I often have discussions with friends and colleagues about happiness: how can we craft our personal and professional lives to get ourselves super excited to wake up each and every morning?
And while plenty of authors and bloggers will tell you how to live a happier life, I find that these ideas are always either big, romantic philosophies that are nearly impossible to implement or super obvious little things that make us normal folks roll our eyes.
Until I read a book called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try saying that name ten times fast!). This concept is featured prominently in The Happiness Hypothesis, a book that I try read at the beginning of every new year.
Flow is a concept that should be familiar to athletes or musicians or artists. It is that moment in your craft when you are in the zone. The basketball player with the hot hand…the guitarist lost in the music…the writer whose words just roll off the tongue. It’s that moment when your body takes over and you seem to lose yourself in the moment: it could last for a second or a minute or even months! I used to play soccer competitively and can remember those brief moments that I was playing out of my mind (this is flow). I also know the feeling professionally when everything clicks. It’s like you’re not even really thinking about it…you’re in the zone!
Anyway, Csikszentmihalyi explains that flow is a key element to happiness. And that if you know how to get yourself into the flow state for prolonged periods of time, you can make yourself a happier person. Who wouldn’t want to wake up each morning “in the zone?”
What I like most about this theory is the very matter-of-fact way we can work ourselves into that flow channel. It has to do with two vital factors: (1) your skillset and (2) the challenges you choose to face. Check out this graph:
As you can see, to get into that golden “flow” channel, you need to be taking on challenges that are slightly beyond your skills. Not too far beyond, otherwise you’ll be anxious. Not too far below, or you’ll be bored as hell.
In work, this has a very straightforward application: you should be doing a job that pushes you slightly outside your comfort zone. Each project should require a slight improvement in your skill set or a decent dosage of fear (learning new languages, conducting new research, attending new conferences). Each challenge should also have an end or “finish line” in which you can enjoy the fruits of your labor.
On the personal side of things, it’s even easier: don’t sit on the couch or go through the same routine every day: take on a challenge that you could not accomplish today (train for a marathon, enlist in a dance competition, set out to create the perfect pecan pie, volunteer extra hours at a new charity) and work yourself to completion.
When that’s done, enjoy that feeling of journey…and begin to take on something slightly above the new norm. When I first read about flow, I signed up to do a series of triathlons (without any real background in the sport)…the progressive learning experience (despite being long and painful) blew my mind.
The beauty of flow is that while the actual content is different for everyone, the model is the same for all.
Anyone can get pleasure from a great meal or shopping spree or round of sex. But pleasure is fleeting. Gratification on the other hand (chemically, the longest-lasting happiness producer in your brain) comes from pushing yourself beyond your limits… enough to have meaning and purpose in your everyday.
After I discovered this chart, I began to apply the Flow chart to just about everything I do.
Because once you know where your day-to-day falls on this chart, you have the opportunity to adjust the variables accordingly.
I enjoy life and creating unique experiences for myself, my neighbors and friends, and my clients. When I wake up each morning, happiness and a meaningful contribution to those around me act as the framework for how I shape my day.