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 8. Quests
How to Be Gameful Rule 4
Seek out and complete quests—simple, daily actions that help you reach your bigger goals.
Every hero’s journey is made up of countless quests. This is true whether the journey is found in literature or mythology, in sports movies or video games. From the epic Greek hero Odysseus to the Chinese warrior Mulan, from boxing underdog Rocky Balboa to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, every hero must be willing to complete many smaller feats and missions. Each and every feat makes the hero just a little bit smarter, stronger, or braver—and more prepared for the bigger challenges ahead.
In the SuperBetter method, a quest is not just another item on your to-do list. It is a purposeful action you take because it has meaning in the context of a bigger search. Maybe you’re searching for better health, or better relationships, or a better job, or a better life for your family. Maybe you’re just searching for your next great adventure. Whatever it is, completing quests in your everyday life will bring you one step closer to that which you seek.
You’ve already been tackling quests in this book. Each one has been designed to equip you with new strengths and abilities that can help you on your heroic journey. Here are a few more quests you can tackle right now. Pick at least one to complete before you keep reading.
QUEST 25: Muscle Up
Need to resist an impulse? Want to steel yourself to do something difficult? Here’s how to get instant mental resilience.
What to do: Squeeze one or more muscles as hard as you can for five seconds. Any muscle will work—your hand, your biceps, your abs, your buns, your calves. The more muscles you tense up, the more mental strength you’ll summon.
Why it works: Researchers credit a phenomenon called “embodied cognition” for this powerful mind-body effect. The brain looks to the body for cues. A strong body cues a strong brain, making it easier to summon up more courage or stick to resolutions.1
If you like this quest, try it as a way to combat some of your bad guys! It’s a perfect addition to any battle plan.
QUEST 26: Dream On!
Here’s an easy way to boost your social resilience—if you dare: tell someone about a dream you had last night.
What to do: Simply say, “I had an interesting dream last night!” Describe the dream very briefly, and then ask, “What do you think it means?”
Why it works: Research shows that dream sharing and discussion boost trust and increase intimacy between two people. The stranger or more intense your dream, the bigger the benefit.2
If you can’t remember a dream you had recently, or if your most recent dream is too embarrassing or personal, tell someone about a recurring dream or any particularly memorable dream from the past.
QUEST 27: Hum for 60 Seconds
If you want to be physically stronger, hum for 60 seconds. You can hum any song you want.
Why it works: Humming increases the level of nitric oxide in your nose and sinus cavities. The higher your nitric oxide levels, the less inflammation in your nasal cavity—and that means fewer headaches, allergies, colds, asthma attacks, and infections.3
It’s easier to hum for a full 60 seconds if you pick a specific song—“Yankee Doodle,” “I Dreamed a Dream,” the Brady Bunch theme song. Try not to give up before an entire minute is up!
QUEST 28: Get Lucky!
Even if you’re not superstitious, go ahead and pick a lucky charm. Lucky socks, a lucky coin, a lucky pen, a lucky lipstick—it’s up to you. When you’ve chosen your charm, picture it as clearly as you can in your mind—or if you can go get it right now and hold on to it, even better.
Whatever you’ve chosen, if you really believe that it brings you luck, it will make you more likely to succeed. That’s because lucky charms make you mentally tougher, more determined, and more ambitious.
Why it works: According to scientific studies, believing in a lucky object increases self-efficacy, the feeling “I can do this” (see Chapter 3). Self-efficacy is a powerful state of mind that actually improves your odds of success. When you have more of it, you set higher goals for yourself and persevere longer when things get difficult. So don’t be afraid of a little magical thinking!4
Tip: Try not to think about the science behind this quest too much. Research shows that the more you remember that the real power comes from your belief in yourself, and not from the magic object, the less it works. So if you believe at all in good luck, put that belief to good work!
Why seek out and complete simple quests like these? They help you develop valuable new skills—and flex your heroic willpower without wearing it out.
Researchers have figured out that willpower is like a muscle. It gets stronger the more you exercise it—as long as you don’t exhaust it.5 Taking purposeful action throughout the day sparks your motivation and expands your sense of what you’re capable of.
It’s particularly important to flex your willpower when you’re trying to make a big change, or when you’re coping with chronic stress, illness, or a traumatic event. Every time you set your mind to do something—and then successfully do it—you remind yourself of the power you have over what you do, think, and feel.
Researchers call this committed action—taking small steps each day in accordance with your goals and values, even when it is difficult for you.6 Quests can help you commit time and energy to the things that matter to you and that help you most—even if you’re tired, or sick, or busy, or depressed. Completing just one quest a day, according to SuperBetter research, can make a significant difference in how happy, healthy, and brave you are. And as you build your willpower muscle, well-being, and sense of purpose, you can tackle bigger quests.
So how do you pick your quests? Quest design is a skill that video game designers learn and practice constantly. Quests must always come at the right time and the right place for the player, so you’re virtually guaranteed to succeed. And quests must be interesting! The best quests spark your sense of curiosity and adventure. In this chapter, I’ll show you how to design quests for your own life that are as fun and easy to follow as a video game.
Iknow that a good quest can spark motivation and build hope in even the most difficult times, because I’ve been there myself.
When I was getting superbetter from my concussion, my usual everyday goals went straight out the window. Work? Exercise? Fun? Forget about it. I was on complete cognitive rest, which meant I couldn’t do anything that stimulated my brain: no reading, writing, email, work, or computer time. Even just watching television, playing games, and talking with others brought on severe headaches, so they were out as well. Meanwhile, physical activity of almost any kind triggered vertigo and nausea. I found myself on bed rest, with no way to entertain myself, or be productive, or connect with the world around me. It was hard to imagine anything I could do to have a good day. Making things worse, there is no known effective therapy or treatment for postconcussion syndrome, no pill you can take, no therapeutic exercise you can do. “Rest and wait” is the only prescription. I literally had nothing to do.
Weeks passed, and nothing got better. Day after day I woke up dreading the endless stretch of time before me. I was bored and lonely. I had never felt so helpless in my life. No matter how badly I wanted to get better, the doctors could not tell me one single thing to do to help my brain heal faster. I was also incredibly anxious, because I wasn’t able to work, and my husband had recently lost his job.
Pretty soon a sense of hopelessness set in. Every day was full of pain, nausea, and frustration, without one single positive accomplishment to show for it. I spent hours every day curled up in a ball, weeping—as quietly as I could, because I didn’t want to make my husband worry.
Fortunately, after a month of increasing depression and suicidal ideation, my game designer instincts kicked in. I knew that I needed to find one thing to do each day to feel a sense of purpose and productivity. If there’s nothing to do in a game, no goal to pursue, no further way to make progress, the player will quit. And no matter how strong my suicidal thoughts, I knew deep down that I did not want to quit. Even if I couldn’t get out of bed, even if I couldn’t turn on my computer, I would find something, anything to do. I needed a quest. I needed a way to win the day.
At the time, my thinking was quite fuzzy from the brain injury, and I was emotionally beaten down. I had to ask others to help me figure out what my quests should be. So I invited my twin sister Kelly to call me once a day and give me a quest for the next twenty-four hours.
This is the first quest she gave me: “Your bed is near a window, right? I want you to spend some time looking out the window, and tomorrow, tell me if you saw anything interesting. Try to find at least one interesting thing to tell me about.” Look out the window. This was something I could do from bed, and it didn’t require too much thinking. And there was a clear goal: Keep looking until you see something interesting!
I’d like to be able to tell you what I saw out my window that day, but honestly I don’t remember. My memory from the first few months after my concussion is a bit spotty. What I do remember is that that day I felt like I had a purpose. I watched the world from my window. And I looked forward to talking to my sister and telling her that I had succeeded in my quest. And when I did, I felt fantastic. Someone had asked me to do something, and I had done it. I felt triumphant!
Now, I will be the first to admit: on the face of it, looking out the window is not a particularly noteworthy achievement. But it was incredibly meaningful to me. It was the first time in a very long while that I had set my mind to do something and succeeded. And I admire and love my sister so much—being able to fulfill a promise that I’d made to her felt wonderful, no matter how small the task.
I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was feeling that day was the benefit of taking committed action—or more precisely, the three benefits of taking committed action. Taking committed action, you’ll recall, means doing at least one thing every day that speaks to your most important goals and values, no matter what obstacles are in your way. Researchers have shown that every time you successfully take committed action, you increase your hope, optimism, and self-efficacy.7
Hope, optimism, and self-efficacy are similar strengths, but they differ in important ways.
Hope is what you feel when you believe that a good outcome is possible. A good outcome might be a positive emotion you want to feel, a goal you want to achieve, a change you want to make, a task you want to accomplish, or a benefit you want to bring to others. If you can imagine any good outcome at all, no matter how unlikely, you have hope. The more different good outcomes you can imagine, the more hope you have.
Optimism is what you feel when you believe that a good outcome is not just possible, it’s likely. As a result, you’re willing to set higher goals and put in greater effort to achieve them. You’re also more open to trying new things and taking others’ advice—two things that often lead to greater success. Of course, it’s possible to be too optimistic. If you’re blindly optimistic, you may put your efforts into a fruitless pursuit, or you may fail to take necessary precautions to prevent a negative outcome. But on the whole, optimism is a valuable source of motivation. And you can easily avoid the downsides of optimism by focusing your time and efforts on simple actions that really are likely to result in success.
Self-efficacy is the final piece of the motivation puzzle. Self-efficacy, you’ll recall, is that “I can do this!” feeling. When you have high self-efficacy, you not only believe that a good outcome is likely, you believe that a good outcome is in your direct control. You have the skills and abilities you need to handle your problems and achieve your goals.
Together, hope, optimism, and self-efficacy make up the secret sauce of unstoppable motivation and willpower. Researchers call these three strengths competence and control beliefs.8 How competent do you feel at generating positive emotions, experiences, and outcomes in your own life? How much control do you think you have over your health, happiness, and success? The more competence and control you believe you have, the more effort you’ll make to do the things that matter most to you. That’s why developing your hope, optimism, and self-efficacy is so important. And quests are an ideal way to do just that.
Designing a quest is a way to actively imagine a good outcome. Even before you start the quest, just by thinking about it, you’re already building hope. A quest is, after all, simply a description of a specific action you can take to achieve a good outcome. Psychologists call this type of action pathways forward. The more pathways forward you can think of, the more hope you’ll have.9
Every quest you accept or design for yourself gives you one more pathway forward. So don’t be afraid to brainstorm lots of quests. Simply making a list of potential quests is enough to spark powerful hope. (This is why the most popular role-playing video games typically allow players to accept multiple quests at a time. A player’s “quest log,” or list of potential quests they are ready to tackle, might contain as many as ten or more possible pathways to pursue at any given moment. With so many options, the player never loses hope that progress in the game is possible.)
Completing a quest is a way to experience success. The more quests you complete, the more optimistic you’ll get. That’s because increasing the frequency with which you experience good outcomes is one of the most efficient ways to increase optimism.10
In fact, the research shows that frequency of success matters more than the size of the success. So it doesn’t matter if your quest is small or easy. In fact, it helps if it’s small and easy, because that increases your chances of success. With each success you achieve, you become more likely to expect success in the future. (This is why game developers make the early levels of games so easy. It’s important to give players a dose of triumph early on, to build their emotional resilience ahead of the challenges to come.)
Quests make you better. Over time, chains of quests—or quests that build on one another, requiring slightly more effort, skill, or creativity—make you objectively better. You develop useful abilities, learn important information, and expand your strategies.11 And because with every quest you complete you are inarguably getting better in concrete and specific ways, you develop more confidence in your power to positively impact your own health, happiness, and future.
Your new skills combined with your increased confidence will allow you to tackle harder quests in the future. This creates a positive upward spiral of success. (Game designers use this same method to build player skills and create escalating challenge in the game world. Players want to feel more powerful and skillful over time, which is why quests get harder and harder the further you get in the game. But to get players ready to succeed at those ambitious goals, game designers must first give them quests that train them in the necessary skills and abilities.)
Iexperienced exactly that kind of upward spiral myself, starting from the moment I completed my first concussion-recovery quest. In the days and weeks that followed, my husband, my sister, and I came up with all kinds of creative quests. Completing each and every one increased my hope, optimism, and self-efficacy. One day I lay in bed and drew temporary tattoos (with Sharpie markers) on my arms, stomach, and legs. My quest that day had been suggested by my husband: If you could have any tattoos to show the world how strong you are, what would they be? (I wrote “Pain is inevitable” on the top of my left thigh and “Suffering is optional” on my right.) Another day my quest was: Make a mental list of jobs you still might be able to do if your brain does not fully heal. This was a quest I chose for myself. I was anxious about potentially never being able to research or write or design or speak in front of an audience again, and I knew the only way to deal with that fear effectively would be to accept the possible reality, then imagine a happy life anyway. So I spent the day lying in bed, imagining the best outcome I could, even if my brain never got any better. My favorite two ideas were becoming a dog walker and also becoming the queen of baking cookies and cupcakes for others. (Besides games, there is almost nothing I love more than dogs and baked goods.)
A few weeks later, when I was able to be up on my feet a bit more, I took on my most satisfying quest yet. Inspired by the idea that I might want to explore baking as a career, I decided to make chocolate chip cookies—not from scratch but from store-bought cookie dough, because I wasn’t really up to following a recipe yet. (I know that sounds a little pathetic, but it actually felt amazing to me at the time to be up and around in the kitchen, greasing the pan and slicing the dough.) More important, the cookies weren’t for me! They were my excuse to leave the apartment and go visit someone. I was barely seeing or speaking to anyone at the time, thanks to bed rest, the “no email” rule, and the difficulty I was having making conversation. When I thought about whom I missed talking to and seeing every day, I was surprised to realize that I really missed the baristas at the coffee shop at the corner of my block where I used to get coffee twice a day. So I made it my quest to make the cookies and bring them, fresh out of the oven, to the baristas.
I will never forget how surprised and delighted they were when I presented the plate of cookies. It made my whole week. I was thrilled to realize I could still make someone else happy, even in my superconcussed, depressed, and anxious state. I still had the power to do good in the world, even if only a tiny bit.
Eventually, the hope and optimism that I could keep doing good in the world led me to start sharing my Jane the Concussion Slayer game with others—first through videos (because I couldn’t write yet), and later through blog posts. And as you know, feedback on that game eventually led me to invent SuperBetter. It’s hard to believe that a quest as simple as baking cookies set me on a path to do the most meaningful and important work of my life, but that’s exactly what happened.
Completing quests at my absolute physical, mental, and emotional lowest taught me something important: no matter what happens to me in the future, I will always have the power to do one simple thing every day that I choose for myself and that feels personally meaningful.
You have that power, too, and you increase that power with every quest. Over time, even the tiniest meaningful actions add up, each one bringing you closer to a life that is truer to your dreams and free of regret.
Up until now, you’ve been completing quests that I’ve designed for you. But the most important quests you complete will be the ones you create for yourself.
So where should you start? Let’s take a cue from the world of game design.
In a game, the hero’s values are what motivate every quest. Whether it’s a desire to save the world, or to protect the innocent, or to lead a life of adventure, the hero always acts in accordance with his or her most deeply held values. Your quests—your daily, committed actions—should be driven by your most important values too.
What exactly is a value? It’s a way of being that brings purpose and meaning to life. It’s a strength you want to show, a virtue you want to uphold, a quality you want to embody, or a way of being in service to something bigger than yourself.
Here are some examples of values:
· To never stop learning
· To be the best parent possible
· To always challenge physical limits and be an inspiration to others
· To be a loving and caring person, and to be a good friend
· To connect with and respect nature
· To enjoy everything, and never be bored, because life is short
· To serve the Lord faithfully and, through actions, be an example to others
· To explore the whole world and understand as many different cultures as possible
· To do work that matters, even if it means earning less money
As you can see, a value is different from a goal. A value isn’t something you can ever get or achieve, like a degree, a promotion, a ten-pound muscle gain, a romantic partner, or a cure for what ails you. Instead, a value is a way of describing how you want to live. It’s a purpose you can bring to every single day of your life: a will to learn, to love, to be creative, to do things that scare you, to help others, or do whatever else matters to you, deep down, more than anything else.
Goals come and go. Values stay with you.
Naming your deepest values is the key to unlocking untapped sources of motivation, energy, and willpower. Research shows that when action is guided by values, it’s vastly easier to accomplish feats that would seem impossible otherwise. Values can motivate and energize you even in the face of depression, grief, anxiety, addiction, hardship, and pain—not to mention boredom, frustration, exhaustion, or self-doubt.12
You may find it easy to identify your values. If so, that’s great! But many people find it helpful to try some creative exercises. Here are three quests to help you explore your values.
I encourage you to pick at least one of these three quests and try it right now!
Tip: All these quests require you to use your imagination. Don’t worry if they seem a bit farfetched—just go with it!
QUEST 29: Value Yourself
Psychologists have identified twelve different areas of life that people tend to value most.13 Take a look at the list below, and choose the three areas that are most important to you right now, at this moment.
What to do: Imagine that you have twenty-seven hours a day, instead of twenty-four like everyone else. Which three of these twelve life domains would you pour those extra hours into?
· Marriage, romantic partnership, or intimate relations
· Family (other than parenting or romantic partnership)
· Friends and social life
· Work and career
· Education, training, learning
· Recreation and fun
· Spirituality, religion
· Community life (clubs, organizations, activism, volunteering)
· Physical self-care (diet, exercise, sleep)
· The environment, caring for the planet
· Aesthetics (art, music, writing, reading, media, beauty)
Now that you’ve picked your three most important life domains, you can identify your first three values.
What to do: Simply finish the following statement with the three domains you picked.
I want to be someone who spends time and energy each day on my:
For example, I want to be someone who spends time and energy each day on my: family, spirituality, and fun.
Identifying your most important life domains will help you figure out what kinds of quests to design for yourself.
Russ Harris, M.D., is one of the world’s leading practitioners of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)—a form of therapy that focuses on helping individuals take committed action. One of his favorite ways to ask clients about their values is to have them consider a science fiction scenario that he calls the “mind-reading machine.”14 Here’s a SuperBetter version of that scenario.
QUEST 30: The Mind-Reading Machine
What to do: Imagine that twenty years from now a strange woman walks up to you with an amazing new technology: it’s a mind-reading machine! She offers to place it on your head, and then says: “I can tune this machine into the mind of someone who is thinking about you right this instant, so you can hear their every thought.”
Uh-oh! Do you really want to hear someone else’s private thoughts? But it’s too late—the machine is on, and she’s started tuning the dials. Soon you hear exactly what she promised. Someone is thinking about you right this second—thinking about, in the words of Dr. Harris, “what you stand for, what your strengths are, what you mean to them.” To your relief, the thoughts you overhear are incredibly positive. When you hear them, you think, That describes me perfectly.
Remember: It’s twenty years from now, and you’ve lived a life true to your dreams and your most important values. With that in mind, what do you hear them saying?
Tip: If you’d like, let the mind-reading machine tune in to several different people, so you can hear about different sides of yourself.
QUEST 31: Alternate Universe
This quest is particularly helpful for anyone who is currently struggling with a difficult personal challenge.
What to do: Imagine that you’ve just woken up in an alternate universe. Everything there is the same as in this universe, except for one thing: all the problems you’ve been worried about lately have been solved.
In this alternate universe, you are free of stress, pain, depression, anxiety, grief, self-doubt, and hardship. You feel completely unburdened of the negative thoughts, feelings, and worries that used to bother you.
In this alternate universe, what will you do with yourself today? How will you spend the next twenty-four hours? What important areas of life have you been neglecting that you can now devote more time and attention to? What dreams are you free to pursue? Spend at least one full minute imagining your schedule for the day in this alternate universe. The more details you imagine, the better.
Here’s the good news: Quests let you do all these things right now, even without an alternate universe to escape to. Learning to take committed action will help you be the person you want to be, even in the face of adversity and stress.
Now that you’ve named your values, let’s find simple ways you can live by them right now.
Dr. Harris puts it this way: “Values are here and now: in any moment you can choose to act on them or neglect them. Even if you’ve totally neglected a core value for years or decades, in this moment right now you can act on it.”15
It’s time to act on your values. It’s time to design your first quest!
Here are some of the things game designers think about when they design quests:
· Does the player know exactly what must be done in order to complete the quest? In other words, is it extremely clear and specific?
· Will the quest seem achievable to the player, given the skills, resources, and allies she has at this exact moment? In other words, is it realistic?
· Will the player feel energized by this quest? Is there something fundamentally interesting, challenging, or creative about the action the player will need to take? In other words, is it fun?
· Does this quest teach the player something important, or help him practice a crucial skill, so I can challenge him to do something more interesting and ambitious later? In other words, is it adaptive?
· Does this quest fit into the story of the hero’s bigger purpose or journey? In other words, does it have meaning?
Game designers must always be able to answer yes to these questions in order to ensure that players have the necessary hope, optimism, and self-efficacy to make progress in the game. And as it turns out, good quest design has a lot in common with the kinds of daily real-life goals that psychologists say are most helpful to adopt.
In ACT Made Simple: An Easy-to-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dr. Harris uses the acronym SMART to refer to the five most important criteria for taking committed action: Specific, Meaningful, Adaptive, Realistic, and Time-framed.16 Specific means you are clear about exactly what action you’re going to take: when, where, and who or what is involved. Meaningful means the action is driven by your own deeply held values. Adaptive means you can honestly say that achieving this goal will move you in the direction of a happier, healthier, braver, or more purposeful life. (Even if it’s just a teeny, tiny step in the right direction, it’s still a positive step!) Realistic means you already have the skills, resources, and strength you need to take this action. You don’t need to solve any problems or improve your health, mood, relationships, or finances to take action right away. And time-framed means that you’ve chosen a specific day—or even better, a particular time of day—to take this positive action.
As you can see, the only difference between a SMART action and a good game quest is that the game quest also has to be fun! (We’ll talk more about how to make something more fun after you complete your next quest.)
QUEST 32: Design Your Own Quest
So far, you’ve completed up to thirty-one quests, just by reading this book. But the most important quests will be the ones you design for yourself. That’s because only you know what you value most in life. So let’s practice the skill of designing your own quests right now.
What to do: Pick one of your most important values. Remember, values are the principles that give your life meaning and purpose. They describe who you want to be, at your very core.
Got your value? Good. Now simply answer this question: What is the smallest, easiest, simplest action you could take in the next twenty-four hours that would give you a chance to live by this value?
Think of something so easy, so tiny, that you have no excuse not to do it. The simpler it is, the better. If it only takes five minutes, or even a single minute, to do it, that’s not only fine—that’s perfect!
Examples: Here are some examples from other SuperBetter players.
My value: “Always show my family how much I love and cherish them.”
My quest: “Leave a surprise note under my daughter’s pillow.”
My value: “Never stop learning.”
My quest: “Write a post on Facebook asking people to share a link to an article or video that could teach me something interesting.”
My value: “Be true to my faith and honor God.”
My quest: “Pray for one minute.”
My value: “Do my part to make the world a better place, and work toward causes I believe in.”
My quest: “Donate one dollar to a cause online. (I was thinking I should donate twenty dollars, because that feels more meaningful. But if I’m being honest I might talk myself out of that because twenty dollars could be used for so many other things. But one dollar, I know I will do that, so that’s my quest!)”
My value: “Be a good athlete and always challenge myself physically.”
My quest: “Instead of my normal five-mile run tomorrow, I’ll run one mile as fast as I can.”*
Tip: It’s fine if your first quest is something you already do regularly, or have done in the past. You don’t have to get too creative here. Any action that truly reflects your values is perfect. Defining it as a quest, even if it’s something you do anyway, makes you more aware of the positive actions you take that help you live a life truer to your dreams and full of purpose.
Remember to complete the quest you’ve just designed sometime in the next twenty-four hours!
* What is simple and easy to you may be too challenging for someone else, and vice versa. It may make more sense for your quest to be Walk one mile as fast as I can or Walk one block as fast as I can. The key to good quest design is to make sure you feel capable and optimistic on your quest, with whatever strength, skills, and resources you already have. Quests are all about setting yourself up for success.
Whether you call them SMART actions or quests, these simple gameful goals will help you put your time and energy toward things that matter. They aren’t wild dreams or pie-in-the-sky ambitions. They are the simple stepping-stones to a better life.
There is a place for wild dreams and big ambitions in a gameful life—we’ll talk about that more in Chapter 11. But going for an epic win, or a truly heroic goal, without a steady stream of smart quests to get you there is a fool’s errand. Smart goals, or quests, ensure that every day you’re making a better life for yourself, right now, in the present moment. An epic win is in the future; a quest, or smart goal, is what you do today.
A SuperBetter Story: Phillip the Creative Cancer Fighter
By the time Phillip Jeffrey, thirty-one, started his journey to get superbetter, he had already been living with aggressive multiple myeloma, a rare and incurable form of blood cancer, for six years.
That’s four years longer than doctors had originally told him to expect. Phillip’s cancer was advanced, and he had been given a prognosis of just two to three years.
“When I was diagnosed, I had no idea what multiple myeloma was. My doctor explained that it wasn’t something that could be treated with an operation, because it was in my bones, and not a body part. I was shocked. At my age, getting cancer seemed as likely as getting struck by space junk in my kitchen.”
Over the next six years, Phillip underwent many rounds of chemotherapy, which he describes as “lonely, challenging, and exhausting.” He hit his lowest point three years into treatment, when he developed glaucoma, from the side effects of one of his medications, and nearly went blind. Losing vision is traumatic for anyone, but it was especially so for Phillip, whose greatest passion in life is photography.
While he was trying to get his glaucoma under control, he suffered another blow: a stroke in the area of the brain responsible for vision. “Thankfully, most of the damage from the stroke was temporary, although I lost enough vision that I will never drive again.”
After Phillip’s stroke, he was taken off his cancer medications. “The doctors believed they were more life-threatening to me than the cancer itself.” Phillip found himself in treatment limbo. For the next two and a half years, his doctors used chemotherapy as sparingly as possible to avoid the dangerous complications.
By April 2012, Phillip had been off chemotherapy for a year, and his cancer levels were rising slowly and steadily. He was looking for a way to stay optimistic and engaged with the world, even though he felt very sick and was running out of treatment options. That’s when he decided to get superbetter. He transformed himself from Phillip the cancer patient to Phillip the Creative Cancer Fighter, and he vowed to not let his vision problems keep him from photography.
He started his SuperBetter journey with a simple quest: “Take a creative self-portrait, somewhere outdoors, and share it online before midnight.” To keep things simple, he decided to tackle this same quest, every day, for ninety days in a row.
“I wanted to spend time being creative,” Phillip explains. “But I also wanted something that would force me to leave my apartment. Some days when you’re living with cancer, you just won’t want to get out of bed. You think, ‘I have my laptop, I have my cell phone, I can hide out from the rest of the world, never engage with life beyond the four walls of my place.’ That’s how I felt.
“I was exhausted from the cancer treatment. And I was depressed. Partly, it was not being happy with myself and how I looked. It was very humbling for me, how cancer changed my appearance. I got so much weaker, I lost my hair, and I just wanted to hide it from the world. I needed something to help me reengage with the world around me.”
Sharing the photos online was just as important as taking them in the first place. He explains: “I have a shorter lifespan than most, so I’m thinking of a legacy. I’m taking pictures that I hope will be around online for a long time, maybe twenty, thirty years.”
Over the next ninety days of his photography quest, Phillip shared many of his SuperBetter experiences publicly, through his blog and a series of online videos. Here are some of his insights, in his own words.
“The first thing I’ve noticed with this quest is that I’m now ending every day on a positive note. I’ve been taking all my self-portraits during magic hour in the evening, which is the final hour before sunset when the outdoor light is the best. So I’ve actually gone outside for every sunset, every day. And I’ve been exploring the city, to find a new interesting location each day, different spaces I’ve never noticed before.
“I take my shots until I find one I’m satisfied with, and then I go back home, and before midnight I upload it online. I have that sense of accomplishment in taking a picture, feeling satisfied with it, uploading it—and boom, I did something today. And that makes me happy, to have a sense of purpose and accomplishment every day. I don’t think long term—I don’t have illusions of retiring in the Grand Cayman Islands. Instead, I’m happy each day that I wake up in my own bed and can go through the day without feeling overly tired or sick, while making progress on my photography quests.”
As the weeks passed, his creative photography inspired a new series of quests focused on physical resilience. “Because I’m taking a self-portrait every day, I’m paying more attention to how I look, and I’m wanting to look stronger in my photos. This inspired me to do something I haven’t done in a long time, which is working out regularly. I’m up to five to six times a week, and I feel like I’m getting in better shape. Staying in shape is important for cancer, especially with multiple myeloma, because I need to keep my bones strong. If the bones in my legs become brittle, I can have problems walking, I can break my legs very easily. I haven’t been doing as much to keep my legs strong as I should. The photography quest helped me kick-start this whole other area of my health and well-being.”
The upward spiral continued with each daily quest. Weeks later Phillip reported: “Every day I’m feeling more confident about what I’m learning. I’m understanding photography better, self-portraiture better, my camera better—I realized I hadn’t even used all the features before. I’m developing my skills, and it feels great.” These new skills led Phillip to make what was, for him, a surprising decision. “As a direct result of getting superbetter, I’ve decided to restart a major photography project that I had to put aside earlier during cancer treatment. I didn’t think I would ever restart it, or do something this ambitious with my photography again. But having a camera in my hand has energized me to pick it back up. It’s a big project. I know that it will take me another year to complete. I’m excited that I’m now actively planning to stay creative and active past these ninety days.”
Buoyed by his sense of purpose and progress, Phillip made it to his ninety-day epic win easily, without missing a single creative portrait along the way. On day ninety, he shared the following reflection: “This has been amazing. I’m not feeling depressed anymore. I have more energy. I’ve seen real improvement in my photography. I’ve used SuperBetter to understand my world better and, through that, to understand myself. It was just what I needed to kick-start my life again and to focus on remaining positive, happy, and living each day to the fullest.”
Phillip continues to fight cancer creatively today. Approximately one year after reaching his goal of ninety creative self-portraits, he received a new and experimental treatment for multiple myeloma. So far the results have been outstanding. His cancer has gone into remission for stretches as long as nine months at a time—and he’s still making time to be creative each and every day. He recently updated all his SuperBetter allies: “I’m feeling great and enjoying life. I have blood tests every five weeks, and my cancer levels are still low. I feel so alive every day, focused on extending my ‘between chemotherapy’ periods of life for as long as possible. And I’m continuing to use photography quests as therapy for health and healing. Every day I enjoy chatting with people around Vancouver, taking photos, and just stopping and reflecting on how amazing my life is.” (You can find Phillip’s photography at www.flickr.com/photos/tyfn.)
There’s one other important quest-related trick you can learn from games. It’s the art of fun framing, and it can help you increase your willpower—and even procrastinate less.
Fun framing is what happens when you decide to do something for the pure pleasure, excitement, or enjoyment of it. Ask any kid why they play their favorite game, and the first response you’ll usually get is “Because it’s fun!” But what does that really mean? Fun is not a discrete positive emotion, like joy or gratitude or curiosity or pride. Fun, instead, is a state of mind. Fun is how we describe an activity that we enjoy for its own sake. Studies show that if we get paid or praised or otherwise rewarded for doing something, we’re less likely to describe it as fun—even if it’s the exact same activity.17 That’s because fun happens when we focus only on the intrinsic pleasure, excitement, and enjoyment we feel—not when we think about the extrinsic rewards we might get out of it.
It turns out that planning to have fun—instead of trying to seek rewards—is actually a very powerful state of mind. Consider this fascinating scientific study on the benefits of fun framing.
A team of researchers from Cornell University, New Mexico State University, and the Grenoble School of Management in France decided to investigate a well-known but poorly understood phenomenon: why so many people gain weight during exercise programs, even if they started exercising specifically to try to lose weight. And here’s what they discovered: there is a very strong link between how people think about physical activity and what they eat afterward. People who think of physical activity as “exercise” typically have more dessert later in the day and eat more high-calorie snacks. That’s because they typically think of exercise as hard work, which we do to improve our health, rather than as something fun or pleasurable for its own sake. Therefore exercise deserves a “reward.” (And the calories contained in the reward often exceed the calories burned during exercise, leading to weight gain.)
People who think of physical activity primarily as a way to have fun, however, are much less likely to “reward” themselves with food later. That’s because they already feel rewarded by the excitement and enjoyment of the physical activity itself. They don’t need a cookie or a bag of chips. They already had fun, and that was reward enough!
Here’s the good news: the Cornell study showed that changing someone’s mental framework for thinking about physical activity is not hard. Even people who think they don’t like exercise are able to reframe it as a fun activity. Simply calling the activity a “scenic walk,” for example—emphasizing the opportunity to enjoy pleasurable sights—rather than an “exercise walk” made all the difference. This tiny change in state of mind led people to eat fewer rewards and successfully lose more weight.18
What does this research mean for you? If you’re trying to increase your willpower as part of your journey to get superbetter, make sure that you adopt a fun frame every time you tackle a quest.
One way to adopt a fun frame is just to say to yourself, “This is going to be fun.” (This cognitive priming is similar to the Get excited! technique you learned about in Chapter 5.) Just telling yourself you’re going to have fun is half the battle.
It will also help if you think of your daily quests as opportunities for pleasure and excitement. Before you complete a quest, ask yourself, “What’s enjoyable about this?” or “What’s exciting about this?” Try to find at least one aspect of each quest that you would enjoy for its own sake, whether it’s learning something new or spending time on yourself, and focus on that.
Whatever you do, don’t think of quests as difficult tasks that you need to use a ton of willpower to tackle. Otherwise you’re more likely to compromise your willpower later in the day and “reward” yourself with treats that may actually make it harder to achieve your SuperBetter goals.
Fun framing has another benefit: it can help you break the habit of procrastinating.
A team of psychologists at DePaul University and Case Western University decided to investigate the reasons some people chronically procrastinate—and what techniques would help them procrastinate less. So they set up an experiment in which half the participants were invited to “take a math test,” while the other half were invited to “play a math game.” In reality, the test and the game were the exact same activity; the only difference was in the framing.
Both sets of participants were given an hour to prepare by practicing the same kind of math problems that they would have to solve in the test or the game. They didn’t have to practice and prepare. They were free to procrastinate—that is, to ignore the practice problems and distract themselves with any enjoyable activity they preferred.
So what happened? The participants who thought they were preparing for a test were far more likely to procrastinate. They waited, on average, until 60 percent of the practice period had passed to get started. But participants who thought they were preparing for a game were much more likely to dive in right away and take every opportunity to get better. They hardly procrastinated at all. Why? Because they didn’t consider the activity to be something they wanted to avoid. It was going to be fun, so they got started right away.
Even though it was the exact same activity, the “game players” jumped in with more enthusiasm and motivation than the “test takers.” For this reason, the researchers describe chronic procrastination as a “self-handicap” that can be eliminated by simply labeling more activities as “fun” or “pleasurable.”
Both of these studies show that what makes an activity fun is not the nature of the activity but how you approach it—with a focus on the potential pleasure, excitement, and enjoyment. The same exact activity can be fun or work, something to avoid or something to dive right into, simply because of the way you describe it to yourself.
Whatever your challenge or goal is, fun framing can help you do more of what will truly help you get superbetter—and less of what might make it harder. Just remember to think of each and every quest that you accept or design for yourself as a chance to have a little fun.
Here are a few more tips for designing your quests:
Ask your friends and family for quests. Ask them to suggest one tiny thing you could do in the next twenty-four hours to be happier, healthier, stronger, or braver—or more of any value that you’re comfortable sharing with them. Friends and family are a great source of new and interesting ideas. Plus, you’ll get bonus motivation and satisfaction from completing a quest that someone you care about personally challenged you to do!
If you like a quest and want to do it often, turn it into a power-up! Quests are a way to explore different actions and see what brings you genuine strength, happiness, and health. If you really enjoy a quest, turn it into a power-up so you’ll be able to make it a habit.
To really create momentum, design a quest chain. A quest chain, in video games, is a series of quests that all focus on the same activity or skill. Each one requires just a little more effort, ability, or creativity. To design a quest chain, start with a basic quest: What’s the smallest, tiniest committed action I’m confident I can take in the next twenty-four hours? Then once you’ve done that successfully, just keep asking follow-up questions: What’s the next easy action I can take? or If I do that again, how can I make it more challenging or more interesting? A quest chain can have anywhere from three to a dozen quests. Eventually, as you build momentum and learn more about what you’re capable of, the tiny steps you’re taking will turn into leaps and bounds.
Skills Unlocked: How to Tap the Power of Quests
· A quest is anything you can do in the next twenty-four hours to bring about a good outcome or a positive result for yourself.
· The most powerful quests are those driven by your values—whatever brings a sense of vitality and purpose to your life.
· Completing at least one quest a day will build your hope, optimism, and self-efficacy—the three building blocks of extreme motivation and willpower.
· Make sure your quests are SMART, like a game designer’s: Specific, Meaningful, Adaptive, Realistic, and Time-framed.
· You can always complete at least one quest a day, even when you are busy, sick, exhausted, stressed, in pain, or otherwise distressed. Take committed action: commit to finding at least one tiny way every day to focus fully on the things that matter most to you.
· Quests create an upward spiral. The more quests you complete, the more time and energy you’ll find to invest in your most important goals and values.
· Approach every quest as an opportunity to have fun. You’ll procrastinate less and enjoy more willpower as a result.