"Being Driven" or "Having Drive:" Are You Being Taken for a Ride?
Recovering Catholics: A Success Story

The Tetris Effect: Two Simple Steps to Train Your Brain for Happiness

Tetris Video Game
'Remember the video game, Tetris?  It is a relatively simple game in which falling sets of four squares drop to the bottom of the screen, and the player must rotate and move them so that they fit into the available matching spaces. Apparently, people get addicted to this game, playing for hours at a time. I wouldn't know. My video gaming experience began and ended with Pong.


After playing Tetris for awhile, many people report thinking about ways that different shapes fit into matching spaces in the real world, like cereal boxes on a shelf at the grocery store. They start "seeing" these four-square shapes in everyday objects and then naturally search for a place where they will "fit."  Tetris Pieces Falling
This after-imaging can occur after just about any prolonged visual task like weeding, playing chess, performing math calculations, or looking at slides under a microscope. Later, when people close their eyes, they often see the object of the prolonged task. This automatic and intrusive image seems to insert itself as the brain's way of saying, "Hey, this must be important since you spent so much time on it, so here it is for you again."

An Oxford study (Holmes, E., et al, 2009) found that when victims played Tetris shortly after experiencing their traumatic event, the frequency, intensity, and accuracy of traumatic memories were decreased. The preoccupation with the Tetris shapes interfered with traumatic memory encoding. How fascinating is that?

I remember an experience I had which I now recognize as The Tetris Effect. I starting being on the lookout around town for cardboard boxes because I was going to be moving soon.  Cardboard Boxes
For several days,  I drove around noticing dumpsters, loading areas behind liquor stores, trash cans set out by the curb, anywhere I might find discarded cardboard boxes. I picked them up and eventually had enough. My task was completed. Well, apparently, my brain didn't get the memo, because I continued to compulsively look for boxes even though I didn't need them anymore. It took a few days to convince my brain that that mental activity was no longer needed and it was eventually extinguished.

Happy Face in Sand

What Does This Have to Do With Happiness?

If The Tetris Effect is a phenomenon that occurs naturally, why not use it intentionally for a desired outcome? Try this popular technique. At the end of every day, for the next 30 days, jot down two short lists. Write a list of three things that you are grateful for and write a list of three good things that happened to you that day. That's it. You will find, well before the 30 days are up, that you will start 1) noticing and 2) actively looking for things that you are grateful for and good things that happen to you. Gratitude and the natural awareness of positive events will become second nature to you. You will not only recognize positive events; you will start to actively interpret neutral events as positive. Tetris will be everywhere!  Your brain will learn, "Hey, this gratitude/happiness event must be important since you spent so much time on it, so here it is for you again."

I gave the Two-List assignment to one of my Psychology classes as an extra credit opportunity. Just to get you started and with their permission, here a few items that they listed.

Spirituality Blessings Rock

Three Things That I Am Grateful For

  • That I didn't give up on going back to college after a 38 year absence.
  • I have a roof over my head.
  • I got thrown in jail for being a nuisance, which changed my life for the better.
  • I am grateful for being here in America and getting a better education.
  • The calm after the storm. Today was that day - the day that comes after the really awful day, so I am grateful for the peace that is restored when you have nowhere to go but up.
  • I am grateful for Louis Daguerre, who invented the first photographic device! Without him, there would be no camera and I would not be able to express myself through photography.
  • Finally learning that making good choices and doing nice things for others makes me a much happier person.
  • I can smell the recent rain on the still warm asphalt.
  • That God's plan was very different from mine; and it was a a better plan.
  • I am grateful for Habitat for Humanity who built my family and me a beautiful house.

Three Good Things That Happened To Me

  • My English teacher asked to use another assignment of mine as an example for future classes. That just never gets old!
  • I got a warning instead of a speeding ticket.
  • I found $5.00 in my dirty clothes.
  • There was finally some progress in the bureaucratic BS of getting financial aid.
  • I worked on my old car with my dad.
  • My new landlord finished painting our linen closet.
  • I received some useful advice for encouraging a better relationship with my son.

Notice that happiness can be found in the most unexpected places - your dirty laundry! And gratitude can be expressed for the simplest of things that we normally take for granted - your sense of smell! So start training that brain of yours to be more aware of the lovely things in life, and to be not so sensitive to every little bump in the road. I would bet that if we could train our brains this way, more four square pieces will start naturally falling into their rightful places in our lives, and the delight of synchronicity will become the norm.

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Stefan Parmark

Wow! You really know how to use humour to fool me into reading your post, and suddenly I realise that this is really useful!
I mean, when I started on my blog, I had problems to focus on it, and my first goal was to sit down and write for 2 hours. And I did, and found that the next day, I could write for a longer period of time. Today, I just keep going and can almost not turn it off when I go to bed. And in my dreams, I get clues about how to proceed. :-)
I have been using the Tetris Effect without knowing it!
I will start writing my gratitude and good things lists tonight.
Many thanks, Kristin!

Kristin L. Roush, Ph.D.

Hi Stefan!
Awesome! You know, you got me thinking. All of this really underscores the importance of being aware of our mental activity. I am reminded of the old adage, "garbage in, garbage out."

I would guess that even watching violence on TV, while perhaps not translating to violent behavior, could be insidiously wiring my brain to be more sensitive to violence. I don't want that.

It's always nice to hear from you. For everyone else, please check out Stefan's excellent self-improvement blog at www.StefanParmark.com

Stefan Parmark

Yes, you are right, Kristin. Every time you do something you create new neural links. Intense feelings, like when you experience a traumatic event, strengthen the neural links. But when you start doing something else, like playing Tetris, and you focus on it, you build new "Tetris" links, and since you don't focus on the trauma anymore, those links weaken.
The mind is powerful if you know how it works, and how to use it.

Many thanks for promoting my blog! I try to write high quality articles that will give people tools to create an amazing life. Your help is much appreciated.

Kristin L. Roush, Ph.D.

Thanks for re-iterating the neural pathways piece. All of this is related to Energy Medicine and Energy Psychology. For an excellent book that explains more about the neurology of behavior, check out Tara Bennett-Goleman's book, Emotional Alchemy.

Daniel Speraw

Thank you for an wonderful idea. Daniel

Kristin L. Roush, Ph.D.

You are very welcome. So glad you stopped by. Look forward to hearing from you again, Daniel!

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