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 6. Power-ups
How to Be Gameful Rule 2
Collect and activate power-ups—good things that reliably make you feel happier, healthier, or stronger.
Power-ups are essential to most video games. They’re the bonus items that give you more strength, more power, or extra life. Think of the power pellets in Pac-Man that allow you to gobble ghosts, or the care packages in Call of Duty that restore your soldier’s health, or the super seeds in Angry Birds that supersize the birds in your slingshot, making them capable of knocking down bigger, stronger walls.
What if we could collect and activate power-ups in real life? Good news: we can. And it’s easier than you think.
Here are a few of my favorite real-world power-ups:
Watch videos of baby animals on YouTube. Look out a window for thirty seconds. Hold my husband’s hand for six seconds. Eat ten walnuts, because they’re good for my brain. Try to make my dog smile. Send a text message to my mom. Listen to a song from one of my favorite Bollywood movies. Do ten push-ups even if I’m exhausted—in fact, especially if I’m exhausted, because I like how strong it makes me feel. I think to myself: Screw you, exhaustion! Look at what I can do! I call them screw-you push-ups, and they feel awesome. (Confession: I just did a set, to fight writer’s block!)
What do all these power-ups have in common? I can do them easily, at no cost, and they never fail to make me feel at least a little bit better, no matter what else I’m thinking or feeling or battling that day.
This is one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of someone who is living gamefully. It’s the ability to feel better, anytime, anyplace, no matter what.
Just as you would use a power-up in a video game to get through a particularly difficult level, or to accomplish a seemingly impossible task, you can use real-world power-ups to give you a boost during difficult times.
Different power-ups work for different people. This chapter is about experimenting with and collecting the power-ups that work for you.
Apower-up is any positive action you can take, easily, that creates a quick moment of pleasure, strength, courage, or connection for you. Collecting a power-up simply means identifying it as something you want to try. Activating a power-up means actually doing it in your daily life.
The concept is simple enough: do little things that will give you a burst of energy, a positive emotion, social support, or motivation. But power-ups are about more than just feeling better in the moment. They also change your biology in extraordinarily important and long-term ways, helping you become far less vulnerable to stress and much more likely to experience post-traumatic or post-ecstatic growth. In the pages ahead, you’ll learn all about the biology of positive change. But first let’s give you a chance to power up.
All-Time Favorite Power-ups
Over the past three years, SuperBetter players have collected and activated more than a million power-ups. Which are their favorites? Here are the all-time most activated and shared power-ups, by resilience type. If you think you could use a quick boost of physical, emotional, social, or mental resilience, by all means, try one or more of these power-ups right now!
Drink a glass of water! There’s almost nothing it doesn’t help, from improving mood to building muscle to controlling appetite to increasing energy to boosting the immune system.
Sing your lungs out! Just pick a favorite song you know most of the lyrics to, and sing it at the top of your lungs. “At the top of your lungs” is the crucial part—it turns singing into an aerobic activity, which can trigger a release of endorphins, the happy hormones. So don’t hold back—you’ve got to really belt it out to get these benefits!
Love spree! Check the clock or start a timer. You’ve got three minutes to like, favorite, or leave a positive comment on as many social media posts from friends and family as you can. If you’re not on social media, use your three minutes to send quick “you’re awesome” or “thinking of you” emails and text messages to as many people as you can. You’ve only got three minutes, so don’t think—just spread the love!
Future boost! Name two specific things you’re looking forward to in the next week, big or small. This dopamine-boosting power-up is inspired by the ancient wisdom “Always have two things to look forward to.” If you can’t think of two things in the next seven days that you’re genuinely looking forward to, now is the time to schedule them.
Once you’ve chosen your challenge, collecting and activating power-ups is the most important part of daily gameful living. That’s because in order to rebound from stress and tackle major life obstacles successfully, you need what scientists call high vagal tone. And power-ups are the best way to get it.
Vagal tone refers to the health of your vagus nerve, which stretches all the way from your brain to your intestines. The vagus nerve touches your heart, lungs, voicebox, ears, and stomach, helping to regulate virtually every important function in your mind and body, from your emotions to your heart rate to your breathing rate to your muscle movement to your digestion.1
Because the vagus nerve is so essential to so many biological and psychological functions, its health is an excellent measure of your mind-and-body resilience. Nearly twenty-five years of research, in fact, has consistently shown that the tone, or strength, of the vagus nerve is the single best measure of how effectively a person’s heart, lungs, and brain respond to stress.2
If you want to get a more concrete feel of what vagal tone is, try this trick: place your fingers on the pulse point on the side of your neck. Feel your pulse for a few seconds to get a sense of its speed. Now start to breathe in and out as slowly as you can.
You should notice that your pulse subtly quickens on the inhalation and slows on the exhalation. It might be easier to notice if you mentally count each beat of the heart. Take a minute now to feel this.
This subtle difference between your pulse when you inhale and exhale is what scientists call respiratory sinus arrhythmia, or RSA for short.3 Arrhythmia literally means “without a steady beat”; most people associate the term with potentially dangerous heart conditions in which the heartbeat changes erratically. However, a variable heart rate—within certain bounds—is absolutely healthy, normal, and necessary. If your heart rate didn’t increase during inhalation and decrease during exhalation, you would be at a higher risk for heart attack, stroke, aging-related cognitive decline, and stress-induced illness.4 In fact, the more pronounced the difference between your inhalation and exhalation heart rates, the better.
The bigger the difference, the stronger your RSA—and therefore the stronger your vagal tone. The stronger the vagal tone, the better able you are to control your emotions and thoughts, the more physical pain you can withstand, and the less likely you are to suffer a variety of ailments, from diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome to social anxiety, loneliness, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.5
Dr. Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was the first researcher to identify vagal tone as a physiological marker of stress vulnerability, and he has continued to research it for decades. He argues that increasing vagal tone is the best all-around mental and physical health intervention possible. That’s because, he explains, what determines your mental and physical health is not the presence or absence of a stressful life event or even how you react to such an event; it’s your neurophysiologic state, or mind-body strength, before a stressful life event occurs. Depending on how much strength you’ve built up, you will either be more resilient and therefore better able to experience growth, or more vulnerable and therefore likely to experience negative impacts.
By now you’re probably wondering how strong your vagal tone is and whether there’s a way for you to measure and compare it with others’.
If you were a participant in a formal scientific study, researchers would measure your vagal tone using sophisticated laboratory equipment: echocardiogram (ECG) electrodes would track your heart rate, while “pneumatic bellows” strapped around your chest would measure the rise and fall of your breath. This would produce a very precise RSA number that could be deemed high, low, or average.
Assuming you don’t have this equipment lying around at home, you’re not going to get an accurate RSA number just by taking your own pulse. But don’t give up yet: there’s another way to put a number to your vagal tone, one that doesn’t require any special equipment at all. In fact, it doesn’t even measure your breath or heart rate. Instead, it measures your rate of emotions—specifically, how many positive emotions you feel in the course of a day compared with how many negative emotions you feel. Although this measure, known as emotional ratio, may seem highly subjective, scientific studies have shown it to predict vagal tone quite effectively. The higher the ratio between positive and negative emotions you feel daily, the stronger your vagal tone.6
The relationship between emotional ratio and vagal tone was first discovered by leading psychologist and mind-body scientist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina. Dr. Fredrickson was investigating the underlying body mechanisms that account for the association between positive emotion and physical health. For decades, researchers have known that experiencing more positive emotions in everyday life is correlated to better physical health. Longitudinal studies of hundreds of thousands of people have documented that experiencing feelings like curiosity, hope, laughter, and wonder seems to make people more resilient to illness and injury. In fact, people who experience positive emotions on a more frequent basis are not only happier; they also live ten years longer. And along the way, they get fewer colds, experience fewer headaches, show less inflammation in the body, feel less pain, and have lower rates of cardiovascular disease. Emotions linked to stronger social connections—such as gratitude and love—seem to be especially powerful drivers of better health and longevity.7
Happier people are healthier not just because they don’t have health problems to worry about, but also because, as research shows, positive emotions provide protection. People who experience more positive emotions recover faster from whatever illnesses and injuries they do suffer—and are better able to avoid chronic conditions like high blood pressure and high blood sugar that wear down health over time.8
What accounts for this mind-body connection? Dr. Fredrickson’s psychophysiology lab was the first to figure it out: the vagus nerve, which connects the mind to so many important organs in the body, is the most likely candidate for what mediates the relationship between emotions and physical health. For many years, researchers have observed that people with a stronger vagal nerve seem to have more control over their emotions and to experience more positive emotions daily. This fact, combined with decades of research on the relationship between vagal tone and physical resilience, convinced Dr. Fredrickson that the vagus nerve was the missing link between positive emotions and better health.
This hunch quickly paid off: in a series of studies, she and her colleagues demonstrated that interventions designed to increase positive emotions (like the power-ups described in this chapter) directly improved the health of the vagus nerve, which in turn improved the RSA numbers that represent the body’s resilience to stress. Not only that, but the stronger the vagus nerve became, the better able participants were to feel and provoke positive emotions on a daily basis.9 This created what Dr. Fredrickson refers to as an “upward spiral dynamic” between positive emotions and physical resilience. Improving your vagal tone makes it easier for you to have positive emotional reactions to everyday life events, and with every positive emotion you feel, your vagus nerve gets stronger. This is why measuring the positive emotions you feel daily turns out to be such a valid and effective alternative measure of vagal tone.10
Now that you know how it works, let’s measure your vagal tone with a quest inspired by the technique used in Dr. Fredrickson’s lab.
QUEST 19: What’s Your Number?
To calculate your positive emotion ratio, let’s do a quick count of all the emotions you’ve felt since you woke up today. (If you just woke up, think about yesterday instead!)
What to do: Take a look at the following list of emotional experiences. If you’ve felt this emotion today, put a check mark by it.
If you felt it really strongly, or for a very long time, and not just for a fleeting moment, feel free to put two, three, four, or even five check marks by it. For example, if you finished a big project this morning and felt extremely proud about it, you might decide that just one check mark by “pride” isn’t enough to represent how you feel—maybe it’s worth two or three. Or if you spent most of the morning really angry about a serious injustice you personally experienced, it might be worth five check marks by anger. If the feeling was mild or fleeting, one check mark is fine.
Love for someone else
Connection, being part of something bigger than myself
Pleasure, contentment, satisfaction
Looking forward to something
Savoring a pleasant memory
Hatred for someone else
Dread or anxiety about something in the future
Rehashing a negative experience
Scoring: Count up all the check marks by a positive emotion (PE). This is your PE total. Then count up all the check marks by a negative emotion (NE). This is your NE total. Now divide your PE by your NE. This is your positive emotion ratio. For example, if you have six check marks by positive emotions and four check marks by negative emotions, your ratio would be 6/4, or 1.5.
Tip: If you find you have a hard time remembering how you felt over the past twenty-four hours, Dr. Fredrickson recommends that you keep a log of your activity for the nexttwenty-four hours. Write down everywhere you go, what you do, and who you talk to. At the end of the day, go back through the list and use it to help you recall any emotions you might have felt. This option requires more work but it has the benefit of being more accurate.11
Now that you know your positive emotion ratio, what does it mean?
Generally speaking, you want more positive emotions than negative emotions—and the higher your ratio, the stronger your vagal tone. If your ratio is 1:1 or lower (meaning you have as many or more negative emotions as positive ones), you’re more vulnerable to stress and less likely to experience post-traumatic or post-ecstatic growth. If your ratio is higher than 1:1, you’re probably already experiencing significant resilience, but raising your ratio to 2:1, 3:1, or more will make you stronger.
To give you an idea of how your positive emotion ratio can relate to positive life outcomes and resilience to stress, consider these findings from scientific studies:
· Marriages thrive when couples rate their personal interactions as having a positive emotion ratio of 5:1. Couples who rate their interactions closer to a 1:1 ratio, however, more often than not will separate or divorce.12
· People who are suffering from clinical depression tend to report positive emotion ratios of 1:1. After successful treatment, their ratios typically rise to between 2:1 and 4:1.13
· Employees who calculate their own positive emotion ratios between 3:1 and 4:1 are evaluated by their employers as being more creative and effective at work.14
· Cancer patients who report a positive emotion ratio of higher than 1:1 coped with stress better in a variety of ways, experiencing less depression, denial, guilt, and suicidal ideation. (But no significant benefits were observed for increasing the ratio beyond 3:1.)15
· Civilians exposed to missile attacks who had a baseline positive emotion ratio of 2:1 or higher were less vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.16
· Seniors who increased their positive emotion ratio over a two-year period subsequently experienced less negative stress and felt more in control over aging-related problems. Seniors who had a high positive emotion ratio also suffered fewer declines in attention and memory.17
Understand that positive emotion ratios are not precise mathematical formulas. You can’t calculate your resilience to stress with the exactness of the circumference of a circle or the boiling point of a liquid. At the same time, myriad studies show that having more positive emotions, on average, than negative emotions is highly beneficial. And if you can have double, triple, or even quadruple, you may benefit increasingly. But there is no optimal or ideal number you’re trying to reach. There’s no magic tipping point at which your life will go from very difficult to full of joy, good health, and success.
Instead, think of your positive emotion ratio as a baseline you can maintain or build on, if necessary. If you want to increase your resilience to stress and improve your chances of experiencing post-traumatic or post-ecstatic growth, simply increase your ratio. Whether you’re increasing your number from 1 to 2, or 2.5 to 3, or even just 3 to 3.1, you’ll strengthen your vagal tone—and as a result, you’ll experience a wide range of mind and body benefits.
So why are power-ups such an important tool for increasing your positive emotion ratio and strengthening vagal tone? Interestingly, Dr. Fredrickson’s lab has found that trying to directly decrease the number of negative emotions you feel provides virtually no benefit. People with high vagal tone experience just as many negative emotions daily as people with low vagal tone—in fact, some research suggests they may feel even more. The difference between high and low vagal tone is in the number of positive emotions you can pile up to balance out and offset the negative emotions. This is good news, because it’s much easier to find little ways to feel happy and connected than it is to block or prevent negative emotions entirely.
The research also shows that when it comes to positive emotion, frequency is more important than intensity.18 Little positive things matter and pile up. You don’t have to make major improvements in your life or experience huge bursts of powerful, all-consuming positive emotion to increase your resilience. Instead, the most effective strategy is to collect as many microbursts of positive emotion as you can throughout the day.
When I was recovering from my concussion, power-ups gave me control, even on the darkest days, to do something, anything, to help me get stronger. When I look back at that difficult time, I credit using power-ups as the most important and effective step I took to break free of the cycle of anxiety and depression.
Here are other SuperBetter players talking about their favorite ways to quickly boost resilience—and what power-ups have meant to them.
How to Power Up: Player Favorites
The power-ups below have all been rated highly effective by the SuperBetter community.
Sunshine on your shoulders: Go outside and let the sun touch your skin for at least five minutes.
“This power-up was recommended to me by a nurse at the hospital where I’m getting treatment for a traumatic brain injury. She said to think of it as harvesting vitamin D from the sun. I have to admit, even on days when it feels like I can’t do anything right, this is something I can do.”* —Devon, twenty-four, whose challenge is to recover from a traumatic brain injury
Dance break: Stop whatever you’re doing and dance to a favorite song.
“I use this with my six- and eight-year-old girls, especially when they’re fighting with each other or giving me a hard time. Whoever is in the worst mood gets to pick the song we all dance to. It’s good for our physical health, and it really pulls everyone out of the drama.” —Therese, thirty-three, whose challenge is to be a calmer, happier mom
Make new bacteria friends: Eat yogurt or pop a probiotic pill to strengthen the ecosystem in your gut. This one’s not just about digesting better. The friendly bacteria in yogurt and probiotic supplements communicate directly to your brain through your vagus nerve, sending signals to your brain to secrete anxiety-reducing and mood-boosting neurotransmitters.19 The higher your vagal tone, the better this power-up works!
“I thought this was a really weird idea at first, but I also know from personal experience that stress and anxiety seem to make my stomach problems worse. So I love the idea that now my intestines can tell my brain to chill out, instead of my brain always telling my intestines to freak out!” —Jackie, forty-five, whose challenge is to end IBS once and for all
Brand-new day: If you’re having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, get back into bed, pull the covers up, and close your eyes for one minute—then roll out of bed as if you’ve just woken up for the first time.
“This helps me when I’ve been procrastinating a lot and I’m starting to beat myself up over it. I feel bad that I’ve wasted the whole day, so I get back in bed and jump out and ask myself, ‘Liz, what do you really want to do today?! Okay, let’s go do it!’” —Liz, twenty-three, whose challenge is to figure out what she wants to do with her life
Stop, challenge, choose: This is a willpower booster. Stop before eating, and challenge your choice—is there any one thing you could do to make this meal or snack a tiny bit healthier? Now choose to make one small positive difference based on your health or weight-loss goals.
“This is a lot easier than dieting. I make one decision, whenever I eat, to do one small thing better. I put one squirt less of ketchup to cut back on sugar, or I make myself eat one bite of something green before I eat anything else. Instead of focusing on what I shouldn’t do, I look at what I can do. It’s fun to challenge myself. Plus I feel good about every single meal instead of feeling guilty because I know I did at least one thing right.” —Phuong, thirty-one, whose challenge is to get to a healthy weight
Digital Detox: Power down and walk away from anything with a screen—your phone, a tablet, a computer, the TV. Don’t turn it back on or pick it up for ten whole minutes. See who or what captures your attention in the physical world. (No, you can’t cheat and use your phone to check the time! Find a clock!)
“I’m a self-diagnosed workaholic. I’m trying to get superbetter at giving my wife and our son more of my attention at home. I’m doing the digital detox when I walk through the door.” —Marco, forty-one, whose challenge is to find a work-life balance
Hug yourself: Give yourself a hug or a pat on the arm or back, while telling your body what a great job it’s doing—just the way it is.
“I feel like I’m always fighting with my body, always mad at it, always disappointed by it. I activate this power-up when I need to take a minute to treat my body the way I would treat a dear friend’s, with compassion and kindness and warmth.” —Mia, twenty-one, whose challenge is to stay in college with myalgic encephalomyelitis
Find your voice: Read one of your favorite poems or quotations out loud.
“I read Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’ out loud. By the time I get to the final three lines, ‘I rise, I rise, I rise,’ I feel like nothing can stop me.” —Terry, forty-eight, whose challenge is to reduce her stress so she can serve her community better
A mighty act of self-care: Attend to one simple and easy task that helps you take care of yourself. Brush your teeth or hair, put away one piece of laundry, stretch for one minute, or get dressed in something you love.
“There are some days where this power-up feels like it’s literally the only thing I’ve accomplished. But you know what? That’s okay. I’m working on my depression and it feels good to acknowledge when I take care of myself.” —Mike, twenty-eight, whose challenge is to manage his depression
Cheer ’em on: Pick one person and send them words of encouragement or support about something they’re doing or going through today.
“This one’s my fave. By the time I pick someone, think of something, and tell them, I feel great.” —Jack, forty, whose challenge is to be healthier for his family
Matching socks: Any time you activate compassion and express care for another human by noticing a commonality between the two of you—you power up! It could be as simple as noticing you’re both wearing the same color socks!
“I do this when I find myself feeling aggravated or annoyed or judgmental of someone else. I can always find at least one thing we have in common, like the fact that we’re both women so we probably face similar pressures to be thin and beautiful, or we’re both with our pups at the vet, so we both want the best for our animal. It doesn’t mean we’re going to become best friends or anything, but it softens my heart whenever I do it.” —Louisa, thirty-eight, whose challenge is to just get superbetter
Listen to a friends-and-family playlist: Send an email, or write a social media post, asking all your friends and family to pick one song for you to add to a music playlist. Pick a theme or occasion for the playlist, like a holiday, or “survive my commute,” or working out, or just “calm my nerves.” Whenever you listen to the playlist, you’ll know that it’s made up of music handpicked just for you. Make a new playlist whenever you need another musical hug. (Tip: You can use a streaming audio service like Spotify or a video-sharing site like YouTube to make your playlist.)
“I asked my friends and family to make me a Good Times playlist to listen to during chemo. I asked them to pick a song that reminded them of one of the best times in their life, and to tell me the story behind it. It gives me something special to think about during treatment, which can last as long as four hours. I felt like I knew them all better whenever I listened to it.” —Lisa, fifty-two, whose challenge is to survive breast cancer
*Clinical trials have shown that increasing vitamin D levels improves brain healing. Activated vitamin D is a neurosteroid; it can stimulate new neuron growth and protect existing neurons.
As you’re hopefully starting to see, it’s easy to brainstorm and collect power-ups. But there is one catch: it’s easier to provoke positive emotions when you already have a strong vagus nerve. Consequently, it’s harder to strengthen your vagal tone when you’re not currently experiencing many positive emotions. This is particularly true of power-ups that focus on building emotional and mental resilience.20
It’s a bit of a catch-22: the happy get happier, and everyone else has a much harder time of it. If your ratio is 1:1 or lower, power-ups that work well for someone with a relatively high positive emotion ratio might not work for you—yet.
But don’t worry if you find yourself in this situation. While you may be more resistant to mental and emotional power-ups right now, studies show that physical power-ups (such as exercising, getting good sleep, and consuming omega-3 fatty acids) and social power-ups (such as spending more time with friends and family and participating in a faith community) are still effective for people with low vagal tone.21 When your ratio goes up, you’ll be more responsive and open to positive events and experiences—so a wider range of power-ups will start to work better. In the meantime, if your ratio is currently near or below 1:1, collect and activate as many physical and social power-ups as you can.
So, the more power-ups, the better? Not quite. There can be too much of a good thing, even when it comes to getting stronger. If your ratio reaches an extreme like 30:1 or higher, researchers caution, it may be an indication of mania—the mental disorder characterized by extreme euphoria and risk-taking activity. (If you already know you’re prone to periods of mania, you might consider a rapidly climbing ratio to be an important warning signal.)22
More generally, a high ratio could also indicate an absence of negative emotion—which, you might be surprised to know, psychologists also consider a problem. Without any negative emotions at all, you lack sufficient motivation to recognize and deal with problems in your life. Indeed, according to Dr. Fredrickson, a very high PE could be a sign of psychological denial.23
If you’re feeling virtually no negative emotion in your day, you may be having an unusually good day—or you may just be trying to hide from the bad parts. As you’ll see in Chapter 7, it’s important to be open to negative experiences and feelings. So if your PE ratio hits the double digits, take a closer look and make sure you’re not simply ignoring the difficult stuff.
In the end, is there a positive emotion ratio that is just too high? There are no hard and fast numbers that scientists can point to—no tipping point at which power-ups become dangerous or counterproductive. Just be aware that your goal is not to keep increasing your positive emotion ratio higher and higher forever. Instead, find a happy range that works for you—it might be 2:1, or it might be 10:1. When you find your happy range, you may never want to go any higher—and that’s perfectly fine.
Every power-up you collect is a resource you can use to change how you feel, when you need it most. So let’s start building those resources—and increasing your control—right now, with a quest.
QUEST 20: Collect Your First Five Power-ups
The world around you is full of power-ups. All you have to do is spot them. So let’s start looking.
What to do: Collect your first five power-ups. Remember, anything that makes you feel happier, stronger, healthier, or better connected counts as a power-up.
You can collect any of the power-ups already shared in this chapter. Or, if you’d like to personalize your list, here are some brainstorming questions to help you out:
· What song makes you feel powerful?
· What food makes you feel energized?
· Who or what helps you feel calm and relaxed?
· Is there a mantra that makes you feel more motivated?
· What physical activity energizes you?
· What reliably inspires you when you read it or watch it?
· What memory brings you great satisfaction when you recall it for thirty seconds?
· Is there something small you like to do to help others?
· What photo, video, or image always makes you smile?
· Is there a daily habit that makes you feel better when you remember to do it?
· Is there a place or space that you can get to easily that brings you joy or comfort?
· Who is the best person to call, text, write, or visit to get a quick pick-me-up?
My power-up list:
Quest complete: Congratulations! You’ve collected your first five power-ups. Eventually you may build up a supercollection of one hundred or more! The bigger your power-up collection, the more control you have every single day to feel better—no matter what stress, pain, or adversity you’re facing.
Bonus quest: I challenge you to activate one of your five power-ups right now before you continue reading!
Now that you’ve got your first power-ups, here’s how to make the most of them.
Try to activate at least three power-ups every day. If it helps, think of it as one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. (If you want to activate more than three a day, by all means, go for it! Power up every single hour, if you need the boost.)
Keep collecting. The more power-ups you know how to activate, the stronger you’ll get. Collecting power-ups is a mental habit, a way of seeing the world around you. To start developing that mental habit, challenge yourself to find one new power-up every day for the next week, and you’ll have a total of one dozen at your disposal.
Trade. Most SuperBetter players say their favorite power-ups are ones suggested to them by a friend or family member. The easiest way to collect them is to ask this simple question: “What’s something you can easily do in five minutes or less that makes you feel happier, healthier, or stronger?” Ask it of as many people as you can.
Use social media to trade and collect even more power-ups. Post one of the brainstorming questions from Quest 20 on Facebook, Twitter, or your favorite discussion forum. Or if you’re a visual person, ask friends to show you their favorite power-ups by sharing photos on a platform like Instagram or Pinterest. (Finding out what makes other people in your life feel better is also a great way to boost your social resilience.)
Always experiment! Part of the fun of collecting power-ups is discovering new tricks and finding surprising sources of strength. Don’t be shy to try a new power-up. You never know what might work for you. If it doesn’t make you feel better, no problem—you never have to try it again! Power-ups are a chance to be creative and learn new things. The more open you are to new power-ups, the better.
Retire power-ups if they’re not working for you. A power-up may not work forever. Pay attention and make sure you’re getting the biggest boost possible. If the boost is less than it used to be, you may need to refresh your power song, your mantra, your energy food, or your “always make me smile” photo with a new one.
Boost all four types of resilience. Make a point to collect and activate power-ups that help you build up mental, physical, emotional, and social resilience. Most people have a blind spot in their daily lives—a type of resilience they’re less likely to develop. Figure out what yours is, and make a conscious effort to collect and activate power-ups for that type.
Finally, keep in mind that powering up isn’t something you do just to improve yourself. You can share the power with others.
If you have children in your life, powering up is a highly effective way to help them practice emotional regulation and to develop positive habits. The ability to self-provoke positive emotion is an important life skill that, if learned early, builds lasting resilience in children. Studies have shown, for example, that high vagal tone improves attention in school, protects children from parental conflict, and reduces the amount of the inflammation-related stress hormone cortisol they produce during stressful challenges.24
Fortunately, most children grasp the concept of real-world power-ups easily, thanks to their ample experience with video games. Here’s a story about one SuperBetter player who discovered her young daughter’s natural ability to build her own resilience gamefully.
A SuperBetter Story: The Empowered Daughter
Reva, thirty-six, a self-defense instructor who lives in Phoenix, started playing SuperBetter last year to deal with a mysterious and difficult to diagnose autoimmune illness. She recently wrote me to share her delight that her entire family wanted to get in on the game—particularly her seven-year-old daughter.
“SuperBetter has been so beneficial in getting me through the beginning stages of this chronic illness diagnosis that I haven’t been able to stop talking about it for the past several months. My daughter, Aditi, who is very curious, has had so many questions about SuperBetter! I’ve mostly just told her that it’s a game that I play to accomplish my goal of feeling better. I’ve also explained that unlike the other games we play on our iPhone and iPad, it has specific uses that may be more suited for grown-ups. But she was not going to give up easily!
“Yesterday we took a drive to visit my mom. Her house is a bit of a drive from mine, so I told Aditi that she could bring her iPad. On the way home, her iPad battery died, and while I was recharging it, she asked to play a game on my phone. I could see through my rearview mirror that she was very engaged in her game, but I didn’t think to ask what she was playing. I figured it was the usual Pac-Man, Makeup Girls, or Fruit Ninja. It wasn’t until we arrived home that she told me she had played SuperBetter. In fact, not only had she played, she had created her own power-ups!
“This week we had a situation where an older boy, who is a friend, cornered her alone and told her that he liked her and had a crush on her. It made her uncomfortable, and she didn’t know how to react. We discussed boundaries and how others need to respect them, and to inform a parent or adult if you feel uncomfortable.
“So I was amazed when she showed me the ‘Boundaries’ power-up she had created, turning the unpleasant incident into an empowering lesson she had learned. (“Boundaries! Say a boy likes you. Does it make you feel weird? Have boundaries! And tell your parents.”) She also created a ‘Dance’ power-up, about one of her favorite activities to stay healthy (“Dance! You should always dance. It is good for your body, and plus you get to dance to your favorite song.”) She even included her own pictures from my camera roll!
“I am so impressed by her ability to take the few details I mentioned about the game, primarily in conversation with my husband, and make them useful and relevant to her life, without any direct input from me.”
Reva’s experience reflects a wider phenomenon: young children today are strikingly fluent in the language and concepts of game play, thanks to the ubiquity of digital games. Aditi’s natural ability to turn her own stressful experience into a way to be stronger shows just how easily kids can adopt a gameful mindset to build resilience. You may find that power-ups are a wonderful way to talk to your kids about how to handle stressful situations, and how to be happy and healthy.
There are infinitely many power-ups you can choose for yourself. But I want you to try one more power-up in particular, one that has been scientifically tested and demonstrated to be supereffective. It’s called social reflection,and it works even for people with extremely low vagal tone. This is important, because as you recall, people with low vagal tone can actually be resistant to many power-ups. Besides physical exercise, social reflection is the onlypower-up proven in studies to boost the vagal tone and positive emotion ratio of people who are suffering from extreme stress, burnout, trauma, or depression—that is, people with a positive emotion ratio of less than 1:1.25
Let’s learn this power-up right now, with a quest inspired by the research of Dr. Bethany Kok, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.
QUEST 21: Try the Social Reflection Power-up
Social reflection is the king of power-ups. It’s the one that can boost your resilience no matter how troubled, hopeless, or uninspired you feel.
What to do: Shortly before you go to sleep, think about the three social interactions in which you spent the most time today. They could be at home, at work, at school, at church, or in any public or social setting. They might be in person, on the phone, on video chat, or even just an extended conversation by email or text message. They could be interactions with individuals or with a larger group—such as participating in a sports practice, a discussion group, a work team, a fitness class, or a club meeting, or even just sitting in a café, theater, or hall full of other people.
If you spent most of your time alone today, you might think of more fleeting interactions, such as with a cashier at the store or a stranger you made small talk with. Depending on how you spent your day, they might even be three different interactions with the same person. (This often happens to me when I’m working from home, and the only person I speak to or see all day is my husband!)
Okay, have you got your three social interactions in mind? Now think of them all together and ask yourself how much you agree with the following statements:
1. During these three social interactions, I felt close to the other person or people.
2. During these social interactions, I felt “in tune” with the other person or people.
Rate your agreement on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 representing “I completely disagree with this statement” and 10 representing “I agree completely.” You should have two numbers after completing this power-up, a number between 0 and 10 for each of the two statements.
Why it works: Dr. Kok and her colleagues theorize that reflecting on your social interactions helps in several ways. It gives you an opportunity to savor any positive interactions you had, which increases positive emotions. It helps you identify potential allies for the future, increasing your social resources. And if your social interactions were fewer or less satisfying than you’d like, it gives you the chance to notice that, so you can plan to be more social tomorrow.
How to use it: The power of this simple technique comes from repetition. You’ll need to activate this power-up each night for at least three days before the benefits start to kick in. According to Dr. Kok’s research, the biggest impact will occur if you keep up the habit for a month or longer. That’s a lot to ask—but for now make a commitment to try it for three days in a row.
To make sure you don’t forget, right now set an end-of-night calendar appointment on your phone or email, or put a Post-it note reminder on your toothbrush or your bedside so you’ll be sure to see it each night. After all, there’s no point in collecting a power-up if you forget to activate it!
Skills Unlocked: How to Power Up Anytime, Anywhere
· Power-ups are simple positive actions you can take to feel better, stronger, healthier, or more connected anytime, anyplace.
· Power-ups strengthen your vagal tone, which is a physiological measure of how well your heart, lungs, and brain react to stress. The stronger your vagal tone, the more resilient you are—and the more likely you are to experience post-traumatic or post-ecstatic growth.
· You can measure your vagal tone by comparing the number and intensity of the positive and negative emotions you feel in a day. This is your positive emotion ratio. Tracking this ratio over time will help you see the impact of your power-ups on your vagal tone.
· If you’re having a very difficult time, and experiencing very few positive emotions on a daily basis, focus on social and physical power-ups until it’s easier to activate mental and emotional ones.