As children, we have an intrinsic grasp of what happiness is without questioning it too much. But as we get older, we start interrogating whether or not we are fulfilled. Happiness becomes a complex list of caveats to tick off. These might be tangible (more money, a place to live) or abstract (a happy relationship, a successful career). Either way, the more demanding we become, the further happiness slips from our reach. That’s not to say we should ditch our high expectations. Rather, it may be time to stop focusing so relentlessly on the search for fulfilment and instead just DO what makes us happy.
How? A key element of happiness that is often overlooked is what Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”. Flow refers to a peak moment of consciousness in which we are so engaged with what we’re doing, we lose all grasp of time amid a deep sense of focus and satisfaction. It doesn’t have to be a big or noble activity, but just something day-to-day that is enjoyable and carries an element of challenge.
Flow: a meditative focus
As Csikszentmihalyi points out in his book Finding Flow, this state of mind isn’t achieved by passive activities. Lying around or watching TV won’t cut it, because they’re not engaging enough past-times to trigger the deep, all-pervasive concentration required.
“Flow is generally reported when a person is doing his or her favourite activity – gardening, listening to music, bowling, cooking a good meal,” he writes. “It also occurs when driving, when talking to friends and surprisingly often at work. Very rarely do people report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or relaxing.”
At its best, flow is an experience that is similar to meditation. “In flow, our attention is so laser-focused that all else falls away,” says author and journalist Steven Kotler. “Action and awareness merge. Times flies. Self vanishes. And all aspects of performance go through the roof.”
Making happiness simple
Psychotherapist Katherine Schafler argues that flow presents a brilliantly simple means of achieving happiness; we merely need to do more of whatever activities make us lose track of time. As she writes in Thrive Global, this process doesn’t require a huge amount of effort or motivation since “you already naturally want to do them [the activities], you just don’t know it yet.”
Being a grown-up brings with it a legion of responsibilities. Mortgages, deadlines, looking after the people around us: all pile up, meaning we can never be the carefree kids we were aged 10. And we wouldn’t want to be, either. Part of the delight of being an adult is having the agency to decide what we what. But, now and again, it might be useful to peel back the layers and just go with the flow.
Where’s your flow?
Put aside your list of happiness “musts” for a moment, and think: what is it that you just like to do?
What activity engrosses you so much that you lose all sense of time? This might be a long-forgotten passion of childhood, such as rollerblading or lino cutting. Or, it may be a new skill – mastering the art of Vietnamese cooking, say, or paddle-boarding on Lake Bled in Slovenia. Adventure travel is a great way of achieving flow, since there are so many activities – from mountain-climbing in Peru to surfing in South Africa – that are both fun, and demand that you’re in the moment.
Write a list of things that might bring about your flow and give each one a whirl. Make room for the joyful yet engrossing activities that life has long since swept away.
Tapping into your flow simplifies things, and it could be the gateway to developing your own sense of everyday happiness.
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