If you have ever played the computer game Tetris you will know it can become addictive. A game as simple as lining up blocks of the same colour can consume hours of time. That is why an invitation to university students to be paid to play Tetris as part of a research study was irresistible. The study reported that even when the students stopped playing the game they saw Tetris blocks everywhere they went. If they were shopping they were mentally lining up cartons of the same colour. If they were out running they were rearranging bricks on walls so that the colours matched. Their brains had become wired in just a few days to see a world in which Tetris was the new reality.
The relevance of this to non computer game players is that it reflects how we operate in many spheres of our lives, if we give enough time to something, the way we view the world is shaped by that experience. Test it for yourself: close your eyes for a few seconds and think of a colour. Open them and the colour you first see in your surroundings will be the colour you were thinking of.
Shawn Accor in his book The Happiness Advantage, translates this phenomena to the workplace; to show how lawyers trained to critically analyse evidence in court, found they applied the same techniques out of court, when questioning their children. Or, auditors with the ability to spot an error on a tax return would use the same skills to identify errors in their partner’s cooking. Unsurprisingly they did not receive a positive response for the use of their expertise; but all they were doing was continuing to scan the world for further evidence of their skills in action.
Once we have established our reality framework, we develop a spam filter which quickly puts into a junk folder anything which does not accord with what we have decided is our reality. If our filter is scepticism then any experience that confounds our scepticism, is more easily put into the junk folder than examined as contrary evidence.
This argument would seem to support the ‘I am what I am’ school of thought, where once we establish a position it does not change. That would be true if we could not move items out of the junk folder, but we can, and do. Consider what happens when you buy a new car. Suddenly every car on the road seems to be the same colour and model as the one you now own. Those cars were there all the time but when your framework was your previous car, they were invisible to you.
The importance of being able to challenge our established (and partial) reality, particularly if it is one shaped by an expectation of difficulty and negativity becomes particularly important when we are under pressure. Given that resilience is fuelled by adaptability, how can we adapt our thinking?
One answer lies in accessing the power of thinking more optimistically, through letting into our reality evidence that there are things in our life that are ‘good’ even when times are tough. The idea of recording gratitude each day for the small things in our lives has been well established in the positive psychology literature, but the advice to write 3 gratitudes daily is often not backed up with the ‘why?’. Psychologist Robert Emmons, whose research is behind this advice has shown that people who commit to the discipline of recording three things each day that they are grateful for, become more optimistic, feel more socially connected, enjoy better sleep and even have fewer headaches than control groups. So gratitude makes you feel better about yourself, but beyond this, people who show up as more optimistic set themselves more challenging goals, persist in the face of difficulty and cope better in stress situations. Optimism is valuable for achievement, determination and dealing better with the pressures of our lives.
To develop the practice of gratitude as a means of developing an optimistic mindset requires practice, and we are often resistant to committing to developing new habits, when the old ones are familiar, but there is evidence it is worth the effort:
- In scanning the day for 3 things that you are grateful for (no matter how small) you become more skilled at noticing, so your reality framework expands. At the same time in noticing what has been good, what has been frustrating, annoying or disappointing changes its position in your reality.
- Even doing gratitude for a week leads people to feel happier and less depressed at three month and six month follow up points according to a study by Professor Martin Seligman (the pioneer of positive psychology).
- Once your brain has expanded its perception through the daily habit, you don’t need to write it down your brain will start doing the work for you, as part of how you see the world.
- You can take the practice of gratitude further by writing about a positive experience. People often think of journaling at times of difficulty because there are well established health and psychological benefits from writing about strong emotions, but researchers Chad Burton and Laura King showed that happiness is increased by writing about positive experiences.
You may never have played Tetris. You may be immune to computer games, but it is likely that at times you are seeing the world through a view of reality shaped by particular experiences. By increasing your access to alternative data you will increase your resilience to deal with the demands on you.