Sunday, July 17, 2011

Playing the Day

Living my day like a game has been fun, mindful and illuminating. I thought that after three weeks of giving myself points for behaviors I wanted to encourage and subtracting points for negatives, I’d have internalized the new habits and could leave the game behind. Not so. Bad habits and old thought patterns crept back, and without my imaginary penalties I had no weapons to fight them. This seemingly minor incentive was still a structure for accountability. Calling it a game pulled together all the different parts of my day so they affected each other. Working hard on my drawing all day, something that had always been among my ultimate values, wasn’t enough to get a high score for the day. I needed to include other things, other people, which I knew were important to encourage when I first set up my scoring system. I couldn’t let myself lose ground with nervous habits. I would have to think twice before expressing irritation. After paying such close attention to every little thing, by evening I would feel excited about the day, vitalized. In fact it occurred to me that what I’m measuring and stimulating in the act of accounting is the flow of life force through me. I often think of myself and others like tubes through which the life force flows. We are happy to the degree that the flow of energy is unimpeded. Life problems clog our ability to let it flow so my scores are aimed at keeping the passage clear. Dwelling on the sad past is a big minus. In the game, I don’t do it. Turning a negative into a positive is a big plus, and the times I’ve managed to pull it off it have been very satisfying. Taking something that upset me and finding a way to twist it into something else has been gratifying on many levels.
When I started keeping score again, I had a stretch of really low scores and wondered why. As I thought back over the day I saw I’d left out all of the small nice acts and even one big one that I knew should be rewarded when I set up my system. I took that part of what I do for granted. The game made me notice them again. The happiness of games is the fuller awareness, the full involvement in what we’re doing. The fact that our pleasure chemicals are stimulated for full involvement is because it’s the way we’re meant to be. We pay closer attention because it feels good. And any game offers that happy feedback loop. Playing the day pulls everything onto the screen, and time is experienced in its full richness.
My urge to evangelize is strong. Everyone could create their own system of points and penalties that push them to be who they want to be. Brains are malleable, our habits ours to program. In my game, there is always a way to score. When I’m not producing new ideas, I can refine labor-intensive parts of my drawing, or water plants, or write something in my “Book of Gratitude”. Creating a personal scoring system is a way of looking directly at what matters and equalizing the acts that make us more human with the acts that society recognizes as useful. Balancing what we want from our lives through our own values is like writing the score for the music of our day. To make your day into a game is to take a new stance in relation to it, to add another level, build in an overview.
Jane McGonigal is right. “Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential “. In “Reality is Broken” she cites a University of Rochester study tracking graduates. They found that “American dream” goals, which focused on money, sex appeal and fame, didn’t contribute to happiness at all. The graduates that had been working hard at self-development were happiest in whatever they ended up doing. Emerson wrote, “Our chief want in life is someone who will make us do what we can.” Playing a game makes you better at it. Playing your day may well do the same thing. To create a structure for our own coherence unified by our own values is to take back the power over our lives.

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