I did a scary, but very good thing the other day: I deleted all my games and all my social media from my phone. (I still have my addiction to YouTube to contend with, but this major breakthrough is HUGE!)
As I did it, I wanted to celebrate, but realized, besides my husband, there wasn’t really anyone who would celebrate with me. And, this got me thinking about why this is such a big deal, why it deserves celebrating, and how I can add this kind of mentality to the rest of my life and self-care.
The Addictive Nature of Games and Social Media
Okay, first off, I’m not a research scientist, nor a neuroscientist. I’m a zookeeper. But I have learned a little about how dopamine works, because it’s very relevant to how we learn, how animals learn, and how we maintain behavior. And understanding how dopamine works is key to gamifying our lives, and killing addictions.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical in the brain) that makes us feel good when released into our body. It is often associated with pleasure and rewards. Some of the big “dopamine rushers” are alcohol, drugs, and sex. Sugar and flour also trigger dopamine (which is partly why smelling cookies can overpower even some of the strictest dieters). But so does celebration.
I talk a lot about how celebration releases dopamine in my Stop Burnout Before It Starts workshop (contact me, please, if you would like me to present this virtual workshop to your group). It’s one of the healthiest ways we can release dopamine, naturally. Well, until it isn’t that healthy.
Which brings me to video games and social media.
When you post a photo on social media and you get likes, comments, and shares, how does that feel? Are you elated? Excited? Happy? Does it feel good? Do you want to post more on social media to see if you can get more likes, more comments? That’s the dopamine.
This even works when you DON’T get likes or comments. When you read comments on others’ posts and they jive with your opinion, you get a boost of dopamine. When YOU like SOMEONE else’s post, you get a shot of dopamine. Dopamine shot after dopamine shot, we become addicted to social media.
And the same exact thing can be said for video games. It’s especially strong with video games, where the mentality is never “You Lost! (AKA- you suck, loser, stop trying)”. Instead, it’s “you didn’t win…yet.” When you win a round, or find all the puzzle pieces, or solve the riddle, or find the treasure, you get a hit of dopamine each time. And it feels good, which triggers us to want to do that again. And again. So much so that even when we lose a round, or get our asses handed to us by the big boss, we aren’t discouraged. No, we just need more PRACTICE…playing the game! So, even in losing, we are reinforced to keep playing.
Okay, so I moved to Hawaii (yes, yes, paradise, blah blah). The move was incredibly stressful, starting a new job back in the animal care field after a pretty long hiatus was pretty stressful, getting used to the heat, the city, the insects trying to eat me non-stop…was pretty stressful (I’m not used to any of that, btw– so it’s still pretty stressful!). I allowed myself some leniency on my writing, eating habits, and other self-care habits. I picked up a few games while scrolling social media and seeing ads (the double whammy!).
Three months later, I wasn’t doing any better than when I first moved. I still hadn’t written anything or worked on my book. I was still procrastinating (not even procrastibaking, which is at least more productive than just watching videos and playing stupid games), not getting to bed on time, hitting snooze, playing my game or scrolling social in bed, getting up late, and not implementing my self-care activities before work.
Yes, from making my bed to eating breakfast, taking my supplements and doing just five measly minutes of exercise was wasted by games and social media.
I used to get raging mad at Chris when he’d play his stupid game for, like, hours (this was YEARS ago!). He would tell me, “yeah, like five more minutes” for an hour until I stormed into his office and tried to pull the plug. So I’ve been on both ends of the addiction. I know what this does to ME, and I know what it does to my family.
I’m not really even being that over-dramatic, either. Is video game addiction as dangerous as alcohol or drug addiction? Not in the same sense, but it can pull you away from your family. Video game and social media addiction can pull you from your dreams, productive acts, your health, and your well-being.
On Tuesday, after scrolling through social media for TWO HOURS before getting out of bed, I decided I had had enough of this crap. I deleted Instagram and all my games.
All of it gone.
(of course, I replaced it immediately with scrolling through the news pages, reading about the crisis building more in Israel and Gaza, among other, pointless stories, but I think that’s my brain rebelling, going through something like DTs and extinction bursts. I don’t think I experienced any dopamine hits reading about the attacks on Gaza and Israel…)
The Self-Care Game
Okay, so I let my dopamine release while scrolling and playing games. And then I dropped those bad habits like…well, like a bad habit. Now what
Now, my friends, is where I do some Healthy Alternative Behaviors in Training (HABiTs). This is reinforcing other behaviors that are either incompatible or just flood out the unwanted behaviors (I really should get on the ball writing more blogs, this is an important topic…). I don’t want to play games or scroll though social media. However, I am heavily reinforced for playing games and scrolling, so I need to combat that behavior with something just as rewarding.
I need to gamify my behavior and healthy habits. Make it a fun game. Level up my life.
Celebration is absolutely key here. Make sure every step of the way, I’m telling my brain that THIS is what I want to do more of, because it’s fun, it’s rewarding, and it feels good. How do I do that?
Well, just to be clear, there are as many ways to train a behavior, and reinforce a behavior as there are trainers to teach it. So, how I do that really depends on me. What do I like?
I enjoy beating my score. I enjoy building winning streaks. While playing Wordle, I had a 250 game streak, and that is literally the only reason I kept playing: to keep building that winning streak.
So, I can apply that to my morning routine: How many days in a row can I wake up and get out of bed without hitting snooze? How quickly can I make the bed? Or get dressed and ready for my mobility workout with the hubby? And then play that game well, by getting boosts of dopamine every time I celebrate accomplishing those tasks.
Level Up Your Life
I realized I was already doing this game at work, too. How quickly could I hose the back area? How long will it take me to collect 100 bunches of elephant grass? Can I keep my streak of not spilling the Vitamin E (because Vaigai doesn’t like the taste of it and won’t eat it if it spills out)?
I’m not trying to push myself to do too much at work. For instance, I refuse to “race” the other keepers in picking up more of the yard than they do (I remember I used to do this at my old jobs, to continuously “prove” myself). Instead, I celebrate whenever I find myself squatting properly, using good form to pick up heavy objects, and maintain a good looking environment.
The benefits are I am becoming more confident in my work, I feel I am productive, and I enjoy doing the work more. It really hit me the other day when I ducked between the fence around the elephant enclosure while turning the water on and off and rolling up the hose to clean the elephants’ water bowl. Usually, I turn off the hot wire (because I don’t need that kind of wake up call, thank you very much!), but I still practice ducking just right so I don’t hit the wires (and yes, I fist pump the air every time I am successful). This time, though, I realized while on the opposite side of the fence, that I had forgotten to turn the hot wire off. But I had gone through three times without hitting the wire. I confidently went through one last time as I turned the water on to fill the water bowl, giving myself a huge mental hi-five. “That’s like me!”
Games We Play
So, let’s close up today by tossing the ball back into your court. Dopamine is a powerful tool to get us to learn and do new things. It can be used for healthy habits, or not so desired activities. Training ourselves to cut out the not-so-great behaviors is tricky, but with celebration, it’s possible. Go for the winning streaks, and make the games as fun as you want to.
What behavior do you want to turn into a game? And how can you start playing, to level up your life and gamify your self-care, starting today? What’s your celebration? How will you get your hit of dopamine? Start feeling better, so we can do better! One small step at a time!