A video game that asks players to find the smile in a sea of frowns may help ease people's stress, researchers have found.
The game, developed by researchers at McGill University in Canada, is designed to change people's perceptions of the world around them - moving away from focusing on the negative, and toward a brighter outlook.
And it's done simply by having people locate the smiling face on their computer screen. Looking at a grid of 16 faces at a time, players have to spot the single smiling visage as quickly as possible - a task, the researchers say, that is tougher than it sounds.
The idea is that, by repeatedly playing the game, people start to train their minds to focus more on the positive signals they get from the world.
'People tend to focus on negative'
"When we're under stress, a vicious cycle can develop where we start to scan the environment for potential threats, leaving us more likely to focus on threatening information and making the world seem that much colder and more intimidating," explained Dr Mark W. Baldwin, a professor of psychology at the Quebec university and the senior researcher on the study.
The result, he said, is that we can start to dwell on perceived criticisms, rejections or conflicts with other people, rather than drawing on the positive relationships in our lives.
Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Baldwin and his colleagues describe a series of studies they conducted to test the effects of the video game.
Some were done in a controlled laboratory setting, but one was done in the very real world of telemarketing.
How the study was done
Twenty-three call centre workers were randomly assigned to play either the find-the-smile or a comparison video game every day for five days.
At the beginning of the work week, then again at the end of each workday, the employees completed questionnaires on their stress levels and self-esteem.
Overall, Baldwin's team found, workers who played the find-the-smile game reported a decrease in their stress levels and a boost in their self-confidence and work performance.
What's more, the find-the-smile group showed lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva samples.
'Attentional habits' changed through game
"The idea behind this attentional training," Baldwin said, "is that often it can be difficult to consciously decide to 'see the positive' in a situation, because such social perceptions happen automatically and outside of our deliberate control."
This study, he explained, shows that after playing the video game, people's "attentional habits" move away from seeing threats everywhere.
According to Baldwin, games such as this could potentially help people deal with a variety of situations, from the social anxiety of public speaking to the pressures of athletic competition.
In one recent study of 150 students, he noted, the researchers found that performing the game before a challenging task gave the students a shot of self-confidence and greater focus.- (Amy Norton/ Reuters Health)
Smile for a longer life