In 2011, Roger Walsh published a review of the research into ways we can improve our mental health and resiliency by changing how we live. He found eight that had both solid research behind them and strong effects. As therapeutic interventions go, these lifestyle changes tend to be enjoyable, inexpensive, and carry only positive side effects such as increased physical health, self-efficacy, and longevity. Despite that, mental health professionals do not emphasize lifestyle changes. This could be due to a spin on the instrument fallacy: Clients bring in a nail and all therapists can think of to use is their hammer. Walsh suggests this failing is because therapists have unhealthy lifestyles themselves.

  1. Exercise: 30 minutes or more of exercise has therapeutic and preventative emotional and cognitive effects.
  2. Nutrition & Diet: Fish, vegetables and fruit in the diet have both enhancing and protective psychological effects.
  3. Time in Nature offers cognitive and emotional benefits and stress relief.
  4. Good relationships: Being connected in rich relationships comes with cognitive benefits, happiness, and resiliency. In fact, the quality of a therapeutic relationship may account for a large part of the benefit of therapy.
  5. Recreation & Enjoyable Activities (AKA fun): Helps with stress, mood, and well-being.
  6. Relaxation & Stress Management: Mindfulness practices and muscle relaxation techniques can have strong and lasting positive effects on mood management.
  7. Religious & Spiritual Involvement is associated with good mental health, maybe especially with faiths centered on love and forgiveness.
  8. Contribution & Service: Giving time and energy to others boosts happiness, as long as it isn’t out of a sense of obligation.

I deleted the only video game I’ve ever owned late Sunday night. It had to be done.

This is my third version of an essay about the game. The first was called “The Problem With Candy Crush,” and went something like this:

I’m not a video game guy and never have been. I dabbled in Tetris and played some two player games with friends and family, mostly Mortal Kombat and Mario Kart. Perhaps it’s my age–I’m solid Atari-wave Gen-X, the last generational cohort to have a real choice about playing video games. Perhaps I was just always more interested in other stuff. I’d rather read, play guitar, hike, whatever.

A couple of weeks ago, a coworker introduced me to Candy Crush, a single-player game where you try to line up images of candy into groups of three or more, which makes them disappear and more candy pours in from the top. It looks like this:


It sounds boring, and it should be, but I found I wanted to keep playing it. It has this Goldilocks just-hard-enough thing, and the rules are not completely handed to you, in an appealing way. In a short period of depression following a company-wide layoff, I downloaded the game to my iPod and started playing it. It engaged me when nothing else seemed interesting. A few days later, I accidentally played it for an hour and a half, losing my chance to get something done I’d decided to do. I felt cheated. I felt guilty. I felt ashamed. I started this essay in my head. 

Candy Crush is a combination of almost completely useless but also very sticky for me in the addiction-theory sense; I want to and do play it all the time but get almost nothing out of it. There are elements of pattern recognition and strategy but of very limited generalizability. There is no social component except for bragging to or begging from friends on facebook. Not only that, but the shapes, motion and patterns of the game show up persistently in my imagination when I’d rather they didn’t: talking with Reanna, meditating, trying to sleep. And dreams–when my friend Zen posted this image, I was certain I’d dreamed this exact scenario:


It got into my head the way speedcubing did for the first several months. The differences are that cubing skills are more generalizable–memorization, dexterity, three-dimensional pattern recognition and tracking– and that I’m genuinely proud of  and happy with my moderate Rubik’s-cubing skills. My average one-minute cube solve has a “wow” factor that saying or showing someone that I’m working on Candy Crush level 50 just does not have.

That was how “The Problem With Candy Crush” was going when I attended a lecture at the Southern Region Student Wellness Conference by Tim Burns, entitled, “Fostering Wellbeing and Resiliency.” Apparently, there is some correlation between resiliency and the percentage of the day people say they are having fun, with some kind of threshold at 40%. I haven’t looked into that research, but it really made me think. It wasn’t really that I estimated myself having fun somewhat less than 40% of the time. It was that I was in the middle of this essay about how Candy Crush was stupid and compelling and I hadn’t put my finger on why: It is really, really fun.  And I value fun. I value it for its own sake, not just for some theoretical correlation with resiliency.

That’s when I started writing an essay in my head entitled, “The Problem With the Problem With Candy Crush: Fun.”

But a few days later, I deleted the game. I had just dropped Reanna off at the airport and wouldn’t see her for a couple weeks. I’m also unemployed for those couple weeks, so I have a huge list of projects I am excited about getting done, in my trailer, around the yard, in the garden, etc. And I’m planning to sleep a lot, exercise a lot, cook a lot, and generally recuperate. It’s an inspiring vision. But when I got back to Joshua Tree, instead of brainstorming my vacation and getting to sleep early, I played an hour and a half of Candy Crush. The thing is, I’m not depressed any more and I have tons of stuff I want to do–that will be fun to do–but if I didn’t delete that game I would have frittered those precious two weeks away, having fun but isolated and having nothing to show for it. That’s not me. It had to go.