The Tetris effect and happiness

It is early morning and I am hectically looking for my keys and wallet. So much physical effort to find just two small objects. Under the couch, in drawers, around the desk, in the backpack, nowhere to be found. In my mind’s eye a form field emerges. It is the same as the one you see at the top-right corner of your browser when you press CTRL+F. Passively (in my mind, while still looking for the keys and wallet) I type “keys” and expect them to magically pop-out highlighted under a rug or a pillow.

The Tetris effect

If you don’t know, Tetris is a video game where you have several different shapes. You have control over one of them travelling vertically on the screen from top to bottom. The point is to rotate the shape and place it in a way that creates a single uniform line across the screen horizontally. That line then disappears. If the whole screen is filled up with shapes you loose the game. If you create multiple, horizontal uniform lines you win points and continue the game. In it’s most basic form the game is about looking at shapes and placing them together so that they fill gaps.

What is the Tetris effect? According to wikipedia:

The Tetris effect (also known as Tetris Syndrome) occurs when people devote so much time and attention to an activity that it begins to pattern their thoughts, mental images, and dreams.

Simply, when you focus on something for prolonged periods of time, over and over again, consistently, your mind re-shapes (even on a neuron level). You start to see either objects, opportunities or activities similar to the ones within the thing you had been focused on.

In a study at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, researches had 27 volunteers paid to play Tetris multiple hours a day for 3 days in a row. What were the results? For days after the experiment was completed, part of the volunteers couldn’t stop dreaming about shapes coming down from the sky. Others were seeing the same shapes even when they were awake.

What was happening to them is something normal called “cognitive afterimage“. The afterimage effect is not something affecting only the vision. The process of continual focus, repeatedly re-arranges the links between the neurons in our brains to create a better system that helps us recognize the patterns we see in the activity we focus on.

The Tetris effect and negativity

Some people are more negative than others. They see the drawbacks, mistakes, problems and errors with anything you put in front of them. They are “wired” that way.

A couple in the Scottish highlands, sitting at the top of a summit with a magnificent view expanding in front them. One of them exclaims “This is amazing, such beauty!”, the other replies “It’s too windy. I’m cold. When are we going down?”.


Most of the jobs today require us to find and highlight issues that exist with processes, products or other people that we are responsible for. Focusing on issues for eight ours a day, five days a week quickly adds up to a perfect case for a negative Tetris effect. Suddenly you start to see problems everywhere. You go back home and everything that your wife/husband or kids have done just pops in your face with tens of imperfections. The food is undercooked and you don’t notice that someone actually made an effort to cook for you; the room is a mess full of toys everywhere, instead of noticing that your children have grown and learned new things.

Our selective perception is also why when we are looking for something we see it everywhere.

By focusing on the problems and issues we become experts in recognising them in everything.

Learning to be happier

Seeing issues is not a bad skill to have. It is definitely useful in many occasions, but the problem with it stems from not being able to contain it to only those situations that benefit from it’s application. Nonetheless, the same way we have learned to see the negative, we can learn to see the positive and become happier in the process.

When our brains constantly scan for and focus on the positive, we profit from the three most important tools available to us: happiness, gratitude and optimism.

Simply put, the more we seek and are attentive for the positives around us, the better we feel and the happier we are. The more of these opportunities to be happy we see, the more grateful we are. Also, seeing that there’s more positives we become hopeful for the future which makes us more optimistic. It is a virtuous cycle.

Focusing on the positive we feel happier, more grateful and hopeful.

So then, the formula is simple, but how to implement it on a daily level? By using what was mentioned previously, namely that success is a habit. In other words, if we want to become happier and reap the benefits that come with that, we need to create a habit of focusing on the positives around us.

The easiest way is to spend 5 minutes every day and write down 3 specific good things about your day. You can do it at any time during the day. In 5 minutes a day you can train yourself and develop the skill to notice the positives and nurture your happiness. Because it is a skill, consistency is critical and that’s why we need to make it a habit.

The technique is even more powerful when shared with others. For example, each evening (or morning), spend 5 minutes with your wife/husband/friend/family and focus on the good things in your day. This can help you appreciate each other more and to support and highlight the good sides of your relationships. Moreover, when you feel down the other people you involved in the development of that habit can help you sustain it and will lift you up, helping you get through the difficult times.


Being positive and as a result happier, more grateful and hopeful has amazing benefits. Studies have shown consistently that such people are more energetic, healthier, emotionally intelligent and less likely to be depressed, anxious and lonely.

Even though many jobs and the general social context can teach us to look for the negatives and as such develop a more pessimistic view there still is hope. As with any skill we can control our negative outlook and contain it to the situations that would benefit from it. Moreover, we can also nurture our positive outlook by focusing on the good things around us. This in turn will let us grow happier, more grateful and optimistic, ultimately improving our life and the life of the people around us. We have control over our life and it depends only on little steps, placed next to each other consistently to bring us to our goal.

Note: The idea for this article and many of the themes within it came from a book I am reading at the moment called The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles that Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor

If you want to read more about gratitude, search for some of the books written by Robert Emmos who has spend most of his career studying the subject.

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