How a video game’s ‘flow’ can help you let go of worries

If you are waiting to hear back after a job interview, you can try distracting yourself with a video game. A new study in Emotion found that playing video games can improve the excruciating experience of waiting for an uncertain outcome.

How Tetris can be the blissful distraction worriers need

Instead of filling our heads with should’ve and could’ves, psychologists have found that we worriers can use “flow” —a state of mind where we disengage from the world with an engrossing task— to pass the time while awaiting uncertain news.

University of California, Riverside, psychologist Kate Sweeny and her colleagues recruited participants to do sufficiently distracting tasks to achieve flow. In one of the studies, law school students who experienced more flow while awaiting their bar exam results reported less worry and more positive emotions.

To test how this distracting experience could be replicated, Sweeny recruited 290 students to play Tetris, the 1984 video game where players have to match and manipulate tiles to fit spaces into a line. “Video games are perfect for flow as long as it’s a game that meets and slightly pushes the skill level of the player,” Sweeny said.

The students were told they would be ranked against one another based on physical attractiveness, and after hearing this anxiety-inducing news, they were told to play Tetris for 10 minutes. The students were given easy, challenging or adaptive levels to complete. The students in the “adaptive” level had the opportunity to get challenged as their skill level increased.  They were the group that experienced less negative emotion and greater positive emotion, compared to other groups.

The lesson from this video game test is to choose a distracting activity that rewards your efforts. You want an activity that is not going to toss you into the deep end from the beginning. With Tetris, the game slowly gets harder as tiles fall faster and shapes are no longer easy to clear. To win, you must learn which shapes work where and pay attention to where shapes fit.

You can apply this lesson to other distracting activities you may take on to avoid thinking about worrying to-do’s. Deep cleaning your kitchen can be challenging with hurdles of dirty dishes and moldy foods you need to clear, but it can be rewarding to know you will have a spotless kitchen as a result.

We need to recognize, however, that not every video game or distracting task is going to help you achieve flow. The flow-inducing task has to be challenging but not insurmountable. It has to keep you wanting to stay engaged. “Flow is most readily achieved with activities that challenge the person somewhat, but not too much; have clear, achievable goals; and that provide the person with feedback about how they’re doing along the way,” Sweeny said.