FINDING “FLOW”

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HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING [PART 11] by Audrey Berger, Ph.D

“I find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success.”  ~ Thomas A. Edison

  • Do you ever get so absorbed in an activity that you lose track of time, and become oblivious to everything else? What types of activities affect you this way?

If you’re familiar with how it feels to be so completely immersed in an activity that everything else literally recedes from conscious awareness, then you have experienced what psychologists call “flow.” In a flow state (athletes sometimes refer to it as “being in the zone”), concentration is effortless and complete, giving rise to a sense of competence and control. Being in flow is the essence of being in the moment. And, studies have found that quality of life is substantially enhanced when people regularly spend time participating in activities where they experience flow.

It’s helpful to be able to identify which activities tend to promote flow experiences for you. If you think back over the years, you may recognize the presence of flow in a number of the activities you’ve enjoyed. Perhaps you’ve experienced flow during activities such as painting, playing an instrument, gardening,  running, cooking, playing video games, or any one of a large number of other solo activities. Maybe you’ve had flow experiences during dyadic cooperative, goal-oriented activities like intense conversations, two-person games such as chess, two-person physical activities such as dancing or golf, and so on. You may have had group flow experiences in situations where people were gathered together for activities such as team sports, band, choir, theater productions, rock concerts, work teams, brain-storming activities, drum circles, or any other goal-oriented group activity. It’s worth noting that participation in group flow activities stands out for many people as being among some of their most memorable experiences.

Though many people spend a lot of free time watching TV, flow isn’t likely to be experienced during passive leisure activities. While they can be enjoyable and relaxing in moderation, passive leisure activities don’t generally contribute much to overall happiness and well-being. In fact, contrary to what many people believe, spending a great deal of time in passive leisure activities is more likely to lead to boredom and dissatisfaction

NECESSARY CONDITIONS FOR FLOW

It’s possible to experience flow in almost any activity, provided the activity involves the synthesis of challenge and skill. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who first introduced the concept in the 1960s, three of the primary conditions necessary for flow to occur are: (1) having a clear goal; (2) receiving direct and immediate feedback about progress toward that goal; and (3) achieving the correct balance between challenge and skill. The goal needs to be challenging but manageable, and very clearly defined. Since flow involves intense focus, it’s best to eliminate unnecessary distractions (e.g. cell phones, etc.) when you are taking on a challenge.

FINDING FLOW IS ABOUT FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE BETWEEN ANXIETY AND BOREDOM

Flow is especially gratifying when both the challenge and the skill level are high. However, if the challenge is too high relative the skill level, the activity will cause stress and anxiety. And, if the challenge is too low, it will lead to boredom. Flow can be found in the area that lies between anxiety and boredom.  For challenges that are too difficult, flow can be achieved by: (1) breaking the task into smaller, more manageable steps; and/or (2) by seeking training or assistance to help obtain the requisite skills. When the task is too simple, the way to achieve flow is to increase the complexity of the challenge by developing new and more interesting ways of approaching the task.

SOME SIMPLE WAYS TO GET MORE FLOW INTO YOUR LIFE

IDENTIFY YOUR PREFERRED FLOW ACTIVITIES: Based on the descriptions above, try to identify activities where you’ve experienced flow. Make a list of those activities, and make an effort to do them more often. If you find yourself becoming bored with an activity, you can increase the level of challenge so that you will be able to continue to experience flow. But, don’t increase the level of challenge too much, or it will cause you anxiety. When you find the right balance between boredom and anxiety, the activity should be quite enjoyable and you are likely to be in a flow state.

DEVELOP STRATEGIES FOR EXPERIENCING FLOW IN ROUTINE TASKS: When you have to do mundane, boring tasks (e.g. cleaning) you can generate a flow experience by simply incorporating an achievable challenge into the activity. In order to stay interested in the activity, the challenge should be slightly out of reach, so that you are always pursuing a manageable goal. For example, if you are cleaning and you wish to experience flow, you can challenge yourself to do the cleaning faster, or in a different manner than usual, such as using your non-dominant hand. If you are waiting for a bus or a doctor appointment, try setting a goal that you can work on while you wait, such as seeing how many words you can think of that begin with a particular letter.

SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS ON FLOW

The research on what facilitates flow has important implications for use of leisure time in general, and for people heading into retirement in particular. At a minimum, it suggests a need to add variety, challenge, and ideally meaning to leisure activities, especially if you are no longer working at a job.  Since studies have found that it’s rare for people to adopt new interests in retirement, it’s helpful to establish flow-inducing interests and activities before retirement, whenever possible.  But, if you’re in retirement and you haven’t yet established any flow-inducing hobbies, it’s never too late to make a point of identifying some and adding them to your life. In fact, no matter where you are in your life trajectory, finding ways to integrate healthy flow activities into your life is an easily accessible and powerful way to increase your happiness and well-being.

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS

Achor, S. (2013-09-10). Before happiness: The 5 hidden keys to achieving success, spreading happiness, and sustaining positive change. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Colman, J. (2012-10-16). Optimal functioning: A positive psychology handbook. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (Eds.). A life worth living: Contributions to positive psychology. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008-08-18). Flow (P.S.). [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Goleman, Daniel (2011-04-12). The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. More Than Sound LLC. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Goleman, Daniel (2013-10-08). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Kotler, S. (2014-03-04). The rise of superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

McGonigal, Kelly (2015-05-05). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002-10-02). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

 

Happiness & Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness & Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                                       Happiness & Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness & Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                      Happiness & Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 6: Developing A Growth Mindset                                                 Happiness & Well-Being, Part 7: Savoring                                                                                        Happiness & Well-Being, Part 8: Positive Reminiscence                                                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 9: Mindfulness                                                                                     Happiness & Well-Being, Part 10: Mindfulness II

 

MINDFULNESS

[Happiness and Well-Being, Part 9] by Audrey Berger, Ph.D.

“Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake.” – William James

  • Do you sometimes find that you haven’t really been paying attention to what you’ve been doing, and have instead been running on autopilot?
  • As you’ve gotten older, do you sometimes find it more challenging to maintain focus on things you’re doing?

Sometimes we simply don’t pay attention to what we’re doing in the moment. Perhaps we’re multitasking, or lost in thought about something that’s not even related to what we’re actually doing. And, when driving a car, most of us have had the rather unnerving experience of suddenly realizing that we can’t recall how we got from one place to the other. An alternative to this probably familiar ‘mindless’ state is practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is a specific way of paying close attention to your moment-to-moment experience, without judging or trying to alter the experience in any way. There are different approaches to practicing mindfulness, but all are essentially a form of meditation.

Research has shown that mindfulness meditation is associated with many physical and emotional benefits: it supports the immune system and helps people with a variety of medical and psychiatric disorders, including heart disease, high blood pressure, chronic pain, sleep disturbance, gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and stress-related issues. Learning to simply observe experiences and thoughts without forcing, judging, accepting or rejecting them, has been found to diminish their ability to provoke automatic, potentially destructive emotional and physical reactions. In other words, mindfulness reduces emotional reactivity and breaks the usual connection between negative thoughts and negative emotions.

Brain imagining studies have found that regularly practicing mindfulness changes the brain in ways that promote happiness and well-being. These studies have shown that mindfulness leads to an increase in the number of neurons in areas of the brain involved in attention, concentration, self-regulation, positive emotion, and the creation of new memories. Mindfulness meditation appears to increase the speed capacity of nerve impulses too. Studies have also found that mindfulness leads to a decrease of neurons in the area of the brain most reactive to stress. These important brain changes undoubtedly underlie the many medical and psychiatric benefits associated with regular mindfulness practice.

It is also worth noting that regularly practicing mindfulness has been shown to protect against changes in cognitive functioning that are sometimes associated with normal aging. Older meditators have been found to perform better than same age non-meditators on tasks that involve attention, working memory, perceptual speed and some of the other higher level cognitive functions that help to organize and order behavior. Studies have also shown that it is never too late to reap the benefits of a regular mindfulness practice: when beginners received only 8 weeks of basic meditation training, they began showing some of the same brain benefits that were found in the experienced meditators.

INTRODUCING MINDFULNESS INTO YOUR LIFE
Mindfulness can be practiced formally or informally. Formal practice involves regularly setting aside time to practice mindfulness meditation. The general recommendation for developing a formal practice is to begin with brief periods of meditation, and then gradually increase the duration as you strengthen your ability to maintain a mindful state.  The more you practice, the greater the benefits you will experience over time. If possible, beginners may wish to aim for 20 minutes a day of formal practice, and over time increase the duration of practice to 45 minutes.  But, even if you are only able to devote smaller amounts of time to practice, you will still experience some benefits.

Concentration Practices:  The first step is to learn to increase your capacity for concentration (also called “concentration practices”). There are a variety of possible concentration practices, but the simplest involves merely focusing on the sensation created in your nose or your abdomen when you inhale and exhale. When using your breathing to help develop your concentration, it is not necessary to breathe deeply, or to change your breathing pattern in any way. Just breathe naturally and focus your attention on how it feels. This exercise may seem very simple, but it is much more challenging than you might expect. As you try to maintain focus on your breath, your mind will undoubtedly wander; when you notice this has occurred, simply bring your attention back to your breathing, without judging yourself for becoming distracted.  Some people find it easier to maintain focus if they silently name what they’re doing (e.g. “breathing in,” “breathing out”), or if they silently count their breaths. Developing the ability to remain focused during meditation is a learning process that takes time, patience and a lot of practice.

Informal Practices: Whether or not you choose to develop a regular formal mindfulness practice, it’s important to recognize that virtually anything you do can potentially be done mindfully instead of mindlessly. It’s a matter of putting energy into developing the habit of paying attention. Pick a few activities that are a regular part of your life, and make a decision to do them mindfully all the time. In this way, you can start to associate the activity with being mindful, which will increase the chances that you’ll remember to pay attention when you engage in those activities. As an example, you can wash the dishes mindfully, you can shower mindfully, you can eat mindfully, you can walk up and down the stairs mindfully, you can go for a walk mindfully, etc. Instead of thinking about other things while you engage in the activities you select, focus exclusively on remembering to pay close attention to the sensations and actions involved in what you are doing. You will, in a sense, be “single-tasking.”

NEXT TIME:  More on mindfulness, including additional ways to incorporate mindfulness into your life.

Audrey Berger, Ph.D. has been a life coach, psychologist and psychotherapist for 33 years. In her life coaching practice she specializes in mid and later life transitions such as retirement, empty nest, midlife transition, positive aging in general, and creating a new life after divorce/loss. She also works with an array of other life issues and goals, including helping couples to create the relationship they want. You can learn more about her life coaching services, and find out about receiving a complimentary coaching consultation, at www.turningpointlifecoaching.com. Audrey can be reached at: info@turningpointlifecoaching.com or at (585)292-0095.

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Boyce, B. (Ed.) (2011-03-08). The mindfulness revolution: Leading psychologists, scientists, artists, and meditation teachers on the power of mindfulness in daily life. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Hanh, T. N. (1991). Peace is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Hanh, T. N. (2012-02-07). The art of mindfulness. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Goleman, Daniel (2011-04-12). The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. More Than Sound LLC. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990) Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.

Mingyur Rinpoche, Yongey (2007). The joy of living: Unlocking the secret and science of happiness. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

Siegel, R. D. (2009) The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. Guilford Publications [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.

 

If you haven’t yet read the eight previous posts in this series, click on the links below so you can learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:

Happiness and Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness and Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                             Happiness and Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness and Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                Happiness and Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism                          Happiness and Well-Being, Part 6: Developing A Growth Mindset                                         Happiness and Well-Being, Part 7: Savoring                                                                                        Happiness and Well-Being, Part 8: Positive Reminiscence

 

“Mindfulness” by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. was originally published on the Transition Network website.