Have you ever become so engrossed in a project that you lost all track of time? Try to remember how you felt –that deep sense of personal satisfaction, a feeling of accomplishment, a sense of wonder and the motivation to keep going; shutting out anything else that might have distracted you. You might say you were in the ZONE. It’s been known for quite some time that the activities we engage in can either add to our happiness or detract from it. This is especially true as we grow older, when time is of the essence and how you spend each moment—matters.
The phenomenon I am referring to is called “flow”.
A state of flowrefers to the high you get when you become engrossed in an activity that brings you such joy and satisfaction that you become seamlessly entwined with the experience, losing all sense of the passage of time. Everything else fades into the background. You feel productive, on top of your game, in control. Most likely you are also following your heart; doing something you are passionate about.
Csikszentmihalyi first introduced his theory of flow state to the world of psychology in 1975 and since then, researchers across various fields, such as education, sports psychology, neuroscience and others have leveraged this phenomenon to improve performance and increase success. Important to note, is something called the Match Hypothesis—that is you are more likely to achieve flow state when you choose activities that match your abilities to the demands of the task. Everyone is different, of course. Some people are more cognitively oriented and are more likely to achieve flow when working on intellectual pursuits (reading, writing, continuing education); some are more inclined toward the creative skills (playing a musical instrument, drawing, acting); some the interpersonal skills (showing empathy, communicating, emotional intelligence). It may be that you are a combination of those, but usually, we derive more satisfaction when engaged in one of those areas, as opposed to the others. I know for myself, when I work on something that is a mismatch for my abilities, I end up frustrated and eventually unfocused, not to mention feeling like I wasted x amount of time that I can never get back.
More recently, researchers have found that the principle of “flow” may be an important key to well-being in older adults. It seems to protect our cognitive functioning as we age.
If you are not already doing so, consider reserving at least one hour of your day to give complete concentration to an activity you find rewarding; one that lifts you up to a higher level and helps you transcend the mundane tasks we all have to do each day. Enjoy the natural high that comes with experiencing flow on a daily basis.
Here is how to start honoring your life with a daily dose of flow-driven happiness
- Make a list of several projects/activities that you love to do. They should be challenging but not so far beyond your ability that you will be frustrated and abandon the activity.
- Categorize these activities (intellectual/cognitive, creative, interpersonal, kinesthetic/physical), etc.). You may find that you gravitate towards one or more areas.
- Rate the activities in terms of how closely each project is aligned with your abilities. Remember they should be challenging enough to hold your interest and give you a sense of achievement when completed; yet they are well within your skillset to achieve.
- Set aside an appointment with yourself for no less than an hour a day.
- Choose one project from you list which you will work on during that hour each day until that project is complete.
- Eliminate all distractions—no phone, email, social media, getting up to vacuum, or anything else. Resign yourself to spending this time fully engaged in the chosen activity.
- Be mindful of the peace and satisfaction this one hour of engagement offers you.
The flow experience is a simple way to enrich your life, give you something to look forward to each day, and increase your passion for life. It is also your chance to engage in experiences you have always aspired to before the other to-do’s of living got in the way. I urge you now to go for it. Take out that easel and paint palate; weave that rug; observe the sunrise; outline the novel you have had stuck in your head; compose the lyrics and music to that song you once thought of writing; build that bird feeder; study that period in history that always fascinated you; learn to tango; feel the waves crash around your feet as you breathe in the salty ocean air; fire up your camera and capture life’s portraits—and allow your passions drive your personal flow state. The result? You will be giving yourself the extraordinary gift of a daily dose of happiness.
Payne, et al (2011) In the Zone: Flow State and Cognition in Older Adults. Psychology and Agingvol 26(3) pp738-743.
© Raeleen Mautner, LLC