You are probably familiar with the concept of flow, or being “in the zone.” Flow is a state where you are fully immersed in an activity and lose all sense of time. Flow can happen in any aspect of our life, from meditation to work to pleasure. I believe* that the more often we experience flow, the happier we are.
Think of a time you were at your happiest. Maybe you were sitting around a campfire (or your living room) with a group of friends, lost in conversation and laughter. Perhaps you were totally immersed in a project. Or maybe you were out for a run, and the usual brain chatter just melted away and you found yourself floating effortlessly along the trail. When I think back at my life, the times I would describe as the happiest are the ones where I was fully engaged in the moment, where my thoughts melted away and I was simply present.
Those are the moments I want to experience more often. Which brings up the question: what can I do to experience flow more often?
Research shows that flow happens when we have a clear understanding of our goal, immediate feedback on our performance, and when the level of difficulty meets or slightly exceeds our current ability. With these factors in place – and distractions removed – we open the door to experiencing flow.
Living in a society that values effortless achievement, I find it particularly interesting to note that it takes a certain degree of challenge to achieve the flow state. I mean, I’d love to be able to climb 5.13 and it would be awesome to wake up tomorrow suddenly being able to climb that hard. But being able to climb a certain grade isn’t why I climb. I climb because I love the movement on the rock, figuring out how to move through a crux, and the fact that climbing forces me to be present. When I’m on the wall, it’s just me and the rock. Whatever I’m thinking or feeling, I have to deal with it. Even “easy” routes require attention and focus. If I suddenly woke up being able to climb 5.13, it wouldn’t change anything about why I climb. I would still climb for the joy I find in the movement and to solve puzzles with my whole body. I’d just find my challenges on harder routes.
To illustrate further, let's consider an example from work. When my to-do list involves easy, routine tasks, it's harder to stay focused. Because I can complete the tasks without giving them my full attention, my thoughts start drifting to other things, such as my next adventure. But when I have an interesting and challenging project, I'll often find myself totally engrossed. Three hours will pass in what seems like three minutes. I love the sense of ease that happens when I am able to use my abilities to meet a challenge, and fascinated that I rarely experience the same sense of ease when completing easy tasks.
The secret to experiencing flow more often? Embrace the challenge.
*I'm not the only one who believes this. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the guy who wrote the book on flow, gave a TED Talk on Flow: The Secret To Happiness.