I’ve been watching more TED talks, particularly those given by Jane McGonigal, a gamer from California. A gamer, for those of you who don’t know, is someone who develops online games. McGonigal specializes in those that create alternate realities.
In her last talk, in Edinburgh, McGonigal talked about a game she developed while recovering from a poorly mended concussion. She had been ordered to follow an austere regime of bed rest – for three months she was not allowed to read, play games, or do anything requiring concentration. By day 34, she had become suicidal.
In a truly do or die moment, she used her gaming skills to come up with a game – SuperBetter – to help herself. SuperBetter has all the elements of a game – there is a superhero (the person recovering), an enemy (the illness), a set of strategies to conquer the enemy (finding allies being the primary one) and what McGonigal refers to as “power ups,” strategies to boost the superhero’s morale.
Here is her Edinburgh talk:
So why am I looking at a game like SuperBetter and talking about squirrels? Well the devil, as they say, is in the details and that’s where a link can be found.
McGonigal used information from a Guardian article that was published earlier this year. In it, research from hospice workers was recorded and collated to produce a list of the five biggest deathbed regrets:
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish I had let myself be happier.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self.
- I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.
McGonigal’s thoughts were that games, especially online games one can play with others, could satisfy these wishes. Numbers 3 and 4 really got my attention, and that’s because they are less concrete than the others. When we really look at them, they raise further questions like: What does happiness mean for each of us? What are our true selves?
McGonigal mentions an interesting and (relatively) new field of study: post-traumatic growth. This is, of course, related to post-traumatic stress, except that instead of experiencing a negative and momentous event in a wholly pessimistic way, one uses the event and the trauma associated with it to change one’s life for the better. Here’s a definition:
Post-traumatic growth refers to positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances.These sets of circumstances represent significant challenges to the adaptive resources of the individual, and pose significant challenges to individuals’ way of understanding the world and their place in it. Post-traumatic growth is not simply a return to baseline from a period of suffering; instead it is an experience of improvement that for some persons is deeply meaningful.
I’d like to think post-traumatic growth is always part of post-traumatic stress, but that some people – the kind of people marketers often refer to as “fast adopters” — are just more agile, emotionally, when it comes to harnessing their misfortune in useful ways. These are individuals who can see the utility of suffering, something I suspect requires a spiritual bent, or at the very least, a comprehensive understanding of the cyclical nature of life. These are people who can say to themselves, “Well, things are bad now, but they’ll get better eventually.” One thinks of the Harriet Tubmans and Victor Frankls of this world, those astonishing individuals who overcame the unimaginable because they had the capacity, while in the midst of profound degradation, to imagine a better life.
So how do we grow from our negative experiences? And what can we learn from McGonigal’s choices? I visited the SuperBetter website and was impressed by the thinking that went into the design of the game. I was also impressed by McGonigal’s very realistic approach to healing: as she came to realize, helping yourself heal is not complicated.
So if you watched her talk, you will know that the game and its design came from a place of deep suffering. As McGonigal explains, one in three people with a traumatic brain injury becomes suicidal and it happened to her. She describes how her brain was literally telling her she wanted to die and that she came to “legitimately fear for her life.” While her experience is unique to her, I believe that many of us experience similar dips in faith — a diminishing of what Bernard Shaw would call our “life force” — and so her story, and the process she developed out of it, deserves our attention.
McGonigal’s game can be broken down into four parts: players are challenged to strengthen their physical, mental, emotional and social resilience. For each of these areas of resilience, McGonigal came up with what I would call micro-challenges. The challenges are micro precisely because sick people trying to get better usually have limited resources.
For example, the challenge for physical resilience is to either take three steps or to stand, make fists with your hands, and raise your arms over your head for several seconds. Neither task would be difficult for a healthy person, but for someone with the residual limitations of a stroke or a head injury, these small actions could be monumental.
Mental resilience is improved by either snapping your fingers fifty times or by starting at 100 and counting backwards by seven. For someone with Parkinson’s or some form of cognitive impairment, this could be challenging.
Emotional resilience is enhanced by either looking out a window for several seconds or by finding and looking at images of baby animals online. A window with a reasonable view might be hard to find in a hospital and those with physical limitations might need help using a computer.
Social resilience is strengthened by either shaking someone’s hand for six seconds or by sending someone a pleasant email or text message. Most ill people are isolated, so finding someone’s hand to shake for six seconds might be challenging. This might be impossible even in crowded hospitals, where the fear of superbugs and contagion, particularly among staff, is pervasive.
I’m emphasizing the difficulties here because I am trying, also, to emphasize the micro nature of these tasks. Why is it important to keep the completion of these tasks within easy reach? Apart from the obvious fact that the ill are less able, there is another compelling reason.
A depressing aspect of being sick is that unless you’re unconscious, time can move very slowly. This is probably one reason why McGonigal started to feel suicidal: she felt ill and deprived and then her mind convinced her she “would never get better.” I know that when I accompanied my mother on her various trips to the hospital, I often returned home with a very unreliable sense of time: I couldn’t believe how long it took — hours usually — to orchestrate a simple 10 minute visit with a specialist.
Those hours spent in the hospital were exhausting, which is a common experience if my conversations with other caregivers is anything to go by. So why is that that use of time — waiting in a hospital — is so much harder than waiting at the airport to board a plane? When we look at the relationship between the concepts of “time” and “reward,” we may come to understand why.
In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert’s whimsical book on the subject, he looks at the role time plays in our ability to feel happiness. More specifically, he asserts that human beings are the only creatures that can think and plan for the future in a rational way. He differentiates between the planning behaviour of squirrels, for example, since their burying seeds for a future meal is something that is instinctively ingrained in them. So why is our ability to plan into the future so important?
It’s because not only do we have the ability to plan, our brains are actually wired to keep an eye on what is coming. Studies show that “when people are asked how much they think about the past, present and future, they claim to think about the future the most.” Scientists who studied subjects’ stream-of-consciousness thoughts estimate that roughly 12% of our thoughts are focused on the future.
Gilbert’s argument is that we focus on the future because it’s pleasurable and he gives an excellent example to prove his point. He cites a study where volunteers were told they had won a voucher to have dinner at an expensive restaurant. Although they could use the voucher immediately, many of them postponed their dinner for several days. Why? Because the anticipation of having a lovely meal was in itself a valuable experience.
I would take Gilbert’s ideas one step further. I would argue that the size of the reward — a dinner out — is also important. A dinner as a reward is easy to imagine and so anticipating it, in a savouring way, is easy too. It is certainly easier, for example, than savouring a lottery win of 350 million dollars. While that may be an amazing prize, it still represents something of a conceptual challenge for most of us. It’s just too big an idea to take in.
So the fact is that most of us like to wait for small rewards. Playing online games fits this template: there are actions followed by rewards. Even if we are depressed, this sequence of events can be enough to lift our spirits. This is one reason why SuperBetter works so well.
But what does this have to do with squirrels?
I had a health crisis several years ago that caused me to re-evaluate my life. I knew I had to do something different if I didn’t want to continue suffering debilitating migraines. (They led to me to visit emergency rooms on a fairly regular basis.) So I made some lifestyle changes and they’ve helped a lot. I’ve also gotten some bonuses in the process: as I changed, so did my perceptions. That’s a big statement to make, so let me give you a concrete example: I started taking in the minutiae of my outdoor surroundings more frequently and found that doing so often quelled my anxiety, that same chronic and low-grade anxiety that was likely causing my migraines in the first place.
Shortly after starting that process, I made another decision: I decided that the size of my accomplishments was no longer important. That worrying about achieving (or not achieving) something big in life might actually be contributing to my problems. I decided instead that I would focus on my little corner of the planet and make sure all was well within it.
And when I started doing that — acting like the responsible steward of a very small place — I found I cared more for the people, the animals and the plants I saw there. I started to see why ideas like recycling and solar power are so important. Why we need to not leave a mess behind for other generations. That’s when I started to take in animal babies, like racoons and squirrels, that had been separated from their mothers. I nurtured them to maturity and then released them back into the woods. Like McGonigal, I noticed that when I started thinking small, I actually accomplished more.
So thinking small, in terms of healing, has larger implications for the entire planet. For example, I no longer think of the various actions related to sustainability as chores, chores that are detached from any deeper meaning. Through the care of baby squirrels and racoons I’ve brought nature closer to me — with its cycles of birth, life and death — and it’s helped me make the connection between the abstract idea of sustainability and that other abstract idea that my being involved in it is helpful to the planet.
In simpler terms, I’ve made the connection between the macro and the micro, and I now see the care of urban wildlife as being part of the larger concept of sustainability. This is a concrete kind of connection that is under-represented in most sustainability messages out there. In that typical way we humans have, we often reach for the heroic ideal — we want to to be green warriors instead of simple gardeners — and we forget that a small act, like bottle-feeding a motherless squirrel, can be just as powerful, just as important.
And I’m sure Jane McGonigal would agree: it’s important for the squirrel and it’s important for us too. After all, our health, and the health of the planet, just might be depending on it.