Book Review: SuperBetter—by Jane McGonigal
Do you feel resentful of the “have to–ness” of adopting a healthier lifestyle? Overwhelmed and anxious — vs excited — about the prospect of changing habits, behaviours, and/or thoughts? Do you feel like you are not in the driver’s seat of your own life, as if the “bus of life” drives you? Do you find it impossible to connect the dots between wanting to adopt healthier habits and actually adopting them? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then SuperBetter — or at least my review that includes some main take-aways — is for you.
SuperBetter is not strictly a “health” book, but the information can absolutely be applied to health and wellness. SuperBetter is at its heart a book about mindset. More specifically, the power that comes through adopting a “gameful,” challenge-based, “lean-in” mindset. This gameful mindset requires fostering traits like courage, grit, perseverance, strategy, and ownership — traits typically required when playing games. I am all about fostering a more productive mindset — a productive “inner dialogue.”
How we think and talk to ourselves frames our perception of and lens on the word, thus impacting how we act. Jane’s work adds a fun, playful, “be the hero of your own life” aspect to the topic of mindset — it makes adopting a more productive mindset something you can own and enjoy vs something that feels overwhelming and demoralizing. Jane encourages readers to create quests, call on allies, and identify bad guys. This seemingly simple act of stepping away from the emotions of the moment to form a quest or strategize against a bad guy forces one to observe thoughts, habits, and behaviours. Observation provides an alternative vantage point.
Think of “stepping away to strategize your game” as akin to standing on a balcony to observe your life taking place on the dance floor. Viewing from above — as an objective observer — not only allows one to become aware of thoughts, actions, and behaviours, but it provides the space to actually make change.
In short, Jane suggests that creating the happiest, healthiest, most productive, “super better” future you can be accomplished through adopting a “gameful mindset” — a mindset built on leaning in to challenges, focusing on the little wins in an attempt to foster self-efficacy, building emotional resilience and flexibility, being strategic and proactive, having fun, leveraging current strengths and positive characteristics, and identifying and then beating the “bad guys” of your life.
(I love Jane’s “Sticky Chair” bad guy — the bad guy who keeps your bum on the chair vs at the gym.) Think of the gameful mindset as a fun iteration of Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset.” With a growth mindset you understand life as a series of opportunities for growth — everything in life is a “yet”: I don’t know that yet; I can’t do that yet. With a gameful mindset, challenges are simply opportunities to battle your bad guys, to figure out new strategies, to call on a “power up,” to meet new allies, and/ or to move to the next level.
From experience I know that individuals typically fall off of their health horse because they have an — often unconscious — expectation of health “perfection.” They expect their journey to be linear: from “unhealthy” to “fit.” Health does not work like that. It is a process filled with inherent undulations. Unrealistic expectations are the seeds of discontent and fodder to rationalize quitting. To succeed at “health” you have to expect natural ups and downs and have the skill and resilience to navigate them — the perseverance to fall off of your horse and get back on ASAP as a more informed rider. Basically, you have to be able to master the “game of health.”
As Jane points out, when we play games we don’t expect to constantly win. On average, 80% of the time we spend gaming is spent “losing,” but we don’t frame that 80% as failure or being a loser. We frame it as “I have not won YET.” Games are a process. We mostly lean in to the opportunity to lose because we expect and enjoy the challenge; we expect a few roadblocks and a nasty bad guy. And the slightly hilarious part is, if you always won you would quit the game — you would find it boring. We “lean in” to the idea that when something is hard and/or someone is evil you don’t quit; instead you find alternative strategies, ways to power up, and/or people who can help you surmount the challenge.
If you like the concept of this gameful mindset but you don’t want to “read” the entire 16-hour audiobook (I think of all books in time blocks since I “read” with my ears), listen to Jane’s awesome interview with Tim Ferriss. Jane and Tim discuss how she used this “gameful mindset” to aid her concussion recovery. To save herself from a pit of depression, Jane decided to apply her knowledge of the intersection of happiness, gaming, and self-efficacy.
Jane states that happiness is not (contrary to popular belief) about eliminating all negative emotions. Instead, happiness requires increasing positive emotions and moments of self-growth and pride in an attempt to skew the ratio of negative to positive emotions. Jane suggests aiming for multiple “little wins” throughout your day — frequency/consistency of positive emotions is more important than intensity. Jane refers to these little wins as “micro bursts” of positive emotion. (I love that Jane’s research on happiness overlaps with my fitness and happiness philosophy.
Her “micro bursts” of positive emotion are another way of framing my “pockets of joy,” and my fitness philosophy revolves around consistency of healthy habits vs intensity of healthy habits.) Back to Jane. She walked Tim through how she navigated her concussion “gamefully.” Strategies included adopting the identity of “Buffy the Concussion Slayer,” whose mission was to conquer “the concussion battle,” and enlisting her family as allies. Each day her husband and sister give her missions — ways to get “power ups” — appropriate to her stage of recovery. For example, “eat 6 walnuts” or “spot something interesting out the window.” The missions allowed Jane to accomplish little daily wins, which helped foster hope and self-efficacy, allowed her to have fun, and made her feel in control of her own destiny!
A few noteworthy take-aways
- One of the benefits of adopting a gameful mindset is that it requires “buy in” from the participant. Like in an actual game, you “opt into” the process. This is critical. You are much more likely to stick with a healthier lifestyle if you feel in control of the process. If “gaming” your health feels too goofy, consider finding other ways to “opt in” and own your process. Maybe Carol Dweck’s book? Find a way — any way — to shake the “have to–ness” of health.
- On a connected note, work to become the hero of your own health journey. Create helpful secret (or not so secret) identities. In video games we usually play as heroes — so be a hero in your own life. Decide what you want to master, what you want to accomplish. Then become the hero who can accomplish that — re-wire your brain to identify as someone who “can.” Create a hero’s story — own that story. Instead of being controlled by your emotions, desires, and/or trigger foods, take pride in being the “hero” who successfully battles those demons. Instead of leaning in to the identity of the person who “can’t get off the sofa” or is “lazy,” name the villain the “Energy Vampire” or the “Sticky Chair” who tries to keep you from the gym. Be the hero who defeats that sticky chair or vampire. The future you will be much more likely to stay on track if you feel you are choosing the mission — the trek to the gym or carrots over chips. The feeling of a mission — or a health habit — being forced upon you simply leads to rebellion and/or resentment.
- Work to become the type of person who identifies and highlights the things they can change vs one who focuses unproductively on aspects outside their sphere of control. “Can’t” is not a helpful favourite word; not only is it unproductive, it is demoralizing. One of my favourite quotes form the book is that constantly saying the word can’t “murders your soul by inches.” De-attaching from the word can’t doesn’t mean “become an irrational optimist.” Obviously, highlight challenges, potential roadblocks, and areas that need improvements, but as you highlight challenges also work to find solutions and highlight your achievements along the journey. Jane calls this the “turn can’t into can” mentality.
- Work to create self-efficacy vs wishing for more motivation. Motivation is not your magic bullet. Typically, motivation is high when one is already feeling good. Self-efficacy on the other hand is the belief that you can positively effect change in your own life — even when things are BAD. Self-efficacy is built through repetition and success. Self-efficacy is the confidence — often task- or situation-specific — that one has the concrete skills needed to solve specific problems or follow-through on specific activities. The way to build self-efficacy is to make realistic goals and then achieve said goals. Learn and build “follow-through” by doing and becoming confident. Prove to yourself that you have the skills. Self-efficacy is the crucial difference between people who have lots of motivation but no follow through and the individuals who successfully convert motivation to real action.
- Commit to your goals. Take small DAILY steps that help you trend towards your larger goal. Progress is key. Working is winning. I love the Vince Lombardi quote Jane leverages to illustrate this point: “Winning is not everything but making the effort is.”
- Work to foster a “challenge mindset” and “psychological flexibility.” Engage with obstacles. Embrace that a challenge is not a threat. Seek out what makes you stronger — find allies, ways to power up, and situations that make you the happiest, healthies version of you that you can be. Be curious and courageous — battle your bad guys knowing you might fail, but also knowing that if you fail that is a temporary setback; you will not be a “failure.” You will be a person who has not found the solution yet.
- Note your “bad guys” — or what I often refer to as your “negative brain propaganda.” Your bad guys are any actions, thoughts, behaviours, etc. that allow you to self-sabotage or that stop you from taking the steps and thinking the thoughts that will allow you to become your “super better” self. Instead of feeling suffocated, limited, or shamed by bad guys, spot them and re-frame (or cognitively reappraise) the situation as an opportunity to learn, grow, be a bad ass, and kick the bad guy to the curb. Identify your bad guys and figure out a battle plan — a strategy. I am currently trying to eliminate my snooze button habit — it just makes me groggy. I have named the snooze button “The Robber” bad guy — he doesn’t want me to get up and kill the day because he is jealous of all my success, so he is trying to rob me of my day. NO ONE holds me back. I have placed my alarm across the room and made the ring a Britney Spears song. As I cross the room to turn the alarm off I start to inadvertently wiggle my hips, which wakes me up and makes me better apt to say “SCREW YOU Mr. Robber man. You are just jealous of me; I am going to wake-up and enjoy the day.”
- Work to replace “too” with “and.” Instead of “I am too tired to work out,” say, “I am very tired AND I am going to work out.” Or rather than “I am too sad to eat well,” say ,“I am very sad AND I am going to have a salad.” Basically, own your emotions, BUT don’t let those emotions own you. Realize you don’t have to change your emotions — you can be sad, tired, angry, etc. — and you can still do the acts you know will benefit your future you.
Two actionable ways to use games
- Have a craving for a particular food? Before you let yourself give in, play a pattern-recognition game such as Tetris or Candy Crush for 3 minutes. Gaming will not eliminate your craving, but it will give your brain’s visual processing centre something to focus on and thus cut the intensity of your craving by 25%.
- Want to start exercising? Create an avatar that looks like you. Watch this video version of you do a workout. On average individuals who watched their doppelganger exercise on screen moved for a full hour longer than usual for the next 24-hour period.
“John Stuart Mill … once said ‘Happiness should be approached sideways, like a crab.’ In other words, instead of trying to be happier, aim for more concrete goals, like learning something new, helping others, or using your creative talents to make something. Happiness is more likely to be created as a by-product of these meaningful goals than by trying to be happier.”
“Opt in” to your health challenge. Embrace a challenge mindset. Replace an “I don’t want to” mindset with a gameful, challenge-based inner dialogue of “I get to fight this battle — road blocks and bad guys and all.” Work to become “gameful” under stress. Leverage the psychological strengths you naturally build when playing a game — think excitement, courage, grit, perseverance, optimism, etc. — and apply them to life. It takes a village — find allies.
Remember, you control your attention “spotlight” — become the observer of your own life. You have the power to control your thoughts and combat the inherent life stressors and challenges that will be thrown your way.
You CAN create the future super bad, fit future you that you desire — you just have to have realistic expectations and know that your health game will be peppered with roadblocks and bad guys. Lean in to finding solutions. Lean in to health being a puzzle you have to solve — something you get to do. Something that is fun.