If you've ever played Tetris — whether it was at an old-school Gameboy, or just on your iPhone — then you know: It's 8-bit enchantment.
"Years of my life were lost disappearing into a game of Tetris on my Nintendo system," says Kate Sweeny, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside.
But maybe the hours she spent lining those little blocks ("tetriminos") into perfect rows of 10 weren't a total waste. Her latest research suggests that Tetris can ease us through periods of anxiety by getting us to a blissfully engrossed mental state that psychologists call "flow."
"The state of flow is one where you're completely absorbed or engaged in some kind of activity," Sweeny explains. "You lose your self-awareness, and time is just flying by."
So say, you're waiting for a date to text you back, or for your LSAT scores, or — as much of the country will be doing on Tuesday — waiting for the election results. You may be tempted to think obsessively about the possibilities. Instead, Sweeny's research suggests, you may want to turn off Twitter alerts, and try distracting yourself with a brain game.
The study, published recently in the journal Emotion, focused on people who were waiting for uncertain, potentially life-altering news, and it found that a flow-inducing game of Tetris could help them cope.
Sweeny and her collaborators gathered a group of more than 300 college students and told them their peers would be evaluating how attractive they were. "I know, it's kind of cruel, but we found it's a really effective way to get people stressed out," Sweeny says. While the participants awaited their attractiveness scores, the researchers had them play Tetris.
Some played a painfully slow, easy version of the game — which bored them. Some played an extremely challenging, fast version — which frustrated them. And everyone else played the classic version, which adapts to each player's individual skill level and gets them into that state of flow.
In the end, everyone experienced a degree of worry. But the third group reported slightly higher levels of positive emotions (on average, about a quarter of a point higher on a five-point scale) and slightly lower levels of negative emotions (half a point lower on a five-point scale).
"It wasn't a huge difference, but we think it's noticeable," Sweeny says. "And over time, it can add up."
The results line up with a growing body of research showing that regular doses of flow can boost our mood and help us manage stress. And although playing Tetris is a reliable way to achieve flow, other absorbing video games would work too. And if you'd rather put down your digital device, no worries. Games are by no means the only way.
"Think of the activity that grabs your attention and doesn't let it go," says Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who studies happiness. "For me, it's mountain biking." For you, it could be chess or ballet.
"I can't say I found this study particularly surprising at all," says Dunn, who wasn't involved in the research. "Mostly because, based on previous research, it's hard to find a situation where the experience of flow isn't a good thing."
What the new research does suggest, she says, "is that even in tough moments, we should push ourselves to do something challenging to get us out of the moment."
"Go mountain biking, or rock climbing or have games night with your friends where you play really challenging games," she says.
And if all else fails, you can always try Tetris.
Maanvi Singh is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to NPR. You can find her on Twitter: @maanvisings.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. So you're awake, and it's a Monday. And if you're beginning the week stressed out, here is some unusual advice from psychologists. Try a game of Tetris. That's right. A new study suggests that the classic video game can really help with worry. Maanvi Singh explains how this works.
(SOUNDBITE OF GAME BOYS' "TETRIS (GAME VERSION)"
MAANVI SINGH, BYLINE: If you've ever played Tetris maybe on your 1980's Game Boy or maybe just on your iPhone, then you know lining up those blocks can be addictive. Psychologist Kate Sweeny at the University of California, Riverside can relate.
KATE SWEENY: I can remember years of my life that were (laughter) lost to disappearing into a game of Tetris on my Nintendo system.
SINGH: Well, maybe not totally lost. Her latest study found an upside. The game can help during anxious times.
SWEENY: We brought people into the lab. We set up this kind of silly but stressful experience where we tell our undergraduate participants that they are being evaluated on how attractive they are.
SINGH: And while they waited for their ratings, they played Tetris. Some played a really slow easy game. Some played a version that was frustratingly difficult. And some played the classic version, which got them into the psychological state of flow.
SWEENY: The state of flow is one where you are completely absorbed or engaged in some kind of activity. So the whole rest of the world kind of falls away. You lose your self-awareness, and time is just flying by.
SINGH: Study participants who achieved flow reported higher rates of positive emotions and lower rates of negative ones. The results line up with a growing body of research showing that flow can help boost mood and manage stress. And Tetris isn't the only way to get there. Psychologist Elizabeth Dunn studies happiness at the University of British Columbia.
ELIZABETH DUNN: Think of the activity that grabs your attention and doesn't let it go.
SINGH: For you, that could be table tennis or ballet, spin class or chess. And it could be the perfect solution for tomorrow.
DUNN: When you're anxiously awaiting, say, election results, it's tempting to want to do nothing but, like, pay attention to, you know, the latest tidbits of news that are coming through or maybe to just do something undemanding like, you know, painting your nails or reading a book.
SINGH: To preserve your nerves, a better option is to try a distraction that's challenging but not frustratingly so.
DUNN: Go mountain biking or rock climbing or, you know, have, like, a games night with your friends where you're playing really challenging games.
SINGH: And if all else fails, there's always Tetris. For NPR News, I'm Maanvi Singh.
(SOUNDBITE OF BONVI BAND'S "TETRIS THEME KOROBEINIKI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.