Gaming Happiness

I like to do “challenges”. Some of the ones I’ve done in the recent past are: living without internet at home for a few months, waking up at 4:30am for a month, only buying 5 items of clothing in an year (still attempting this), and working out 7 times a week.

I also like to set “dumb challenges” for myself on a daily basis, like how late I can possibly start packing, eating, bussing, checking in to an airport and downing a free cappuccino without missing my flight. Or how well I can time my necessary purchases from Shoppers Drug Mart to maximize the Optimum Points I earn. I also keep a list of “coincidences” to identify any weird patterns. I’m convinced that one day they will all add up to my discovery of some fantastical universal secret. There’s never really a day where I’m not attempting to conquer something and gamifying my life.

The people closest to me know about this weird habit of mine. Most of them roll their eyes and question why on earth such pointless, self inflicted tasks get me so revved up. The truth is, I never get into drama with people, so I choose to instill drama into the mundanity of everyday life to keep myself entertained.

In all seriousness, when I really tried to dig into why these “challenges” give me so much joy and excitement, I realized there is method to my madness.

They teach me gratitude.

There’s a great Louis CK clip called ‘everything is amazing and nobody is happy’. He talks about how when airplane wifi first came out, people thought it was the most revolutionary thing ever. Until the connection broke down and it became the worst thing ever.

This is a great example of something called the headwind tailwind asymmetry. The term comes from when bikers and runners are going against a headwind. They can’t wait for the tailwind to come, it’s all that they think about. But when they do get the tailwind, they are grateful for just a moment and then quickly stop noticing the wind at their backs pushing them forward (you can learn more in this Freakonomics podcast).

Of course, memories of hardship tend to be more salient than those of comfort, and it makes evolutionary sense. It’s more important for you to remember to tend a wound on your leg than it is to remember that you had a really nice chair to sit on. However, in a modern world full of #firstworldproblems, the ‘hardships’ that stick in your mind are…questionable. Hardships like having slow wifi on the plane.

Many of the challenges I’ve done restricted me from things I had taken for granted. Things like giving up internet at home and clothes. Through those challenges, I gained mindfulness of how important something really is to me and what value it adds (or doesn’t add) to my life. For example, not allowing myself to buy clothes made me pretty much stop thinking about shopping altogether. I realized how versatile my current wardrobe is and that I don’t need more. Well, except for running gear because I always need new running gear (I run a lot). On the other hand, not having internet at home made me appreciate the abundance of easily accessible information on the web that I could never attain no matter how many books I might have at home.

It’s really difficult to stay appreciative of the little things that we take as a given, especially in a society of privilege, consumerism, and waste. But by even spending a short period of time being without them, the reward is the enormous awareness and appreciation of those things you took for granted.

They give me perspective.

When I woke up at 4:30am for a month, it was my foray into just how productive I could be if I was just willing to pull myself out of bed at that ungodly hour each morning.

By the time I got to my 9:30am class, I would have gone to the gym or went for a run, finished most of my homework for that day, and usually still had some free time to browse the internet, read the news, sit at a coffee shop….whatever I wanted.

As I’d slowly stroll to my first class, I’d watch flustered looking students looking half awake and agitated by every little thing. Meanwhile, my sense of calm and accomplishment could not have been greater.

The world is a completely different place at 4:30am in the morning, and it’s not a world many people ever see in their lifetimes.

They force me to be more creative.

Creativity breeds constraints. The classic example is the story purportedly about Hemingway, who bet with some friends that he could write an entire story in just six words. This was what he came up with:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Pretty good huh?

Constraints stops us from the paralysis of choice, which stops us from getting started.

The constraint I give myself when it comes to exercising is challenging myself to figure out how I will fit workouts in in the most efficient manner, rather than if I will workout. My exercise of logistical planning is laughable and so ridiculous that I will not be offended if you just skipped to the next section, in fact I would highly suggest it.

My logistical challenge is founded upon a couple of key constraints:

  • The need to have workout gear and shoes and regular clothing always available. Sometimes with multiple workouts a day, I need double of things.
  • Not wanting to look like a bag lady — so staying stylish..ish by reducing the number of bags and shoes I need to carry
  • Not always returning to the same place at night (often instead of going home, I go to my bf’s place or parents’ place), which means I need to plan for sometimes 2+ days of events
  • Not wanting to have an inefficient ‘route’, meaning I like to group activities taking place in similar areas so I don’t have to commute more than I need to
  • Not wanting to be stinky or gross, meaning I always have to coordinate workouts (especially runs) with a place to shower right after

A perfectly planned 2 days would look something like this:

  1. Day 1: Wake up, run to work (with stylish enough running backpack that I don’t look like I just came back from mountain trekking), and shower at work, to reduce commute time
  2. Wear semi stylish street shoes, usually my ultraboosts on my run to work so I don’t have to carry alternative shoes. Can just wear the same ones during work (I work in tech, we are super casual)
  3. Plan dinner with friend close to errands I need to run because why would I not
  4. Sleepover at bf’s place, planted fresh workout and work clothes the last time I was there so I have fresh gear to wear the next day
  5. Day 2: Planted gym shoes (different from my running shoes) at work, which is on my way to gym, so I have the right shoes for the gym
  6. Planned morning coffee with an acquaintance close my gym so that I can get my coffee, croissant, and a good conversation after my workout and before work
  7. Planned evening running route with my run club to finish at my work on a rainy run, so that I could hop into the shower at work right after the run and still be able to go out for dinner with the crew afterwards

If you’re still reading, I’m really sorry I put you through that. It’s unfortunate, but this planning really keeps me extremely entertained and quite frankly it leaves out the option of whether or not I will workout or not. Also, the gratification I get from not looking like a bag lady everyday is incomprehensible to most.

They give me something no one can take away.

The podcast Reply All featured an episode called ‘Shipped to Timbuktu’. You should listen to it, as my description won’t do it justice.

It talks about a real story of British and American girl guides who were sent to a Japanese concentration camp in China. They were the children of missionaries and expats in China during the Japanese invasion in WWII, and got captured by when the Japanese took over. Despite being in a concentration camp, these girl guides never gave up what they stood for, which is to be cheerful and patient, unrelentingly so. While having meals, they would still adhere to their table manners. When it came to daily duties, they made them into games. And of course, they made everything into a song. In such horrific circumstances, the girl guides still fondly remembered their times at the concentration camp as the most formative and miraculous experience they have had.

These girl guides found happiness in the least expected place — they gamed happiness.

“Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” — Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning

It’s an odd anecdote to compare to, but for me to choose to approach the mundane aspects of my life as a series of fun challenges and games gives me the ability to experience happy and exciting moments that no one can take away from me. Because I don’t do it for others, I do them for me.

If I’m having a terrible day at work, that’s not going to change my sense of accomplishment after running 10km home. If I should be bored while waiting to renew my Driver’s License at Service Ontario, it’s not going to take away from the amusement I get from trying to come up with how I would rebuild the provincial government services’ infrastructure before my wait time is over.

On a regular day, I’m usually pretty stoked about something… or finding ways to get myself stoked about something.

The hedonistic treadmill.

I always found it really bizarre and illogical when people would tell me that their goal in life was to be happy, as if happiness was this objective and tangible achievement (I apologize if this offends anyone).

My understanding of happiness is that it’s a mental state that could easily be altered based on changes in internal and external circumstances. I also get caught up in the nuances. I didn’t understand how happiness could stand alone without contrast to other mental states. That is to say, how could you experience happiness if you don’t also experience sadness, indifference, frustration, loss, etc. to contrast?

There’s a concept called the hedonistic treadmill. It refers to the observed tendency for humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite positive or negative life events. In other words, adapting to something that influenced a change in your mental state to the point where it no longer does. That to me translates to the fact that achieving certain mental states require an input of events, whether internal or external. While there are events you cannot control, there are also ones you can. If you choose to control input events that you know will result in more positivity, you can ultimately game the amount of happiness you experience.

The challenges I do are my tactics in gaming happiness. I thrive on knowing that I made little ‘wins’, no matter how inconsequential they are. I’m not saying it’ll work the same way for you, it’s just what suits my personality. The key here is understanding that you can be an active contributor to your own mental state, it’s just up to you to develop the tactics in doing so.