How To Let Yourself “Flow” Into Happiness

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

  1. 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.
  2. Categorize these activities (intellectual/cognitive, creative, interpersonal, kinesthetic/physical), etc.). You may find that you gravitate towards one or more areas.
  3. 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.
  4. Set aside an appointment with yourself for no less than an hour a day.
  5. Choose one project from you list which you will work on during that hour each day until that project is complete.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Reference

Payne, et al (2011) In the Zone: Flow State and Cognition in Older Adults. Psychology and Agingvol 26(3) pp738-743.

© Raeleen Mautner, LLC

Can Gardening Actually Make You Happy? Yes, And Here Are 10 Reasons Why

 

As a kid, let’s just say I “apprenticed” in my grandparents’ garden, year after year. I watched with baited breath as my grandfather prepared the soil; anticipating the moment he would signal me to sprinkle in the vegetable seeds, or place the little tomato plants into their grooves. Then my grandmother and I would weed the irises and tulips that lined our little back yard; water the hydrangeas; and prune the rose bushes that bordered along the front wall. On Sundays I would go see my other grandparents—the ones who hoisted water up from a bucket in a well to moisten the soil around their grape arbor, and who would wrap and bury their fig trees in the winter. In other words, in my family, gardening was no trivial pursuit.

But if you think I inherited even a tip of a green thumbnail, think again. Year after year I continue to plant my basil, parsley, oregano, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, and lettuce. Maybe 1/5th of what I plant actually turns into what it is supposed to. But that’s beside the point. I garden anyway.  I garden because I must garden. Because gardening brings be back to the days of my grandparents. Because gardening  brings me joy—even if it doesn’t bring me flowers or vegetables.

Research shows that nature has a significant effect specifically on the well-being of older adults. For example, hospital patients who have a window, through which they can view trees or plants, heal faster than those who just have walls to look at. Similarly, gardening has been shown to positively impact both emotional and physical health of those who plant, water, reap, and admire. In a study that surveyed 331 older adult Australian gardeners, gardening was seen as critical to their physical and psychological well-being.

Plus, the older we are, the more benefits we derive from gardening. Such as the following:

  1. Aesthetic beauty that lifts our mood

  2. A connection with nature, which affirms our place in the universe

  3. Physical exercise from bending, weeding, hoeing, digging

  4. Fresh air and vitamin D from the sunshine

  5. A sense of achievement

  6. A meditation effect as we dig our hands into the soil

  7. Stress reduction as we immerse ourselves in the process

  8. Engagement with life

  9. Greater consumption of fruits and vegetables

  10. Food to feed your body; flowers to feed your soul.

It may be snowing outside but Spring is just around the corner. So start planning your “horticulture therapy” now and look forward to an extra seasonal dose of happiness!

Let’s start a discussion. What do you like to plant in the Spring?

Reference

Scott, T.L., Masser, B.M., & Pachana, N.A. (2015). Exploring the health and wellbeing benefits of gardening for older adults. Aging & Society (35) 2176-2200.

© Raeleen Mautner, LLC

Happiness-Enhancing Activities in 4 Do-It-Yourself Categories

 

Yes, crazy me, happily cleaning my oven with baking soda + a knit cloth made by a very special friend!

“Happiness-enhancing activities” seem to be the other half of the nature-nurture question when it comes to happiness. I won’t kid you: genetics play apart, and so do life circumstances. If you come from parents and grandparents who tended to frame things in a positive light you probably tend do think the same way. Life circumstances also have some effect on happiness, according to the research on happiness. If you win the lottery, for instance you will probably break into a happy dance; jump for joy; do somersaults around your back yard—who wouldn’t? But researchers found that positive life circumstances only go so far in making us happy. Meaning, the effect is short-lived, and then we adapt to that temporary emotional lift, and go back to being our own emotionally disgruntled selves, if that is how we were before hitting the jackpot.

So what’s the deal when it comes to the “nurture” side of the happiness equation? As it turns out, almost 50% of lasting happiness is under our control! I don’t know about you, but to me, THAT is a reason to do a somersault (okay, at least a mental one). Okay, but now let’s get to the nuts and bolts of what we can actually do, to make a happiness plan. Hint: you can start by doing more activities + thinking more thoughts– that make you happy.

Researchers Henricksen and Stephens did an exploratory study in older adults ranging from 56-76 years old to find out what kind of activities enhanced their happiness. Their responses fell into four categories; all of which are pretty attainable and might be useful for the rest of us to plan our days around if we want to get more out life. Here are the categories, when it comes to happiness self-management.

1. Other-focused activities. These might include spending time with family and significant others; meeting with others on a social basis, and helping others (such as in doing volunteer work or even making a meal for a sick neighbor).
2. Personal Recreation & Interests. This would include pursuing hobbies you are passionate about; balancing your life with entertainment and relaxation (going to a movie or curling up with a good book), or “external engagement” like going on a group hike or attending a book club discussion or adult ed class.
3. Thoughts and Attitudes. Happy older people are filled with gratitude for their blessings. They also tend toward constructive thinking; that is choosing to frame things positively. Even after personal trauma or loss, they focus on inner growth, or what they have learned from the hardship. Many times we think that we cannot change our thoughts, but great Dr. Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Therapy (who also honored me with his endorsement of my first book “Change Your Mind, Change Your Weight”), devoted his entire life to showing us how to change our thoughts, which in turn would have a positive effect on our emotional landscape.
4. Achievements. Happiness enhancing activities include setting –and achieving small, short-term goals; and also having longer-range goals in progress. Your immediate goal can be a simple as getting your oven clean using only baking soda and vinegar; and if it actually comes out great, you may feel a sense of achievement that starts a snowball effect of feeling good about other things. The oven is my example (as you can see from the photo above). Make a list of some of the short-term goals you want to attain, and then just start in on them, one by one. Your long-term goals might be what you’d like to do after you retire; or what exotic trip you’d like to take next year, or perhaps you’d like to write a book, try out for a play, start your own business or lose some weight so will feel better.

Happiness has too many emotional AND physical benefits to ignore, especially for older adults like us. The good news is, we can intentionally increase our happiness and have it last, by frequently engaging in positive activity and thought.

What do YOU do to feel happier? I’d love to read your feedback (when you’re done cleaning your oven, of course 🙂

Reference:
Henricksen, A., & Stephens, C. (2010) An exploration of he happiness-enhancing activities engaged in by older adults. Aging International (35) 311-326.

© Raeleen Mautner, LLC