, or simply ignoring your problem until it gets even worse.7
With a challenge mindset, however, you experience less anxiety and depression, and you adapt to change more effectively. You don’t try to escape your problem. Instead, you take advantage of important resources like social support and your own competence. You increase your skills and become better able to solve your problem. In short, you’re much more likely to achieve the best outcome possible in your current situation.8
The differences between a challenge mindset and a threat mindset aren’t just mental. They also determine how your body reacts to the stress.
In a threat mindset, your arteries constrict, and your heart has to work much harder to pump blood throughout your body. In the short term, this increases your chances of suffering a heart attack. Over time, if you spend months or years operating under a threat mindset, your heart may weaken from having to work so much harder.
With a challenge mindset, by contrast, your arteries expand, and you experience much more efficient cardiac output. You have improved blood flow, with much less effort. In other words, a challenge mindset keeps your heart healthy and relaxed.
In a threat mindset, your fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, which activates your sympathetic nervous system. If your sympathetic nervous system is engaged continuously for hours, days, weeks, or longer, your immune system can become compromised, and you may experience more illness.
With a challenge mindset, however, your nervous system finds a better balance between the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and the parasympathetic (calm-and-connect) responses. This balance helps you avoid nervous exhaustion and burnout.
Finally, a threat mindset leads to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol and the metabolism hormone insulin. Increased cortisol and insulin are associated with weight gain, difficulty building muscle, and diabetes.
In short, a threat mindset is not just a psychological barrier—it’s also damaging to your physical health. Adopting a challenge mindset, on the other hand, increases both your mental and your physical resilience.
Now that you know how important a challenge mindset is, it’s time to figure out how close you are to achieving one. The best way to do that? A quest!
QUEST 15: Challenge vs. Threat
Think about your biggest personal challenge, goal, or source of stress at the moment. We’re going to call this your obstacle. By answering twenty questions about your obstacle, you can figure out whether you’re likely to tackle it with a threat or a challenge mindset.
What to do: Put a check mark (or highlight) any statement that you agree with. If you disagree with a statement, skip it.
1. I’m eager to tackle this obstacle.
2. Thinking about this obstacle stresses me out.
3. I’m worried that this obstacle might reveal my weakness.
4. I can become a stronger person because of this obstacle.
5. There is someone I can turn to for help with this obstacle if I need it.
6. Tackling this obstacle seems like an exhausting prospect.
7. This obstacle is probably going to have an overall negative impact on my life, no matter what I do.
8. I get fired up when I think about tackling this obstacle.
9. This obstacle threatens my or my family’s health and happiness.
10. I’m worried that I lack the resources needed to overcome this obstacle.
11. This obstacle gives me a chance to find out what I’m really made of.
12. I feel like this obstacle represents basically a hopeless situation.
13. I get excited when I think about the possible outcomes of tackling this obstacle.
14. I don’t mind struggling with this obstacle, or sometimes failing, because the outcome is important to me.
15. I think I have or can acquire the abilities needed to successfully tackle this obstacle.
16. If I succeed, my choosing to tackle this obstacle will have a positive impact on my or my family’s health and happiness.
17. This obstacle probably requires more strength than I have to deal with it effectively.
18. If I fail to overcome this obstacle, it will have significant negative consequences for me and my life.
19. It’s beyond anyone else’s power to help me with this obstacle.
20. I’ll probably learn something by tackling this obstacle as best I can.
Scoring: How many of the following statements did you agree with? 1, 4, 5, 8, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20. This is your challenge score. How many of the following statements did you agree with? 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 17, 18, 19. This is your threat score.
To reap the benefits of a challenge mindset, you should strive to have a challenge score that is higher than your threat score. The bigger the difference between the two numbers, the better.
If you’re already 100 percent in a challenge mindset, with a threat score of zero, fantastic. More likely, you’re somewhere on the spectrum between threat and challenge.
Your goal, by the time you finish this chapter, is to move yourself at least one or two points closer to a full challenge mindset and away from the threat mindset.
Here’s something important to keep in mind: different people will appraise the same exact situation as a threat or a challenge, depending on how they evaluate the opportunities for harm versus growth. The actual stressful circumstance you face does not determine whether you view it as a challenge or a threat. It’s how you choose to engage with the stress that makes the difference.
Indeed, researchers have so far found no limits to the kinds of stressful situations in which a person can successfully develop a challenge mindset. According to more than three decades’ worth of studies, whether you are dealing with economic hardships or a medical crisis or even living in a war conflict zone, achieving a challenge mindset—no matter how objectively threatening the circumstances—is possible.
Here are just a few of the types of stress for which scientists have documented profoundly significant benefits from cultivating a challenge mindset:
· College athletes who had a challenge mindset at the beginning of a season performed better and won more games the entire season.9
· Students who adopted a challenge mindset immediately before taking a test scored significantly higher on the test.10
· HIV and cancer patients have much lower rates of depression and anxiety if they see their diagnosis as a challenge, not only as a threat.11
· Couples with fertility struggles who adopt a challenge mindset report fewer fights, less distress, and closer marriages.12
· Men and women who develop a challenge mindset toward managing negative emotion are better able to control their anger.13
· During the transition from primary to secondary school, children who have a challenge mindset experience more social and academic success and fewer behavior problems.14
· Bereaved spouses who identify specific challenges to tackle during their grieving process have better physical health, and less anxiety and depression.15
· Civilians and soldiers who have a belief in their ability to successfully meet the challenge of war zone stress are less likely to develop post-traumatic stress symptoms.16
There’s one important point I want to make clear: a challenge mindset doesn’t require you to think positively all the time, or to ignore your pain or losses. It’s more about investigating your own strengths and abilities and trying to increase them.
Similarly, having a challenge mindset does not mean living in denial of potential negative outcomes. It simply means paying more attention, and devoting more effort, to the possibility of positive outcomes or personal growth. It means not accepting the negative as inevitable—or if a negative outcome is inevitable, not allowing it to completely define your experience. With a challenge mindset, you’re committed to looking for something more than the negative, something that will bring meaning and purpose to your struggle.
So how can you move from a threat to a challenge mindset? Here are three techniques to try:
1. Write down the ten expressions of a challenge mindset (statements 1, 4, 5, 8, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20 in Quest 15) and put the list in a place where you will see it every day. Looking at this list will give you a daily reminder of what a challenge mindset feels like. This can be extremely helpful, especially if it doesn’t come naturally in your current situation. You can also try reading the statements out loud like a mantra once a day. That won’t make them automatically true, but it will give you a chance to reflect on the possibility that they might become true. Indeed, the more you speak them, the more likely you are to make choices or changes that foster a challenge mindset.
2. Ask yourself, What’s the best that could happen? When we operate under a threat mindset, we tend to spend a lot of time pondering What’s the worst that could happen? (And we usually come up with lots and lots of answers.) To balance out this cognitive habit, ask yourself the opposite, and see how many answers you can come up with. It will help you stay open to the potential for some kind of positive outcome or post-traumatic growth.
3. Say that you’re getting superbetter at something, not from something. Just the way you talk about your SuperBetter journey can influence whether you adopt a threat or a challenge mindset. Getting superbetter fromsomething implies a threat, but getting superbetter at something implies the opportunity for growth.
If you’re pursuing post-ecstatic growth, this phrasing should come naturally. I’m getting superbetter at writing a novel. I’m getting superbetter at world travel. I’m getting superbetter at triathlons. I’m getting superbetter at running for city council.* But for post-traumatic growth, it may require a bit of rethinking. For example, instead of getting superbetter from anxiety, you might be getting superbetter at being brave, or finding peace, or preventing panic attacks, or whatever represents to you the positive change or growth you want to experience. Instead of getting superbetter from insomnia, you might get superbetter at sleeping. Instead of getting superbetter from a concussion, you might get superbetter at healing your brain.
Eventually, as you continue to get superbetter—and as you learn the other six rules of living gamefully—you’ll naturally strengthen your challenge mindset. That’s because the other rules are designed to help you increase your personal resources or help you focus on the potential for growth and positive outcomes. Collecting power-ups will give you more physical and emotional resources. Battling bad guys will allow you to develop new mental resources. Completing—and designing your own—quests will help you acquire new skills and abilities specific to your challenge. Recruiting allies will increase your social resources. Seeking epic wins will help you focus on opportunities for growth and positive impact. And adopting a secret identity and keeping score will highlight your progress and growing strength. So even if you feel unprepared at this moment to bring a challenge mindset to your most pressing problems, don’t worry. Keep going. Achieving a challenge mindset is the inevitable outcome of engaging with obstacles more gamefully.
In the meantime, here’s another cognitive reappraisal technique—and a quest—to help you start bringing out the challenge, and squashing the threat, right now. It’s called Find the unnecessary obstacle. It’s significantly more difficult to master than Dr. Alison Wood Brooks’s Get excited! technique—but you’re up for a challenge, right?
To master this next technique, you need to learn my favorite definition of a game. It comes from the late philosopher Bernard Suits, who famously wrote: “Playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”17
Think of the game of golf—a classic case of unnecessary obstacles. In ordinary life, if your goal were to put a small ball in a small hole, you would simply walk up to the hole and carefully drop the ball in. But because golf is a game, you agree to stand very far away from the hole—the first unnecessary obstacle. And to make it even more difficult, you agree to use a long stick (your golf club) to try to aim the ball toward the hole—the second unnecessary obstacle. There is no logical or necessary reason to approach the goal of getting a small ball into a small hole in this way. We do it simply for the pleasure of engaging wholeheartedly with a difficult challenge. We do it for the enjoyment of testing our abilities and improving them.
Every game works the same way. Every game offers us the opportunity to accept a challenging goal that, by design, will stretch our capabilities and help us develop new skills. This is why there is such a strong correlation between a gameful mindset and a challenge mindset. When we play a game, we volunteer to be challenged. No one forces us to try to solve a game’s puzzles, or defeat another team, or reach a certain score. Because we are fully in control of whether we accept a game’s challenge, we don’t experience anxiety or depression when we play—despite the very real possibility of loss or defeat. Our primary experience is of agency, not of threat.
But in daily life, we don’t always get to choose our own obstacles. The challenge you are facing now may be an obstacle you would never have volunteered to tackle if you had a choice. This makes it harder to be gameful. It’s not easy to focus on the possibility of a positive outcome when you feel blindsided by the threat.
Cognitive reappraisal, however, can help you regain a sense of agency and choice. It can empower you to find the unnecessary obstacle within the uninvited challenge you face.
The key is to identify an obstacle that you feel capable of tackling within the larger challenge, an obstacle that other people might not choose to tackle.
To see how this works, let’s try a quest.
QUEST 16: Find the Unnecessary Obstacle
Think about the biggest uninvited difficulty you currently face, or any personal setback or disappointment you’ve experienced in your life.
What to do: Use your imagination to answer this question: What would be the worst possible, least helpful reaction that you—or anyone else in your shoes—could have to it?
You don’t have to be completely realistic here. Let your mind go to extremes for just a moment. Here are some examples from SuperBetter players:
· “Lost my job / Turn to a life of crime.”
· “Have Lyme disease with chronic flare-ups / Give up and never get out of bed again.”
· “My book manuscript was rejected by every publisher I sent it to / Never write a word again.”
· “Having trouble getting pregnant / Drown my sorrows every night in ice cream and pick fights with my husband until we can’t bear to have sex with each other.”
· “Had a bike accident and concussion / Confine myself to a small, padded room for the rest of my life to avoid further injury.”
· “Got laid off / Go on a social media rampage badmouthing my former employer and all my workmates (making other companies much less likely to hire me in the future).”
· “Recently lost my mother / Drop out of school, let myself be consumed by grief, stop eating, and waste away, until my mother starts haunting me from the other side about how much it hurts her that I’ve given up on my dreams.”
As you can see, some people approach this quest with a sense of humor. Others find it helpful to just be honest and plainspoken about the worst reaction they might have. Two common reactions to this quest are simply “Someone else in my shoes might just give up and do nothing,” or even, “The worst thing I’ve considered doing is killing myself.” If that’s what popped into your mind, it’s good to acknowledge it and work with it.
Now: What is the opposite of that worst reaction?
· “Turn to a life of crime / Turn to a life of service.”
· “Give up and never get out of bed again / Get out of bed every single day, even if it’s just for a minute.”
· “Never write again / Write something every day.”
· “Drown my sorrows every night in ice cream and pick fights with my husband / Eat healthy to prepare my body for a baby and say something kind to my husband at the end of each night.”
· “Confine myself to a small, padded room / Find three new outdoor spaces to spend time in while I recuperate.”
· “Go on a social media rampage / Every day find one company or person whose work I admire and say something positive about it on social media. Who knows, if they see it, it might help me build my network.”
· “Drop out of school, waste away, and be haunted by my mother / Every day try to make my mother proud.”
· “Give up and do nothing / Do something. Anything. Do one damn thing that shows I haven’t given up.”
· “Kill myself / Keep living.”
Whatever the opposite of your “worst possible, least helpful reaction” is, consider adopting it as your unnecessary obstacle. Challenge yourself to do something that requires more strength and determination than what someone else might do in your shoes.
Why it works: Completing this quest has two benefits. First, when you imagine the worst possible reaction you could have to adversity, you highlight your agency in the situation. You do have options. And as long as you’re not doing that worst possible, least helpful thing, you can challenge yourself to do something better. It may not feel like total agency and choice, but it involves some agency and choice—and that’s enough to activate a challenge mindset.
Meanwhile, imagining the opposite of the worst possible reaction gives you a specific positive and purposeful goal. This goal is now something you can aspire to achieve. You may not have chosen your current adversity, but you are choosing to challenge yourself to engage in a way that improves your chances for growth and success.
The more concrete you can make your unnecessary obstacle, the easier it will be to embrace it as a challenge. One SuperBetter player found that having a very specific goal made all the difference between a challenge and a threat mindset.
A SuperBetter Story: The Broken Artist
Rowan, forty, is a freelance artist in Missouri who recently developed extremely painful tendinitis in her right arm—“my drawing arm,” she explained in an online discussion forum for SuperBetter players. The injury caused her quite a bit of anxiety. “I need to get better so I can keep working. This is my dream job. Also, my art business is my sole income.”
Rowan expected her arm to heal quickly, but it didn’t. “This injury has entered the realm of chronic pain,” she wrote. “It’s quite disheartening if I allow it to be, and I have.” Knowing that she needed to change her mindset, she decided to look for the unnecessary obstacle.
What was the worst possible reaction she could have to her injury? “Ignore the pain and try to work through it.” What was the least helpful thing she could do? “Continue grinding down the tendon until the arm is permanently damaged.” So what was the opposite of all that?
“I’m learning to do things with my left hand to give poor ol’ righty a break,” she announced one day. This became her new, unnecessary obstacle: Learn how to do ten new things with her nondominant hand.
Rowan started practicing each day and looking up videos online showing how to do things one-handed. “I’m amazed at how many things I can do with my left hand that I never tried before, like open a jar with one hand.” Granted, opening a jar wasn’t her ultimate goal—returning to work was. But pretty soon the benefits of a challenge mindset—including a sense of optimism and the ability to spot opportunities for growth—kicked in. “I’m rethinking everything,” she wrote. “I am focusing now on the fact that I have one perfectly healthy arm and that I can make that arm stronger.”
Rowan had found the perfect unnecessary obstacle for her. It was small enough to feel manageable but challenging enough to provoke her curiosity and stretch her abilities. More important, it was genuinely helpful in her current situation. By challenging herself to learn this new skill, she was actively helping her dominant arm heal faster. And if for some reason her right arm neverhealed, strengthening her left arm would create new windows of opportunity for her in the future.
As the weeks progressed, her mood improved, and she stopped feeling helpless or hopeless about her situation. She realized she might have to live with tendinitis in her right arm. But by focusing her efforts right now on a smaller, voluntary obstacle, she is actively improving her chances of continuing her successful career as an artist.
Hopefully, you’re starting to feel skillful at cognitive reappraisal. But sometimes, no matter how hard you try to reappraise a problem, it still seems more like a threat than a challenge. This is natural. Some problems really do have higher stakes or trigger unavoidable grief or anger. It can feel unnatural and absurd to try to view a major illness, the loss of a loved one, the incarceration of a family member, or severe economic distress as an opportunity for growth. These kinds of adversity and loss strongly resist reappraisal, especially when you’re just beginning to cope with them. Even though any form of adversity contains potential for post-traumatic growth, looking for that “silver lining” too soon can feel wrong, disloyal, or inappropriate—and rightly so.
If you find yourself in this position right now, you still have more power than you realize. If you’re facing a threat or a loss that you simply cannot, in any way that feels genuine and sincere, view as a challenge, there is a gameful technique you can employ. It’s called “adopting a strategy goal,” and it can help you get many of the benefits of a challenge mindset, even if it feels more natural and appropriate to operate (at least for now) under a threat or loss mindset. Here’s how it works.
Anyone in the face of an obstacle or struggle can adopt three types of goals: a difficult goal, a do-your-best goal, and a strategy goal.18 To explore the differences among these three types of goals, let’s use two examples of potential obstacles: running a marathon and trying to get out of credit card debt.
Adopting a difficult goal means trying to achieve something very specific and very challenging. It’s the kind of goal you could reasonably expect to fail at, even if you try your best. A marathon runner’s difficult goal might be “I want to run this marathon in under four hours, which would be faster than I’ve ever run one before.” A credit card debtor’s difficult goal would be “I want to be 100 percent debt-free a year from today.” In ordinary or low-stakes life circumstances, such as running a marathon for fun, difficult goals can be highly motivating and effective. But in a high-stakes situation, like getting out of debt, difficult goals are more likely to add to your negative stress, making it harder for you to thrive.
Adopting a do-your-best goal means putting forth your best effort, without concern for the results. You generally hope to do well, but you have no specific expectations for what you might achieve. The marathon runner’s do-your-best goal would be “Try to finish this race without walking, but if you have to walk, that’s okay, too. Just do your best!” The credit card debtor’s do-your-best goal might be “I’ll pay more attention to what I’m spending and try to avoid buying things I can’t afford.” Do-your-best goals can alleviate performance anxiety, which can be beneficial in some circumstances. But generally speaking, unless your biggest problem is a crippling fear of failing to meet your own standards, a do-your-best goal is not particularly motivating or helpful.
Adopting a strategy goal, on the other hand, means being determined to discover and master strategies that will help you be successful. Instead of focusing on a specific outcome (as with a difficult goal) or a general effort level (as with a do-your-best goal), you put your attention on learning and improving concrete skills and strategies that will help you do better in the future. The marathon runner’s strategy goal might be “I’m going to try out a new strategy in this race. I’ll run the first half slower than my practice pace, so I have lots of energy left in the tank for the second half of the race.” The credit card debtor’s strategy goal could be “Every week for the next six months, I’m going to adopt one new strategy for saving money that I can put toward paying down my debt. This week the strategy is to pack my lunch instead of eating out at work. Six months from now I’ll be doing twenty-five things to help me get debt-free.” When you adopt a strategy goal, you can be successful regardless of whether you win the race or even finish it; and regardless of whether you’re 100 percent debt-free in a year or just well on your way. You’re successful as long as you’re learning and improving.
Researchers have figured out that for someone operating under a threat mindset, a strategy goal is absolutely the best kind to adopt.19 When the stakes are high or the loss severe, a strategy mindset will increase your resilience and improve your coping abilities.
Why does this work? By focusing on developing and practicing effective strategies, you’re going to build up new strengths and abilities. These strengths and abilities will be a real resource for you. They will help you be braver, happier, healthier, or more successful within the reality of the threat or loss you’re facing. Your strategies may not change that reality, but they will help you find and maximize your power to do and feel the absolute best you can, given the obstacle you face.
Adopting a strategy goal is also like adopting a mini-challenge mindset. You’re challenging yourself to learn and improve, even if the overall situation still feels overwhelming or is objectively out of your control. A mini-challenge mindset will help trigger some of the physiological and psychological benefits of a challenge mindset, like less depression and anxiety, and lower cortisol and insulin levels. (And as a bonus, as you learn and master each new strategy, you’ll experience the neurological benefits of goal achievement, such as the increased determination and optimism described in Chapter 3.)
So here’s the upshot: if you’ve tried all the quests in this chapter and you don’t think a challenge mindset is realistic for you at this moment, don’t worry. You can still adopt a strategy goal. In fact, I have a specific strategy goal in mind for you:
Keep learning and practicing as many strategies as you can to increase your four types of resilience—in other words, your physical, mental, social, and emotional strengths.
Here’s a SuperBetter story about a man who experienced success with this very strategy goal.
A SuperBetter Story: The Man in Search of Purpose
Dennis, sixty-six, lives in rural Kansas. For the past forty years, he has worked in higher education, overseeing grant programs for low-income students and serving as their academic adviser. He is also a SuperBetter player. He recently wrote me to describe a major loss he’s facing, and the strategy he’s adopted to cope with it gamefully.
“I’m getting close to retiring and, frankly, it is (was) scaring the bejesus out of me. I’ve worked hard to help underprepared students find success in college. For a good number of years, I’ve been heavily focused on this task. But now my wife and I are talking about retirement in real terms—with dates associated with it. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to live near my grandchildren and be a significant part of their lives—that’s the upside. But I’m having difficulty coping with the change. It feels like a loss of purpose.
“For the past six months I’ve found myself exhibiting signs of depression at home. I had worked myself into a frozen state unable to deal with the practicality or emotionality of this change. Then I found SuperBetter. I decided my strategy was to work on the ‘physical’ and the ‘mental’ at the same time.
“So I got up once every hour and did at least one small thing on a project I had been ignoring. I noticed this started to make for pretty good evenings. The projects I have undertaken vary from simply watering plants, organizing my laptop/reading section, and doing stretches, to larger projects like vacuuming the house, pulling weeds in the yard, or like the last three nights, deep-cleaning the carpets on the first floor. (Second floor begins this weekend.) One of my larger ongoing projects now is journaling my thoughts and formulating plans.
“The point of this for me is that I have been able to shift away from an inward, downward spiral and refocus my attention outward. I was finally just now able to put together a plan for retirement and talked with my wife about it. I am beginning to consider how I change from assisting students to assisting other people in volunteer roles. I am becoming more excited to think about this transition.
“There are two other strengths to build as I go. For my emotional strength, I put a photo of a smiling baby on my work desktop. I simply cannot help but smile when I look at it. This is the same photo I’ve used with students over the past decades, usually to help them with test anxiety. I’ve always told them that when they see someone else smile, they smile inside for a short time. Now I realize I can use the same trick in my own life.
“Oh, and I really don’t need to worry about the social—I am madly in love with my wife and we travel frequently to see our grandkids. But it’s good for me to pay attention to how much strength I already have in this part of my life.”
Dennis, like many folks who are getting superbetter, keeps me apprised of his progress by email. He always refers to his gameful activity not as playing but as “my four resiliences work.” This is a perfect example of cognitive reappraisal in action! For a man retiring from a truly meaningful job, it’s good work and not necessarily play that will truly energize and engage him. And it does seem to be making a big positive difference. As he wrote me just today: “What can I say? The four types of resilience are changing me and my life. I’m pleased to see progress and know that I will have further insights over time.”
Dennis’s attitude is the perfect example of adopting a strategy goal. He is focused on making progress and getting stronger one day at a time.
You can adopt a strategy goal right now. You learned about the four types of resilience in the Introduction, and you’ve been completing quests all along the way that bolster them. You can decide right now to continue to learn and practice new ways to build more physical, mental, social, and emotional resilience as you cope with whatever adversity is currently causing you pain or difficulty. At SuperBetter, we call this challenge simply “getting superbetter.”
Most of the advice in this chapter has been geared toward helping you adopt a challenge mindset in the face of obstacles that others might view as a threat. But what if you’re not facing any truly significant obstacle in your life currently?
If you’re seeking transformative growth, you need to put yourself in a position to be seriously challenged. It’s just as important for you to choose a challenge as it is for someone who is facing a personal setback, illness, injury, or loss. After all, wrestling with a significant challenge is how you experience the “gains without pains” (or at least fewer pains) that Ann Marie Roepke calls post-ecstatic growth.
But how do you choose the right activity to maximize your chances of experiencing post-ecstatic growth? While becoming a parent for the first time and running a marathon are two classic examples, most people at any given moment in their lives are not necessarily in a position to do either. So I asked Dr. Roepke what other kinds of challenges a SuperBetter player should choose if they’re seeking post-ecstatic growth.
In reply, she designed the following quest, based on her research, clinical practice, and personal experience. Give it a try!
QUEST 17: Go for Gains Without Pains
Looking for inspiration? Here are the top three questions that can help lead to post-ecstatic growth.
What to do: Ask yourself one, two, or all three of these questions to figure out the perfect challenge for your SuperBetter journey.
1. What would I do if anxiety and fear weren’t holding me back? “Positive experiences don’t always feel ‘positive’ through and through,” Dr. Roepke says. “Often the things that people cite as their best experiences actually involve struggle and pain, not just love and inspiration. Think of the two classic post-ecstatic growth examples: having a baby and training for a marathon! There may actually be a blurry line between so-called positive and negative experiences, between post-ecstatic growth and post-traumatic growth. It could be that our lives are richest when we have a blend of struggle and pain on one hand, and comfort and inspiration on the other—just like athletes are at their best when they have a blend of exhausting work on one hand, and nourishment and rest on the other. The juxtaposition of dark times and bright times—a sort of psychological chiaroscuro—may help us grow the most.”
2. What have been the most energizing and inspiring moments in my life so far? “Most of us have a few flashbulb memories of important experiences, and we can use these for insight and inspiration,” Dr. Roepke advises. “Maybe these memories happened a long time ago, and they might seem irrelevant to us now, at a first glance. But we can look past the superficial features of that experience, isolate the important ones, and design a new experience that scratches the same itch.”
3. What do I want to be remembered for after I’ve lived a long, full life? “Think of what you would want people to say about you in your obituary, or in a toast at your ninetieth birthday party. What will you have stood for? What will you be loved for? What will you have done that’s bigger than you? If you can answer this question, you’ll have a better idea of the kinds of activities that will be personally meaningful enough to you to facilitate real growth.”
Questions like these can help you zero in on the kinds of positive challenges that eventually lead to growth. But as Dr. Roepke reminds us, “There’s a difference between facilitating an experience and forcing one. In some ways, trying to make yourself have a growth experience is like trying to make yourself fall in love. There’s an uncontrollable, unpredictable element to some things in life, so we’d be wise to relax into whatever form our experiences take.” In other words, don’t worry about finding the perfect post-ecstatic growth challenge. Just pick any tough and meaningful obstacle to wrestle with, and you’ll build the skills to grow from challenges now and in the future.
Now that you’ve mastered Rule 1 for living gamefully—Challenge yourself and purposefully engage with potentially life-transforming obstacles—it’s time to choose your first SuperBetter challenge.
QUEST 18: Choose Your Challenge
The SuperBetter method works best when you focus on just one challenge at a time. If you could be stronger, happier, healthier, or braver in one specific way, what would it be?
I’m getting superbetter at:
Tip: The phrasing is important! You’re going to get SuperBetter at something, not SuperBetter from something.
Skills Unlocked: How to Choose Your Challenge
· There are two ways to respond to a stressful situation: with a threat mindset or a challenge mindset. A threat mindset can increase anxiety and depression, and it takes a toll on your physical health. A challenge mindset, however, will improve your ability to successfully achieve your goals and reduce the suffering that can accompany stressful or traumatic experiences.
· It’s natural to react to adversity with a threat mindset, but you aren’t stuck with one. You can use the cognitive reappraisal skills you learned in this chapter (like Get excited! and Find the unnecessary obstacle) to rethink your emotional reaction to any stressful or traumatic situation.
· If you’re struggling to adopt a challenge mindset, try repeating the challenge mindset statements from Quest 15 like a mantra. Ask yourself, What’s the best that could happen? Say you’re getting superbetter atsomething, and not from something.
· Having a challenge mindset doesn’t mean that you’re happy to be facing your current obstacle, or that you don’t wish things were different. It just means that you recognize your own resilience—and that you want to actively explore ways to make things better.