As a thumb-smashing, Atari-playing child of the 70s, I’m intimately familiar with the exhilarating sensation of achieving High Score on your game of choice. Space Invaders? Step aside. Asteroids? Blasted to infinity. Pong? Phfft. Child’s play. When I was 10 years old on family vacation in Maui, I came down with the chicken pox and wasn’t allowed to be in the sun. What did I do? I found an arcade game on the property and played it for hours on end, days in a row. Before long, the initials “HKB” lined the Best Score screen like wallpaper. I owned that machine. Looking back, it seems pretty silly to think my domination over a machine was worthy of such chest-beating and pride, but today I find everyone – of all ages – participating in this never-ending, addictive game – The Gamification of Life.

What is the Gamification of Life?

Today, you can’t go anywhere without running into a device that will reward you for your efforts. Whether it’s a FitBit, iWatch, app, or smart apparel, everything wants to give you a prize for moving your you-know-what. You walked 10K steps – you get a bronze medal! You burned 1,500 calories – you get a FatBurning Badge of Honor! You recorded your food – you get a Golden Carrot! I can’t help but snicker at all the jaded Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who scoff at the Millenials and their “everyone gets a trophy” generation. I’m sorry …what exactly do you think we are doing?! We are as active participants in this philosophy as anyone else! And that’s just the fitness-related devices.

What about social media? There are accolades to rack up there as well, only in the form of “likes”. Or “views”. Or “follows”. Or “shares”. Or “connections”. (sigh) And what about all the smartphone apps that constantly push out notifications? Our response? To wipe out the little “4” or “5” as soon as possible by reading the emails, viewing our mentions, accepting the appointments. We want to be “on top of it”, “with it”, “in the know”, “right on time”. And in the process of whacking all the little moles in our game of life, we begin to resemble Pac-Man. Gobbling up achievement after achievement, running from the fragments of ourselves who crave connection. Not the kind of connection you find running through copper wires but the kind only we can give – authentic, intimate connection with self.

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
– Socrates

The Problem with Achievement

The more we rely on outside acknowledgment or rewards to boost our self-esteem, create a sense of belonging, and foster self worth, the more vacuous we become. Every time we pull down a flag and feast on it’s very short-lived charge without nourishing ourselves from our own well of spirit, we erode our capacity to generate meaning for ourselves. It’s like trying to fill a tin cup with hydrochloric acid. While you may temporarily fill the cup, the bottom is soon eaten through, incapable of holding anything of substance.

And I’m not just talking about our emotional capacity taking a hit, I’m also speaking directly to the consequences we pay with our physical health. In a recent study performed by the London-based Future Work Centre, which conducts psychological research on people’s workplace experiences, they revealed (shocker!) that constant email notifications are a ‘toxic source of stress for employees’. Speaking of stress, the following is a list of the top 10 health problems related to stress:

  1. Heart Disease
  2. Asthma
  3. Obesity
  4. Diabetes
  5. Headaches
  6. Depression and Anxiety
  7. Gastrointestinal Problems
  8. Alzheimer’s Disease
  9. Accelerated Aging
  10. Premature Death

Did you catch that last one? Possibly spurred on by problems one thru nine?! But I digress.

We create stress in ourselves when we feel we always have to keep up. We always have to be on. Be better. Be more. Be that girl. Be that guy. It not only sets us up for failure – as we’re attempting to win at someone else’s game – but creates more and more self doubt and hampers our ability to cultivate our own self-worth.

Opting Out of The Game

Instead, walk away from the machine. I know. Sounds easy. But truly, ask yourself:

“What am I winning by ‘winning’ this game?”
“What am I attempting to feel or experience by playing this game?”
“If I stopped participating in this game, what would I feel? What is my fear in stopping?”

These questions are designed to get you closer to the aspect of yourself you’ve lost connection with. The piece that you’ve forgotten how to nourish on your own. Once you’ve found what it is you’re chasing – perhaps it’s “importance”, “health”, “credibility”, “being enough” – then you have a place in which to begin.

Orient yourself in that place – the place of wanting to “be enough”, “do enough”, or “have enough” and what “enough” resembles for you (fitness, belonging, fulfillment, etc). And then, instead of looking outside for ways in which to achieve that, ask yourself, “What could I do today that would be enough?” You might be surprised at how simple the answers and efforts are.

For me, when I look outside of myself and try to fill my cup from there, I quickly get caught up in the mind-numbing conveyor belt of racking up points that always leaves me exhausted and as unfulfilled as ever. But when I look within, the answer is much more tangible and gratifying: To share a compliment. To make my kids breakfast. To go for a ride in the valley. To write from a vulnerable place. To offer a smile to a stranger.

These things… THESE things last. Only these things can be, and will be, enough.

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Halley Bock is the author and founder of Life, Incorporated.

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