One of the seven principles Shawn Achor, the author of, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work describes in his book is called the Tetris Effect (Achor, 2010). If you have ever played the game Tetris you will instantly recognize why. Tetris is a seemingly simple game in which four different shapes fall from the top of the screen and the player rotates or moves them to fit in with the other pieces such that an unbroken line appears. When this happens, that line disappears creating more room on the screen with which to fill up with more shapes.
While Tetris doesn’t appear to require much skill, it is surprisingly addictive. The reason is that repeated play of them game creates what is called a “cognitive afterimage” – much like the red or green dots that cloud your vision after someone takes a flash photo of you – where players start seeing shapes everywhere.
So just what does this have to do with happiness? The answer is simple. The more you look for something, the more you see it.
Focusing on material possessions, for example, tends to make people want more, and as we know from Section two, using materialism as a route to happiness usually lands us squarely on a hedonic treadmill where the more we buy, the less satisfied we feel and the more we want to buy to cope with these feelings. Further, numerous studies have already shown that people who are more materialistic are generally less satisfied with their standards of living, their relationships and their lives as a whole.
But what if we take people who are already materialistic and have them focus on something else – something that might increase their happiness? This was just the question that James A. Roberts of Baylor University and his two colleagues looked to answer.
To test their theory, the trio analyzed the results of a specially designed questionnaire sent to 249 university students.
The first results were as expected: People who pursue happiness through material gain were shown to feel worse, and have more negative appraisals of their satisfaction with life. Yet, when materialistic people reported higher levels of gratitude, the negative effects of materialism were reduced. In essence, gratitude acted like a buffer, helping materialistic people find a way to feel more satisfied with their lives (Roberts, et. al., 2015).
“In contrast to materialism, gratitude is a positive emotion that is experienced when someone perceives that another person has intentionally given him or her a valued benefit” (Roberts, 2015).
As Roberts and his colleagues point out, gratitude is “other focused” and revolves around finding and facilitating ways to give and help others. Materialism, on the other hand, works in just the opposite way, being “self-focused” and searching for ways to acquire more for the benefit of the self (Roberts, et. al, 2015).
The Tetris Effect tells us that we see what we look for. When we look for more material possessions, we only see more stuff, want more, and wish we could buy more (only to come up short). Yet when we look for things to be grateful for (Achor had participants write down three new things they were grateful for every day for 21 days) our gratitude levels expand, and so do our happiness levels – even if we are a little materialistic.