Tetris, Anyone?

Tetris block image courtesy of podpad at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

It all began on June 6, 1984. That was the release date of the computer game named Tetris. Billions of Tetris games have been played since that day, involving droves of people subjected to the addictive experience of properly lining up shapes falling from a ceiling on a screen as they descended to the floor of that same screen. It seems crazy that such a seemingly boring activity would become so captivating for so many.

Crazier yet, the effect of the game AFTER play has become the target of positive psychology researchers. Those researchers—Robert Stickgold, Harvard professor of psychiatry, to name one—discovered that students asked to play Tetris for hours at a time experienced the aftermath of play by seeing shapes cascading through their minds. Sometimes this effect—the Tetris Effect—caused the study students to be tempted to line up loaves of bread on grocery shelves and bricks in walls for days after the research.

So, what does this phenomenon of mind named the Tetris Effect have to do with happiness? And why do thoughtful leaders of high performing organizations care? Several concepts help answer those questions:

  1. The mind is a single-unit processor. That means it can search the negative OR the positive but cannot devote energy to both at once. We should choose carefully.
  2. As players master Tetris or any other activity requiring repetitive activity, the mind becomes much more efficient with the energy needed to perform. As the game is learned, it becomes more automatic, even extending to the “after-effect” shadows playing in the mind.
  3. The Tetris Effect offers a huge opportunity to change our brains for the better. We can retrain our brains. We can change what for some of us is the brain’s deeply ingrained pattern of searching for negatives by engaging in regular, positive activities.

The bottom line? In order to create what Shawn Achor calls the Positive Tetris Effect, we must replace negative habits like looking for errors, scanning the environment for danger, and offering criticism with deliberately positive, enriching habits like recording bits of gratitude, offering genuine thanks to those around us, and achieving focus via meditation. The result? Increased happiness, a wider array of perceived possibilities, more energy, and higher levels of success.

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