A few months ago I took my 6 year old niece to a new playground. The equipment was bright and modern, and looked like fun to me. But I’m not 6, and so I failed to recognise that this particular playground was in fact ‘boring’. Everything was too easy and therefore not fun at all. The only exception was a giant slide, which was full of big kids and obviously way too scary.
In a classic case of Goldilocks (this one’s too easy, this one’s too difficult) and with my niece’s mood and my tolerance rapidly declining, I desperately searched for something that would be ‘just right’. Just in the nick of time, the kids who’d been monopolising the swings went home, and we pounced. The swing turned out to be the perfect activity – requiring just enough skill and having just enough challenge to make it interesting and satisfying, without being too difficult and scary. I watched as my niece, within minutes, became completely absorbed, swinging almost trance-like, oblivious to time, the world around her, and probably her own thoughts.
This is the state known as flow – a state of intense absorption and involvement in the present moment. It’s when we’re completely engaged, doing exactly what we want to be doing. The activity is effortless and intrinsically rewarding. We feel strong, alert, in control and fulfilled. Positive psychologists believe that the regular experience of flow leads to a more interesting, rich, engaged and meaningful life, and is therefore one of the core components of happiness and well-being.
The great thing about swinging is how easy it is to control the experience to get the perfect balance between our abilities and the challenge. Swing too high, and it’s too scary – the challenge outweighs our skill level, and anxiety sets in. So pull back a little on the swing and move back into flow. Swing too low and it’s too easy – our skill level outweighs the challenge and boredom sets in. So swing a little higher to ramp up the challenge and move back into flow. As our skill and confidence grows, we can ramp up the challenge to stay in the zone of peak experience.
Our quest, as we grow out of swings and playgrounds, is therefore to find activities in life which allow us to enter this state of flow on a regular basis. If we’re lucky, aspects of our work might keep us in flow. (If not, check out my previous article on job crafting for ways of finding engagement at work). Otherwise look to use your leisure time in a way that maximises flow. What activities do you currently do that really engage you? When do you feel totally absorbed, at one with the activity, in a state of effortless concentration? Maybe it’s sport, crosswords, needlework, fishing, lifting weights, playing chess, making toys, cooking, tango dancing, learning the ukulele, gardening or writing poetry…… Activities that lead to flow are not just relaxing – they have the right amount of challenge to keep you absorbed, but not so much challenge that you feel anxious or scared. Ideally, as your confidence and skill in the activity increases, so too should the level of challenge to keep you in flow.
- when were you last in a state of flow, what were you doing?
- make a list of the activities you know engage you in flow
- try to build more of these into your life
- when you’re doing that activity resist getting distracted – practice directing your full attention to enhance the experience of absorption
- notice when you start to get bored or anxious, and adapt the activity to build in more or less challenge as needed
- use your leisure time wisely by filling it with activities that lead to flow (hint, watching TV might be a good short term relaxation strategy, but in the absence of challenge, generally leads to boredom and apathy rather than flow!).
We’re so often convinced that our happiness is the result of circumstances outside our control, so we have real difficulty recognising and capitalising on the things we can influence. If you need help finding time and building more flow into your work or life, call or email me to discuss how a short series of coaching sessions can increase your happiness and well-being.