The word “flow” first came into my life a year or so ago during a walk at the park.
A friend and I were talking about happiness – how to find it, how to know you have found it, how to make it stay.
He mentioned that for him, getting totally wrapped up in an activity – whether it is one he particularly thought he would enjoy or not – often feels so exhilarating it is indistinguishable from any other kind of happiness.
He said the name for this state is “flow.”
As I mentioned in my last post, I have been reading a new book called “Sheepish.” When I started reading the book, I expected to learn a lot about sheep…and wool….and sheep farmers.
I did not expect to learn about the originator of “flow” too.
So imagine my happy surprise when I flipped the page and read these words by author Catherine Friend:
If I start doing more things with my hands, whether that’s woodworking or gardening or knitting or baking cookies, I might fall into the condition made famous by the psychologist with the impossible name, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. That condition is “flow.” It means becoming completely involved in an activity not for the sake of the outcome but for the sheer joy of it. It means feeling alive when we are fully in the groove of doing something. According to Csikszentmihaly, the path to greatest happiness lies not with mindless consuming but with challenging ourselves to experience or produce something new, becoming in the process more engaged, connected, and alive.
So, for instance, if I completely dive into reconciling my receipts in preparation for tax time, losing track of time (and my sanity) in the process, that could be considered a form of happiness.
Crazy as it sounds, it has actually happened to me. I just didn’t realize at the time that I was feeling happy. I did feel happy when I was done – as well as proud of myself for persevering to finish a tough task – and satisfied that the task itself was done. But during the actual reconciling process, I was too busy “flowing” to be aware I was feeling happiness too.
On that note, looking back into other similar past experiences, I can remember a night when I was volunteering to wash dishes in a soup kitchen.
These weren’t little polite plates and forks, but huge heavy pots and pans, skillets and baking trays. I was all alone in the tiny dish room. There was music playing. I was singing along, sweating, washing, scrubbing, rinsing, and stacking – I was divinely happy. But again, I didn’t exactly recognize what I was feeling as happiness at the time – probably because “doing dishes” wasn’t something my brain recognized as being on the official approved happiness-producing list.
On that very subject, in “Sheepish,” Catherine Friend goes on to quote another writer named Winifred Gallagher (“Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life”):
You cannot always be happy, but you can almost always be focused, which is the next best thing.”
So now it occurs to me that perhaps there are levels of happiness, steps that we walk up or down, towards or away from a happier frame of mind.
I like that idea very much. It reminds me of a therapeutic technique I learned during my recovery from an eating disorder – that often when I am feeling quite bad, it is not realistic to expect to jump all the way over those dark feelings to pure happiness. Rather, I can find a way to take one little tiny step away from the dark place, by finding one thought that feels “better than.”
For instance, let’s say I am feeling totally miserable. I don’t want to stay there, so first I can find one little thought or action that feels better than totally miserable. Then next I can find a thought or action that allows me to step from miserable to less miserable. Next I might step away from misery all together towards sadness. Sadness might lead to melancholy, to apathy, to hope, to happiness again.
In other words, I can stair step my way towards happiness using focus and flow to help guide my steps.
Helpful. Very helpful indeed.
Today’s Takeaway: Have you experienced moments of “flow” and “focus” in your life? Can you think of experiences where you were able to move from misery to happiness not in big leaps but in small incremental steps? If working with our hands does help to induce more focus, more flow, and thus more happiness, are there any hobbies you do now that you can do more of – or new hobbies you might try out?