Here’s a challenge for you to try right now. Make a prediction about something — anything — that you can personally verify the outcome of sometime in the next twenty-four hours. Your day will instantly get better — whether your prediction proves right or wrong.
[The following is excerpted from Superbetter : A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient -Powered by the Science of Games by Jane McGonigal.]
It can be big or small, silly or serious. Here are some examples:
- How many emails you’ll receive in the next hour
- How many people wearing purple you’ll see today
- How many runs your favourite baseball team will score in their next game
- How fast you can put the dishes away without breaking anything
- How many likes you’ll get on your next Facebook post
- How long it will take you to walk around the block once, down to the second
- What temperature it will be at exactly 7PM tonight (no cheating checking the forecast!)
- The exact amount of money in your bank account at this moment, down to the penny
- How many different people you can say thank you to today before you go to sleep
It’s a simple as that. Pick one small thing to make a prediction about, and then wait to see if you’re right. Your day will instantly get better — whether your prediction proves right or wrong.
Here’s why: Making a prediction is one of the most reliable and efficient ways to prime and stoke the reward circuitry of the brain.
“Every prediction you make — no matter how trivial — increases the level of the dopamine in your brain,” says neuroscientist Dr. Judy Willis.
Dopamine, of course, is the “reward” neurochemical responsible for motivation, learning and desire. And every time you make a prediction, two rewarding outcomes are now possible. You might be right — which will feel good! Or, you might be wrong — which will give you information that will help you make a better prediction next time. Surprisingly, the possibility of being wrong also feels good — because your brain loves learning. “In fact,” Dr. Willis says, “the dopamine boost is often greater when you learn something new and useful than when you succeed.”
The neurochemistry of prediction, by the way, is the same neurochemistry that makes video games so engaging and energizing. You know that feeling of irrational motivation you get when you’ve failed the same Candy Crush Saga level ten times in a row and you just want to try one more time anyway? Or how you can be totally exhausted and burnt out after a hard day, and then after twenty minutes of playing Call of Duty you feel totally energised and mentally focused?
That’s because every time you make a move, or fire a weapon, in a video game, your brain treats it like a mini-prediction. Your brain is eagerly waiting to find out if your action was successful, and if not, why not, so you can take a better action. This means that each move you make in a game triggers a dopamine spike. The more moves you make, the bigger the cascade of dopamine. No wonder it’s so easy to work so hard and never give up when we play. We’re benefitting from a constant flow of the neurochemical that increases attention, optimism and determination.
Life isn’t a video game — but you can create the same state of heightened engagement for yourself in everyday life with the “make a prediction” technique. Start each day by making a prediction — any prediction! Whether you’re right or wrong, you’ll get a dopamine boost. It’s a win-win game. Use this trick whenever you’re bored, frustrated, or stressed — or you just want a boost of motivation and energy. It’s a quick and natural way to provoke curiosity and attention, while strengthening the neural circuitry that promotes determination, optimism, and willpower. (And if you’re with someone who is bored, frustrated or stressed, ask them to make a prediction! They will be a lot more fun to be around afterwards.)
Try Playing “Worst Case Scenario Bingo”
A few weeks ago I heard from my good friend Calvin. He’s thirty-five years old, married, and a computer scientist with a Ph.D. We’ve known each other since graduate school at UC Berkeley. Over the past decade, Calvin has worked both in the tech industry and in university research labs. Recently, he decided to take a leap of faith and look for a full-time academic position.
“Career adventures are coming fast and frequent at this point,” he wrote me in an email. “I’ve landed interviews at five universities.” He sounded upbeat in the letter, but he admitted to being pretty stressed out about one of his interviews at a top research university.
“A friend of mine who interviewed there last year said he was practically crying by the end of the meeting. Apparently, this one professor had started the interview by telling my friend that his dissertation work was complete crap, and that the university had made a huge mistake in inviting him to interview.” Not the most encouraging story, considering that Calvin was slated to meet with the same professor!
Job interviews are stressful even in the best circumstances, but when Calvin got to campus for the two-day interview, the tension only increased. “The first few people I met with all warned me about my upcoming interview with this same professor, telling me how notoriously vicious he is with junior researchers. Everyone had a war story about meeting with him. Even the chair of the hiring committee said they had second thoughts about including him on my schedule. Needless to say, the night before that day I was pretty nervous. I had to get a grip. I thought ‘How can I make this meeting into a game, rather than into something I’m dreading?’ So I decided to create a bingo game. I tried to predict the worst possible things he could say to me, whatever would upset me most. I wrote them down, plus the ‘free square’ in the middle. I folded that bingo card and put it in my pocket when I went in for the interview.”
Calvin sent me a photo of the card so I could see his gameful solution for myself. His custom bingo squares included the kinds of moments that would make any interviewee cringe: “Personal attack/critique,” “Tests my knowledge/skills,” “Points out flaw/error/mistake in my work,” “Cites references I’m not familiar with,” “Says my work is derivative, obvious,” “Dismisses it as not important,” “Accuses me of being unprincipled.”
Did it help? Unequivocally, yes. “Turns out, he did say lots of those negative things to me, but it didn’t bother me at all,” Calvin said. “Every time he tried to make me feel small, I got to mentally check off a bingo square. It brought a lot of humour to a really stressful situation.”
Calvin won twice. First, he scored a bingo. “The professor got the whole middle horizontal row,” he told me. “He really was a bad as everyone said!” But later Calvin scored the real victory: he got a job offer from the university. Ultimately, he decided to take a job somewhere else, but having multiple offers helped him negotiate the best deal.
Calvin’s approach was a perfect way to apply the neurochemistry of games to everyday life. He might not have been intentionally hacking into his dopamine pathway, but he was definitely giving himself a dopamine boost every time he filled in a bingo square. And because the mere act of making a prediction heightens attention and boosts dopamine, just creating the bingo board put Calvin in a much more determined and optimistic state of mind.
“Worst-case-scenario bingo” may not be a game you look forward to playing — because really, who wants to be in a stressful or unpleasant situation? But if you do need to tap into your determination and grit, this gameful intervention is a brilliant way to prepare your brain for resilience and success.
Jane McGonigal, PhD is the author of the New York Times bestseller Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Her new book Superbetter : A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient – Powered by the Science of Games provides practical ways to apply the life-changing science of games to your everyday life.