Lessons from SuperBetter

Lessons from SuperBetter

I came across this book after watching Jane’s TED talk. I absolutely love the talk and what I learned about the benefits of games. Self development can be such a dry and unpleasant thing if you’re not in the right mental place, not so with games. Games are naturally fun, we play them because we want to, not because we expect to get some results out of them. Or do we? What if we’d get the best of both worlds, improving our brain while having fun? If that sounds like something you’d want, keep reading.

You have a natural capacity to motivate yourself and supercharge your heroic qualities, like willpower, compassion, and determination. This book will help you understand the powers you already have—and show you that accessing these powers is as easy as playing a game.

Being gameful means bringing the psychological strengths you naturally display when you play games—such as optimism, creativity, courage, and determination—to your real life.


Jane experienced a brain concussion which caused her to be in constant pain and eventually she became depressed. She started having suicidal thoughts. One day she decided that she’d either kill herself or turn her suffering into a game. She became “Jane the Concussion Slayer”.

Why a game? By the time I hit my head in 2009, I’d been researching the psychology of games for nearly a decade. In fact, I was the first person in the world to earn a Ph.D. studying the psychological strengths of gamers and how those strengths can translate to real-world problem solving. I knew from my years of research at the University of California at Berkeley that when we play a game, we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, more determination, and more optimism. We’re also more likely to reach out to others for help. And I wanted to bring these gameful traits to my real-life challenge.
So I created a simple recovery game called “Jane the Concussion Slayer.” This became my new secret identity, a way to start feeling heroic and determined instead of hopeless.


To read more about Jane’s Story, read The Power of Games.

Games make it easier to ask for help

Why is it so hard to ask other people for help when we are in trouble? I don’t have a good answer for that other than games for the rescue. Games bring out the team players in us. Games make it easy and natural to ask our allies for help. It is the normal thing to do.

The first thing Jane did after deciding to make a game out of her misery was to call her twin sister Kelly and tell her. She became her first ally. Her husband joined next.

Post-traumatic growth but without the trauma

A few months after Jane published a post and a video explaining how to play facing a tough challenge as she did, she was surprised to hear from people all over the world. They were adopting their own secret identities to battle challenges like depression, anxiety, chronic pain and even terminal diagnoses like stage-five cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

These players talked about feeling stronger and braver. They talked about feeling better understood by their friends and family. And they talked about feeling happier, even though they were in pain, even though they were tackling the toughest challenges of their lives.

At the time, I thought to myself, What on earth is going on here? How could a game so seemingly trivial, so admittedly simple, intervene so powerfully in such serious, in some cases life-and-death, circumstances? To be frank, if it hadn’t already worked for me, there’s no way I would have believed it was possible.

When I was recovered enough to do research, I dove into the scientific literature. And here’s what I learned: some people get stronger and happier after a traumatic event. And that’s what was happening to us. The game was helping us experience what scientists call post-traumatic growth, which is not something we usually hear about. More commonly, we hear about post-traumatic stress disorder, in which individuals experience ongoing anxiety and depression.

But research has shown that traumatic events don’t always lead to long-term difficulty. Instead, some individuals find that struggling with highly challenging life circumstances helps them unleash their best qualities and eventually lead happier lives.


These are the five things people with post-traumatic growth say:

  1. My priorities have changed. I’m not afraid to do what makes me happy.
  2. I feel closer to my friends and family.
  3. I understand myself better. I know who I really am now.
  4. I have a new sense of meaning and purpose in my life.
  5. I’m better able to focus on my goals and dreams.

What’s more, these are essentially the opposite of the top five regrets of the dying, as published in an article by Bronnie Ware.

  1. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  2. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  3. I wish I had let myself be happier.
  4. I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self.
  5. I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams, instead of what others expected of me.

But research shows that not everyone who experiences a trauma goes on to have post-traumatic growth. And even if that was the case, who would choose to suffer a terrible loss just for the growth? There must be a way to have post-traumatic growth without the trauma, and there is, as Jane’s research showed.

And so I set off on another two years of research. And here’s what I discovered: you can experience the benefits of post-traumatic growth without the trauma, if you are willing to undertake an extreme challenge in your life—such as running a marathon, writing a book, starting a business, becoming a parent, quitting smoking, or making a spiritual journey. Researchers call this post-ecstatic growth. Ann Marie Roepke, a practicing clinical psychologist who first identified the phenomenon as a University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate, describes it as “gains without pains”—or at least, far fewer pains.6 It works the same way post-traumatic growth does, except you get to choose your own challenge. Instead of waiting for life to throw a terrible trauma at you, you can cultivate post-ecstatic growth at any time by intentionally undertaking a meaningful project or mission that creates significant stress and challenge for you. This stressful adventure you’ve chosen for yourself creates the necessary conditions for you to struggle and grow as much as someone who is battling a trauma.


Benefits of playing games

Over a decade of research across hospitals and universities around the globe have documented a wide range of positive impacts of video games in people, here are a few of them:

  • increase your motivation and willpower
  • block the feeling of physical pain more powerfully than morphine
  • help you overcome anxiety and depression
  • make you a better learner
  • inspire you to exercise more
  • help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder
  • make you more likely to come to a stranger’s rescue
  • forge stronger, happier relationships with friends and family

When you play games you tap into three core psychological strengths:

  • Your ability to control your attention and therefore your thoughts and feelings
  • Your power to turn anyone into a potential ally and to strengthen your existing relationships
  • Your natural capacity to motivate yourself and supercharge your heroic qualities, like willpower, compassion, and determination

Playing with purpose

But in order to get the most benefits, it’s not just what or how much you play, it is why you play. Playing with purpose turns out is the real differentiator.

If you know someone who is addicted to games, they are almost certainly playing with an escapist mindset. In fact, researchers have found that “the use of games to escape daily life” is the number-one factor that predicts excessive or pathological game play. 8

However, if you play with purpose — with a positive goal, such as spending quality time with friends and family, learning something new, or energizing yourself after a long day—you are much more likely to bring gameful ways of thinking and acting into everyday contexts. You’re not playing to avoid problems — you’re playing to bring benefit. You clearly see the connection between gaming and its impact on your daily life, so you’re better able to activate your gameful strengths in real-world contexts.

Researchers have found that this kind of purposeful play builds self-confidence and real-world problem-solving skills. More important, it has the opposite impact of escapism: it helps you be happier, better connected, and more successful in real life.

The difference between struggling and flourishing turns out to be quite simple. You don’t have to play different games, or even spend less time playing games, to benefit. You simply have to stop thinking of games as a distraction from real life and start thinking of them as a source of genuine strength, skills, and power. It sounds almost too easy to be true, but the research is persuasive.


Self-efficacy and a Challenge Mindset

Self-efficacy is the term psychologists use to describe the belief that you yourself, can effect positive change in your own life. Research showed that player and non-player cancer patients had the same levels of motivation, stress, cancer symptoms and physical side effects from medication, but players differed remarkably in one area.

They reported feeling significantly more powerful, optimistic, and able to positively impact their own health than nonplayers.

People with high self-efficacy find it easier to adopt a challenge mindset. So do people who spend a lot of time playing games.5 In fact, “challenge-seeking” is one of the most common personality traits of frequent game players.


Players also develop a challenge mindset instead of a threat mindset when facing potential risk, danger, harm, or loss.

In a challenge mindset, you focus on the opportunity for growth and positive outcomes. Even though you acknowledge that you may face risk, harm, or loss, you feel realistically optimistic that you can develop useful skills or strategies to achieve the best possible outcome. You prepare yourself to rise to the difficult occasion by gathering resources and drawing on your personal strengths. People with high self-efficacy find it easier to adopt a challenge mindset. So do people who spend a lot of time playing games.5 In fact, “challenge-seeking” is one of the most common personality traits of frequent game players.

There’s one important point I want to make clear: a challenge mindset doesn’t require you to think positively all the time, or to ignore your pain or losses. It’s more about investigating your own strengths and abilities and trying to increase them. Similarly, having a challenge mindset does not mean living in denial of potential negative outcomes.


Do the best you can without overthinking the results

The book explains three types of goals you can set when facing an obstacle: A difficult goal which means achieving something very specific and challenging, a do-your-best goal which means doing your best without concern for the results, and a strategy goal which means being determined to discover and master strategies that will help you be successful. Instead of focusing on a specific outcome, you just focus on learning and improving your skills.

Each of these goals are suited for different scenarios. For instance, a difficult goal might be ideal for a marathon runner who wants to give his absolute best in a race. But less so for a person who wants to get out of debt. That’s because focusing on a tight deadline to get out of debt might be more demoralizing than it helps.

Do-your-best goals can alleviate performance anxiety which might be more important then being highly motivated in some cases.

Adopting a do-your-best goal means putting forth your best effort, without concern for the results. You generally hope to do well, but you have no specific expectations for what you might achieve. The marathon runner’s do-your-best goal would be “Try to finish this race without walking, but if you have to walk, that’s okay, too. Just do your best!” The credit card debtor’s do-your-best goal might be “I’ll pay more attention to what I’m spending and try to avoid buying things I can’t afford.”


A strategy goal is another great goal type for long and difficult goals which might generate too much anxiety as to focus on them directly.

Researchers have figured out that for someone operating under a threat mindset, a strategy goal is absolutely the best kind to adopt.19 When the stakes are high or the loss severe, a strategy mindset will increase your resilience and improve your coping abilities.

Why does this work? By focusing on developing and practicing effective strategies, you’re going to build up new strengths and abilities. These strengths and abilities will be a real resource for you. They will help you be braver, happier, healthier, or more successful within the reality of the threat or loss you’re facing. Your strategies may not change that reality, but they will help you find and maximize your power to do and feel the absolute best you can, given the obstacle you face.


Power-ups to strengthen the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve stretches from your brain to your intestines. It connects virtually every important function in your mind and body. Your emotions, heart rate, breathing, muscle movement, the immune system and digestion are all regulated by the vagus nerve. This is also known as the mind-body connection.

Because the vagus nerve is so essential to so many biological and psychological functions, its health is an excellent measure of your mind-and-body resilience. Nearly twenty-five years of research, in fact, has consistently shown that the tone, or strength, of the vagus nerve is the single best measure of how effectively a person’s heart, lungs, and brain respond to stress.


You can strengthen the vagus nerve by having better ratio between positive and negative emotions. The higher the ratio, the stronger the vagal tone. Positive emotions have been shown to make people more resilient to illness and injury as well as rising life expectancy by ten years.

But it is hard to control our emotions, what practical method is there to improve our vagal strength? Slow and controlled breathing. Research shows that just by slowly breathing, we can improve a number of medical and emotional disorders like high blood pressure and depression.

Epic wins

Epic Wins are extremely unexpected and positive outcomes that can arise from unlikely and dounting circumstances.

They are the most exhilarating experiences gamers can have seeking them out helps you focus on opportunities for growth and impact.

Keeping score to maintain perspective on bad days

GaryVee often says that whenever nobody of the 8 closest people died, he won the day no matter what went bad. This might seem as an extreme example as first but it makes sense pretty soon once you get it. This kind of perspective comes in really handy as I’ve come to learn.

Meditation improved my quality of life immensely, but there still are bad days, some of them really bad. Emotions clouding the vision as they do, it’s very easy to just wanting to give up on some of those days. On those days it is of great benefit to look at your score track if you have one. I use an app called Daylio, but you can use paper or whatever means you have. Once you see your progress, you’ll realize that it isn’t as bad as you think in the precise moment negative emotions creep up. Jane did the same to maintain perspective on days where her depression was really strong.

Just keeping score this way had a very interesting effect on me. Whenever I had a miserable migraine day, instead of slipping into depression and despair, I could look at the growing tally next to my bed and say, “Look at all those good days you’ve had. Statistically speaking, you are going to feel better tomorrow or at the very least the day after. This pain is not forever. Hang in there.” The tally turned into objective evidence that gave me hope for the future.

Ideally, this is how keeping score should work for you, too. It’s not a habit you have to keep up forever. Keep score only until you internalize the sense of progress and accomplishment that you crave. Keep score until you know for sure that you’ve achieved real growth—just as I did.