Photo by Kartini Maxson on Unsplash

“The Mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven”. – John Milton, Paradise Lost

Have you ever wondered why some people always seem to see the negative in everything, why they always seem to find fault with others?  Why is it that no matter how wonderful a situation is, or how many wonderful things are happening, these people can quickly and efficiently find and point out something that is wrong?  You might scratch your head and wonder what is wrong with them? Why are they always some negative and critical?

What if they are not really trying to be that way?  What if they somehow trained themselves to be like this?   Have you heard of the Tetris Effect? Maybe you have and maybe you haven’t I actually had never heard of it before reading The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. In his book, Shawn Achor discusses how the Tetris Effect can have a strong impact on the way we see things around us.

What Is the Tetris Effect?

The Tetris Effect is named after a very simple game in which the goal is to arrange the falling shapes on a screen to create as many unbroken lines as possible. That is all there is to the game. So how has this game spawned a widespread syndrome know as the Tetris Effect? In a Harvard Psychiatry study, participants were invited to play the Tetris video game for many hours three days straight. It turns out, that for days after participating in the study participants were unable to stop dreaming and thinking about shapes falling. Other participants began seeing these shapes everywhere around them. They saw the whole world as being made up of Tetris shapes. The participants were addicted to seeing shapes.

According to the researchers, these participants were caught in a cognitive pattern of seeing after images .They found that playing Tetris for hours on end started to rewire the brain of the participants. New neural pathways were being created that resulted in a warped perception of reality.

How Does It Impact Us?

We all know people who are stuck in a certain way of thinking and no amount of reasoning with them will pull them our no matter how negative or damaging it may be. Some examples of this are; the boss who finds something to criticize about each day and never seems to be satisfied with employees or the person who comes into a room and immediately zeros in on the one thing to complain about. There is also the doom and gloom prophet who predicts all that will possibly go wrong.

It is not that these people are necessarily trying to be a negative Nancy or overly critical. It is just that they are very effective at finding problems that need fixing, people that need to be managed or injustices that need to be made right. Our society encourages this way of thinking and trains us to be problem finders. If you think about it, our economy is based on the fact that there are problems that require fixing and needs that have to be met. Unfortunately, we can easily get so efficient at scanning for problems that we overlook the positive things around us. These are the things that lower our stress levels and bring us happiness.

The way we see the world, our Tetris effect, has a direct impact on our lives. There is a cost to being proficient at scanning the world for problems. It can undermine our creativity, raise our stress levels and decrease our overall motivation and willingness to set goals.

In the book The Happiness Advantage, the author refers to two groups of professionals as examples. Tax auditors, he noticed have to spend 8-14 hours a day scanning for errors on tax forms. This can take a toll on their mental health. Lawyers are also adversely impacted by the Tetris Effect. According to the Journal of  Occupational Medicine ( 1990), Lawyers were 3.6 times more likely to suffer from a major depressive disorder than the rest of the population. Of course, this effect is not limited to these two professions; they are just examples of how the effect can take a toll.  No one is immune. The problem, as the author says, is “the inability to compartmentalize their abilities…not  only do they miss out on the Happiness Advantage, but their pessimistic, fault-finding mindset makes them far more susceptible to depression, stress, poor physical health, and even substance abuse,”

Why We Are Often Stuck In a Negative Tetris Effect?

We are surrounded and overloaded with information that bombards us from every angle in every location every day of our lives. We are constantly being required to engage with this information: accept it, reject it, respond to it or act upon it. It s impossible for us to deal with all the information at the same time. Yes. we multitask but even that has its limits. In order to process everything our brains simply filter out what is not useful at any given moment, like a spam blocker. Unfortunately, this spam blocker or filtering system is indiscriminate and only filters out what it has been programmed to filter. So, if we have trained ourselves to scan for the negative, then our brain will filter out the positive because it doesn’t see it as pertinent. The brain, in effect presses: DELETE.

Conversely, when we are specifically looking for something, we tend to see it everywhere. Have you ever noticed that when you buy a new car in, let’s say charcoal grey, that you will begin to see charcoal grey cars in that model everywhere? We see what we expect to see because our brain is filtering out the rest for us. And, in the very same context or situation, two people will see very differently depending on what they are expecting to see.

How we perceive one another depends on what we are looking for. If we expect aggressivity, we will see it. If we are looking for creativity we will find creativity. Two people can view their boss in two very different ways. One employee, trained to see the negative will perceive the negative in his or her boss. The other employee having trained himself to look for the positive will find positive traits in his boss.

When we train ourselves to scan for or look for the positive in our environment, we will also reap the benefits of doing so – happiness, gratitude, and optimism. “Grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving and less likely to be depressed, anxious or lonely”. (psychologist Robert Emmons). Optimism is a “tremendously powerful indicator of work performance”. and “optimists set more goals, stay more engaged in the face of difficulty and rise above obstacles more easily,” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology – 1990).

How to Get Stuck in a Positive Tetris Effect

When we train ourselves to scan for or look for the positive in our environment, we will also reap the benefits of doing so – happiness, gratitude, and optimism. “Grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving and less likely to be depressed, anxious or lonely”. (psychologist Robert Emmons)

Just as we are able to train our brains to look for roblems we can also train them to look for the positive. as we saw earlier, our brains filter indiscriminately according to what they have been programmed to filter out. We literally have to tell our brain what to notice and what to think.

Training our brain to see the positive is really very simple, but like anything worthwhile, it must become a habit in order to see the results. the author in The Happiness Advantage suggests kickstarting this habit by making a daily list of three things “in your job, your career and your life” These are three things that happened that day. People who did this daily over the course of a week, a month and several months were still happier and very optimistic even after stopping this exercise after stopping.

  • Make a shortlist of the positives

  • Remind yourself of these daily

  • Be thankful for them

If you practice doing these three things daily, you will find yourself scanning your environment for good things to put on your list. You will find that you are more willing to forgive and give encouragement and recognition. You will be happier overall.

Now, none of this suggests that we should ignore problems. We need to be realistic and address what needs to be addressed. Focusing on the positive does not mean we should live in a Pollyanna world. It simply means we should train ourselves to see the positive and not filter it out. That way we can deal with problems as they come up in a healthy and productive manner.

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Diana Lynne’s passions are family, traveling, learning, and pursuing a debt-free life. She also loves hanging out with family, friends and being with her dog Skye. Diana is a Quebec City girl. who loves living life.  You can connect with her through