Saturday, July 14, 2012

Super Better: Increase Your Life Expectancy by Playing a Game

After writing last week’s post, Healthy Communities Promote Longer Lives: One explanation for Life Expectancy Among Early Settlers, I have found myself delving further into longevity, and why and how people survive. Since the founding couples of my town exceeded 21st century life expectancies, let alone 18th century pioneer life, I was curious about American presidents, the Founding Fathers and the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Even including Hamilton’s unfortunate duel with Burr, and some doctors who killed their presidential patients (Washington and Garfield), the longevity trends hold up.

This may seem like a diversion, but it’s not. This week, I was once again contacted by a group of people in my state, which received a mental health grant to “help” those “impacted by Irene.” Yes, that’s a step up since they no longer use the word “victim.” They wanted to set up a booth at our town wide tag sale. Since those of us that have been working the front line of this situation since day one are in agreement that this appears to be meeting their need and not our residents, we told them no. Actually, one of our town’s ministers suggested that for a fee of $500-$1,000 they could set up a table in his chapel. He likes to tell them, when they call to offer their services, “can we have the money instead?”

With these various ideas and issues swirling around in my head, I happened to come across a TED talk by Jane McGonigal. A gamer, she developed suicidal thoughts as a result of having a concussion that was not resolving.

My brain started telling me, Jane, you want to die. It said, you're never going to get better. It said, the pain will never end.

Having heard some variation of that from many people I’ve worked with over the years, I was completely intrigued. Besides at the beginning of her presentation, she promised that by watching her talk you’d extend your life by approximately 7.5 minutes. If that isn’t a hook for people with chronic conditions, I don’t know what is.

And these voices became so persistent and so persuasive that I started to legitimately fear for my life, which is the time that I said to myself after 34 days -- and I will never forget this moment -- I said, I am either going to kill myself or I'm going to turn this into a game.

Now, why a game? I knew from researching the psychology of games for more than a decade that when we play a game -- and this is in the scientific literature -- we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, more determination, more optimism, and we're more likely to reach out to others for help. And I wanted to bring these gamer traits to my real-life challenge, so I created a role-playing recovery game called Jane the Concussion Slayer.

The game she developed revolved around the following:
• Adopt a secret identity -You know there was a lot of that going on with those founding father types, since many were freemasons, a group that specializes in secrets.
• Recruit your allies-Family, friends, neighbors and even other countries were involved in the Revolution.
• Battle the bad guys-Believe that would have been the “red coats.”
• Activate the power ups-Things that made you more successful. Lafayette would definitely have been in the “power up” column.

So her game would have helped the early American groups, which were already playing a version of it anyway, but how did that work for McGonigal in dealing with her depression? Did it have any bearing on how my town has been dealing with flood recovery? Most importantly, how does it help people who are dealing with chronic disease?

As for McGonigal, she recruited her family to help her identify what were the triggers that made her feel bad and what were the things that improved her mood. But even with a game so simple, within just a couple days of starting to play, that fog of depression and anxiety went away. It just vanished. It felt like a miracle. Now it wasn't a miracle cure for the headaches or the cognitive symptoms. That lasted for more than a year, and it was the hardest year of my life by far. But even when I still had the symptoms, even while I was still in pain, I stopped suffering.

Does the game translate to people with other conditions? Now what happened next with the game surprised me. I put up some blog posts and videos online, explaining how to play. But not everybody has a concussion, obviously, not everyone wants to be "the slayer," so I renamed the game SuperBetter.

And soon I started hearing from people all over the world who were adopting their own secret identity, recruiting their own allies, and they were getting "super better" facing challenges like cancer and chronic pain, depression and Crohn's disease. Even people were playing it for terminal diagnoses like ALS. And I could tell from their messages and their videos that the game was helping them in the same ways that it helped me. They talked about feeling stronger and braver. They talked about feeling better understood by their friends and family. And they even talked about feeling happier, even though they were in pain, even though they were tackling the toughest challenge of their lives.

And for me, who continues to deal with people who are insisting that our town’s residents are going to end up with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she gave me new language. The game was helping us experience what scientists call post-traumatic growth, which is not something we usually hear about. We usually hear about post-traumatic stress disorder. But scientists now know that a traumatic event doesn't doom us to suffer indefinitely. Instead, we can use it as a springboard to unleash our best qualities and lead happier lives.

Here are the top five things that people with post-traumatic growth say: My priorities have changed. I'm not afraid to do what makes me happy. I feel closer to my friends and family. I understand myself better. I know who I really am now. I have a new sense of meaning and purpose in my life. I'm better able to focus on my goals and dreams.

Interestingly, these are the reverse of what hospice workers report as being the things people regret on their death bed.

After considerable amount of research on McGonigal’s part, she concluded that There are four kinds of strength, or resilience, that contribute to post-traumatic growth, and there are scientifically validated activities that you can do every day to build up these four kinds of resilience, and you don't need a trauma to do it. These are:

• Physical Resilience: Now we know from the research that the number one thing you can do to boost your physical resilience is to not sit still. That's all it takes. Every single second that you are not sitting still, you are actively improving the health of your heart, and your lungs and brains.

• Mental Resilience: determination and willpower. We know from the scientific research that willpower actually works like a muscle. It gets stronger the more you exercise it. So tackling a tiny challenge without giving up, even one as absurd as snapping your fingers exactly 50 times or counting backwards from 100 by seven is actually a scientifically validated way to boost your willpower.

• Emotional Resilience: If you can manage to experience three positive emotions for every one negative emotion over the course of an hour, a day, a week, you dramatically improve your health and your ability to successfully tackle any problem you're facing. And this is called the three-to-one positive emotion ratio.

• Social Resilience: Reaching out to one person you care about every single day.

When I look at these four points, we had to do this every day to recover from the devastation of Irene and our founders and pioneers had to implement them to win our freedom. In short, no wonder our founders lived such long lives and it’s no surprise that our community is doing so well given all it’s had to deal with.

For some really good news, It turns out that people who regularly boost these four types of resilience -- physical, mental, emotional and social -- live 10 years longer than everyone else. So this is true. If you are regularly achieving the three-to-one positive emotion ratio, if you are never sitting still for more than an hour at a time, if you are reaching out to one person you care about every single day, if you are tackling tiny goals to boost your willpower, you will live 10 years longer than everyone else,

So even though it’s not a Wednesday, my official “take a break day” on this blog-take a break and play SuperBetter and/or watch McGonigal’s Ted Talk.

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