Building Happiness Through Flow States
Most of us are in the pursuit of a happy life. What if I tell you that we can create happiness through “flow states”?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist and one of the pioneers of the scientific study of happiness, mentions in his studies that happiness comes from within oneself.
“The first step in improving the quality of life consists in engineering daily activities so that one gets the most rewarding experiences from them” — Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life (pp. 41–42).
Yes — this means that we have control over our time and whether we spend it on activities that contribute towards creating experiences of happiness or not.
Let’s clarify that this does not mean that we have full control over everything that can either enhance or diminish our experiences. There are and will always be external factors that influence how we experience life.
This also does not mean that if we don’t take any action we cannot experience happiness. We can be happy experiencing gratitude for having a supportive family and fin joy in a conversation with a friend. However, these experiences are vulnerable and change from one person to another as they depend on external factors.
This brings us to Stephen R. Covey’s Circles of Concern, Influence, and Control. The Circle of Concern may hold things that we are concerned about but are out of our control. The Circle of Influence (contained within the Circle of Concern) is compounded by those things that concern us and we can potentially impact — but cannot guarantee getting the results we wanted. Within the Circle of Influence we can find the Circle of Control which are the things we have the power to change.
The Circle of Control is where we want to focus our energy in and where we have the power to create flow for ourselves.
The concept of flow
You may or may not have experienced flow, but we all most likely have heard someone say “I was in the zone” when describing how they felt performing certain activity where they experience deep engagement and focus.
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” — (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
So how does one create “flow”?
There are two core elements that play a huge role creating flow: challenges and skills. When the challenge requires our skills to be fully involved we experience flow.
1) Identifying activities in which you experience flow today.
Activities can be related to either Productive (at work), Maintenance (eating) or Leisure (Hobbies) areas. According to Csikszentmihalyi in order to experience flow we need to have clear goals, get immediate feedback, and have a balance between challenges and skills.
For example, you may experience flow today while running. Your goal perhaps is to run longer. After each run you are able to tell what was better this time than the last one (pace, focus). Each run as well will evolve to represent a higher challenge that requires more skills as you get better.
2) Taking advantage of the “Arousal” and “Control” quadrants.
There may be activities in which you used to experience flow but you’re loosing interest in today. This is most likely because challenges and skills are no longer in balance.
Sticking to our running example, perhaps your skills are now higher than the challenge. In this case we can try to increase the distance, or listen to a podcast that challenges you mentally. It can also happen that a longer distance causes you to loose focus towards the end of the run , in which case the challenge is bigger than your skill to remain focused for a longer period of time. This is an opportunity for growth — you can try a new podcast, or a new guided run to help you to strengthen your focus and mental skills.
3) Trying something new
In our journey towards finding flow we should reflect on the activities that enable us to experience flow today and think about how we can develop them further so that they lead to flow more often or we experience them more deeply. However, we also need to explore new activities that we can incorporate into our day to day to continue to get inspired, create challenges for ourselves and promote growth (skills).
Think about something that you always wanted to try or something you used to really enjoy in the past and make time for it. There’s nothing to loose — there’s only opportunity to gain something from it.
Happiness is not a static state, it’s ever changing. We can develop and achieve happiness by focusing on the things that we have the power to change — for example enabling those experiences that create flow. It’s only until we complete a task or activity that we are able to reflect on what happened and experience gratitude for that experience.
The happiness that follows flow is of our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness.