Saying “life is a game” seems to encourage you to take life less seriously. But it can also make you take it more seriously by getting you more invested and interested — the way any good game does.
“Scoring points” of any kind has an interesting effect. As Pete Drucker is famous for saying, “What gets measured gets managed.”
Kids do better in school when it’s treated as a game and scored:
The class and its grading procedure include a number of features modeled on the computer game World of Warcraft, complete with “quests,” “monsters,” and “guilds.” Throughout the semester, the students can compare their standing with that of their classmates and devise a plan to accumulate more experience points. Whenever they do well on their assignments or exams, they earn points rather than traditional grades. When Sheldon introduced this system, he found that his students worked harder and were also more enthusiastic in class. In addition, the new system triggered collaborative behavior among the students and reduced cheating.
Want to quit a bad habit? Initially, don’t worry about reducing how often you do it, just monitoring the amount can help a lot.
Behavioral economist Howard Rachlin proposes an interesting trick for overcoming the problem of always starting a change tomorrow. When you want to change a behavior, aim to reduce the variability in your behavior, not the behavior itself. He has shown that smokers asked to try to smoke the same number of cigarettes every day gradually decrease their overall smoking— even when they are explicitly told not to try to smoke less.
And becoming happier is no different.
The most powerful psychology technique for increasing happiness is merely to count three things a day you feel thankful for. As Martin Seligman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania explains:
Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“ My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“ My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”). Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?”
So if you’re going to start treating life as a game, you have to decide what’s going to score points and what won’t.
Here’s the twist: picking the wrong scoring system can have the opposite effect you might want.
Mike Norton, professor at Harvard Business School, says that we always look for a metric to show whether our life is geting better and whether we’re keeping up with the Joneses.
When things are hard to quantify, we substitute in any metric, sometimes a bad metric — and this is why we’re so prone to mistaking money for happiness. It’s a convenient, but profoundly wrong way to evaluate our lives with a number:
Some things are hard to measure. So, “Am I a better dad than I was last year?” Well, there’s no objective scale where I can look back and someone says, “Last year you were a 71 dad. This year, you’re a 74 dad.” Or spouse or whatever it might be, it’s very, very hard to know. The things that we can know are things we can count, and one thing that is really, really easy to count is money. So, if I want to know if I’m better off this year than last year, one of the first things I can do is say, “Do I have more money?” I think that alone makes it very, very motivating.
It works with things like the size of your TV, the square footage in your house, all of these things that we can . . . The number of cars you have. “Am I better than I was five years ago? Well, I have five cars. I had no cars. I guess I’m better.” We’re just unable to correct for it because the other things that are important are hard to count and counting is great. It feels like math and math feels like science and we feel like we’re better off because there’s a confidence that I’m doing better, and it also works better with other people: “Am I better off than you? I don’t know, but if I have a bigger house than you, I beat you.”
But you don’t have to fall prey to that problem.
Some have been wise enough to realize this scoring system isn’t optimal. In fact, a whole country did.
Bhutan stepped away from the measure of Gross National Product and, literally, switched to Gross National Happiness. That was the number they wanted to score their success by:
In a nutshell, Gross National Happiness seeks to measure a nation’s progress not by its balance sheet but rather by the happiness— or unhappiness— of its people. It’s a concept that represents a profound shift from how we think about money and satisfaction and the obligation of a government to its people.
So if you’re going to start treating life as a game, and you want to score for good things like happiness and relationships, what numbers should you use?
How many happy feelings in your life do you need to “win” against the negative things?
Research says the score needs to be 3 to 1:
Psychologist Barbara Frederickson is an expert on flourishing and has been an advocate of finding ways to bring more positive emotions into our lives. In her research she discovered a critical 3 to 1 ratio, indicating that we need to have three positive emotions for every negative one in order to thrive.
Want better relationships? You need to win by a score of 5 to 1.
It turned out that the fifteen high-performance teams averaged 5.6 positive interactions for every negative one. The nineteen low-performance teams racked up a positive/negative ratio of just .363. That is, they had about three negative interactions for every positive one…
A better marriage is the same:
What’s even scarier is that Losada’s five-to-one ratio also appears to be essential when you get home and try to muster the energy for a successful marriage. John Gottmann at the University of Washington has found that couples with a ratio of fewer than five positive interactions for every negative one are destined for divorce.
Better friendship? Score a point every 15 days:
…“the leading cause of persistent relationships is reciprocity — returning a friend’s call.” Further, they said friends ’til the end tend to touch base at least once every 15 days.
And don’t forget to write down those three things you’re thankful for every night. It’s the most tested positive psychology method of increasing happiness.
You’ll be better just for having played it, because “what gets measured gets managed.” And you don’t need to score a perfect 10.
Getting “pretty good” at the game of life is all it takes to win.
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