I recently blundered rather serendipitously into (probably) doing an MSc in psychology starting next September. I found a researcher at the University of Edinburgh doing research on a topic similar to a positive psychology concept I have always found incredibly fascinating, ever since my undergraduate psych days at Berkeley: flow. I wrote to her and she said she’d be happy to supervise an MSc student on a project relating her topic and flow, so, suddenly I have the fantastic opportunity to study this topic I’ve always wanted to study! I’m still not so sure about all the public speaking involved in academia, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there 😉 .

It surprises me, from my everyday conversations with friends and family, how few people have heard of ‘flow’ before, though I think it is an incredibly important and fascinating topic that is vital to our human understanding of how to achieve happiness – especially now, when everyone is so jaded and disillusioned and despite more and more wealth and more and more progress in technology and gadgetry, people are no more happy than they were in the past, without all this wealth and convenience. It’s true that you can’t buy happiness, and you don’t get it from staring at a screen mindlessly, either. Take that, iPad and Reality TV! 😉 When I’ve explained flow to people – that it’s that sense of profound happiness and pleasure you get from doing something you’re good at, and you lose track of time and feel like you’re outside your own body – everyone suddenly knows what it is, because it’s something we’ve all experienced, at some point(s) in our lives.

The term was coined by the pioneering Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi decades ago. The ‘flow’ state happens when your skill level and the challenge level of the activity you are doing are both high. If your skill does not match the challenge level, either boredom or anxiety/frustration occur. Flow is the perfect harmony between the two. So, you see, to achieve that ‘optimal experience’ level, you have to actually be actively doing something challenging. That is the crux: joy does not come of passively sitting doing nothing, always going for the easy option, it comes of effort. It’s possibly not what people want to hear, but it’s the truth, and if you sit and think about all the times in your life when you’ve been most happy, it’s likely you’ll find it was when you were doing something slightly difficult.

For me, that happens when I’m creating: painting, writing, crocheting, cooking. I love the feeling that I am putting something into the world that wasn’t there before, that it is something that could not have happened if I had not made it happen, given my personal experiences, my hard-learned skills, my unique way of ordering paint, words, spices, whatever. For others, it happens when they are doing sports, working on a difficult problem, playing an instrument, and so on and so on. It can happen during leisure and it can happen during work hours, and it’s wonderful when it happens.

I should also add that my undergrad honors thesis was on attention in hobby activities. In the course of doing a lit search for that study, I came across a study where they taught basic meditation to a group of people in an old folks’ home. There was also a control group that did not meditate. What was fascinating about that study was that the group that learned to meditate and did so for about 15 minutes a day for a certain length of time (can’t remember now, but wasn’t all that long) actually lived significantly longer than the control group. A very powerful example of how changing consciousness can have incredible effects on health and longevity! I think stress levels play a bigger role in health than people give it credit for, and I think flow is an important state of consciousness that reduces stress powerfully, just as meditation does. So it’s definitely worth studying further, and worth trying to foster it in daily life.

So do something you love today and keep on challenging yourselves!