Mental As: ‘Flow’ vital for happy, fulfilled life

Spending time immersed in effortless concentration and enjoyment, or “flow”, is vital for a happy and fulfilled life. But how do you make this happen?

There are many circumstances that can make you feel happy, but “flow” is the state of involved enchantment you feel in moments when you are fully absorbed in an activity that has meaning to you.

Even the most routine tasks – like washing dishes, hanging out the laundry, or mowing the lawn – become more rewarding if you approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

It might be playing sport, making a sculpture, taking photographs or playing a musical instrument.

When you are in flow, you forget yourself and lose track of time. In these moments, you feel strong, alert, unselfconscious and at the peak of your abilities.

These exceptional moments provide flashes of intense living against the dull background of everyday life.

They create a different type of happiness, of your own making, that is truly fulfilling and ultimately helps you develop a stronger sense of who you really are.

The effortless enjoyment of the flow experience doesn’t come without effort though. It comes after you focus your mind on particular types of behaviour.

‘Flow’ akin to ‘being in the zone’

My research shows it is very rare for people to report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or having a bath. You need a mind that is willing to set challenges for itself.

Usually, people experience flow while pursuing a goal in the context of a set of rules.

Your personal plan for flow

Choose a task that is challenging, not too easy but not too hard
Set clear and realistic goals
The task must have clear and immediate feedback
Identify your motivation.
Be proactive
Do not fret about your performance or try to force yourself into flow
Cultivate an environment conducive to flow
Give yourself enough time
Minimise interruptions and distractions
Monitor your emotional state
Regularly engage in tasks that encourage a flow state

You are usually doing something where there is a sense of discovery, where you can concentrate deeply and where there is a sense of control. You get immediate feedback so you know you are doing it right.

Your skills are perfectly matched to the task at hand, so you are neither anxious nor bored.

Sports are well-designed for this and athletes who achieve it talk about “being in the zone”.

But, it can also occur when you are dancing, climbing a mountain, making a piece of furniture, playing with a baby, talking with a good friend, or involved in an artistic, intellectual or spiritual endeavour.

The best moments usually occur when your body or mind is stretched to its limits in an effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

It is almost always linked to situations where your personal skills are used to their utmost.

It happens surprisingly often at work and can happen even in a mundane job if you pay close attention to each step involved and then ask: Is this step necessary? Can this task be done better, faster, more efficiently? What extra steps could make my contribution more valuable?

But flow generally happens when you do your favourite activity. For example, gardening, playing a piece of music, bowling or cooking a good meal.

Find out what makes you happy

The first step to achieving flow is to get in touch with yourself and find out what makes you happy. It is amazing how many people don’t actually know.

If it helps, keep a diary or at the end of your day reflect back on what you enjoyed, this can help you work out what influences your moods.

Try to see if you can find a way to do that leisure activity in a way that will help you grow.

This serious playfulness makes it possible to be both engaged and carefree at the same time. To make the best use of free time, you need to devote as much ingenuity and attention to it as you would to your job.

It is important to develop the habit of doing whatever needs to be done with concentrated attention.

Gubinge and spice

Even the most routine tasks – like washing dishes, hanging out the laundry, or mowing the lawn – become more rewarding if you approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art.

One woman was able to achieve flow when ironing. She told me she tried to iron a shirt so that when she’s finished, the shirt looks like new, like it’s just come out of the box.

But, at the same time, she tried to do it as fast as she could. She thought, “OK I can do it quickly, but I can also do it well at the same time” and she got pleasure from that.

We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate.

On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.

Your personal plan for flow

You can experience flow with pretty much everything you do, provided the relevant elements are present. Here is what you need to do:

Choose a task that is challenging, not too easy but not too hard. Note that if you are attempting a task you are not yet good at, you need to persist through an initial beginner stage and grow your abilities before flow can occur.
Set clear and realistic goals. These provide an easy means for measuring your progress. Also whenever you realise your goals, you will feel a great sense of accomplishment. The task must have clear and immediate feedback. If conditions change, you will need to adjust your performance to maintain the flow state.
Identify your motivation. Why are you doing this? If you are not pursuing an activity to which you are naturally drawn, chances are you will not enjoy it and hence will not achieve a flow state.
Be proactive. It is so easy to put off tasks that take effort and time. Yet procrastination never feels good. Beat this tendency by reminding yourself that inhabiting a flow state feels so much better than endlessly vacillating.
Do not fret about your performance or try to force yourself into flow. Doing so will just make you anxious and self-conscious. Best not to have any expectations at all.
Cultivate an environment conducive to flow. This tends to be very personal. For example, maybe you like to write with music playing in the background because it induces a state of relaxed alertness. The point is, do whatever works for you.
Give yourself enough time. It takes at least 15 minutes to enter a flow state and then more time after that to truly lose yourself.
Minimise interruptions and distractions. Otherwise you will not be able to concentrate and get in the flow. Close the door, put your phone on silent and resolve to only respond to emergencies. Having said that, distractions tend to be less of a bother when you are in a state of flow.
Monitor your emotional state. If you are doing all of the above and finding flow just is not happening, maybe it has something to do with your mental state. At the very least, you need to be feeling calm and awake if you hope to experience flow.
Regularly engage in tasks that encourage a flow state. Practice makes perfect.

Source: ABC News