Monday, June 6, 2011

Making a Game of Self-Improvement

Almost by accident, but surely as a result of reading the book “Reality is Broken”,
I found myself assigning point values to the various things I do. What I valued the most I gave the highest scores, but everything I wanted to encourage from smiling to creative breakthrough was matched by a certain number of points. I was surprised at how much fun this was, comparing the relative values of not just the obvious stuff like taking my walk or doing an errand, but more nuanced behaviors like asking someone a good question or transforming a negative experience into a positive are encouraged by high scores. The highest scores are for creative breakthroughs, starting something new and doing something entirely different. Visiting my parents and getting my car’s emissions tested have the added satisfaction of contributing to high scores as well as feelings of satisfaction.
When I was in the hospital a few years ago, Union Memorial used a pain scale that helped patients put a number on the degree of their pain. A strip with faces numbered one to ten registering mild unease at the low end and screaming pain at the other not only helped me pinpoint the pain, it gave me a chance to compare and see how I was doing. It was satisfying to be able to measure my descent from nine to four over a period of days. Putting it on a spectrum, even though quantifying, gives a sense of perspective. Studies have shown we’re happiest when our left front hemisphere is active. That’s why the act of putting thoughts and emotions in words feels good. It’s encouraged by our reward system. Analytical abilities are there too, the good feeling is a sense of knowing what something is, a small act of pinning down the difficult to express.
Giving points to all the behaviors I want to encourage uses a game mode to fulfill the “I Ching’s” advice for being a happier person by cultivating my best qualities. Additionally I consider the modern happiness research and give points to whatever encourages a happy state of mind. Every smile counts. Negative points subtract from the total. These are for behaviors I want to discourage like mindless habits. Higher negative scores are given to anger and impatience, yelling at other drivers and careless accidents according to degree. The process of quantifying stuff like this is entertaining in itself. Living it through the day can be outright funny. When I forgot to put the whistling cap down on the teakettle, my husband called my attention to it when it had almost boiled down. After setting it right I came out of the kitchen and announced that I’d penalized myself five points. We both laughed.
In the time I’ve been playing this game it’s been especially effective with mindless habits. I have a few nervous habits of which picking at the skin around my fingernails is most intractable. At minus two points per instance, I’m amazed at the power of that little shift to make me more aware and resistant to the automatic. And when I do catch myself, I chuckle when I write it down and maybe the pleasure is partly in having some small penalty to exact. Looking at the day as an opportunity to beat a previous days score clearly adds mindfulness where it wasn’t before. I enjoy tallying up the previous days points when I write down my first scores the next day. Right now my highest is seventy and my lowest, twenty-eight. That shows how hard it can be. A day spent watching TV or daydreaming earns no points so would likely end up in the negative values after the nervous habits, angry voice and extra glasses of wine are added up.
One feature of happiness concerns how something becomes more meaningful when tied to a bigger picture. Putting separate routine actions into the larger score of my day, pulls together all the isolated acts that were difficult while separate, but became meaningful when tied to the whole. For a person not usually given to quantification, I think what I like best about playing this game with myself is that instead of counting up stuff- money, possessions and the externals of our lives, we’re counting our interior wealth, focusing on our actions, the behavior that creates our character. It’s a game that encourages us to live with the person we want to be.

1 comment:

Jessie Jordan said...

your writing is so full of insight