Finding Flow

Ahh, the good life!
We all want to be happy.  Something deep in our brains seems to demand it, and the drive to achieve happiness is strong in all of us.  But with such a strong, innate drive, why do so many of us still feel a bit empty?

The answer may lie in our evolution.  Our brains evolved to handle particular challenges: hunting, gathering, farming, small close-knit groups, etc.  Today, our lives are very different: sitting, thinking, long-distance relationships, overabundance.  

This imbalance is responsible for many of our modern woes.  We are designed to deal with adversity: scarce resources, harsh climates.  Survival was the goal.  Now, resources are abundant and our brains are ill-equipped to self-regulate.  Our impulses suggest we should eat, eat eat: we over-eat.  Our impulses suggest we conserve energy: we over-relax.

What are we to do?  The answer: don't always trust your impulses.  They are not designed for modern life.  They are designed for the life of our distant ancestors.

This is the thesis of the classic text Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  Our impulses push us to be lazy, to conserve energy, but research suggests we are happiest when we are active - engaged in a meaningful task.  These "Flow Experiences" provide the perfect balance of challenge, novelty, and reward that our brains crave.

You likely experience Flow Experiences every day.  Flow experiences have three characteristics:

1. Well-defined goals: Activities that produce flow are clear-cut.  Put the ball in the goal.  Perform 10 reps. Run for 10 minutes.  Read a chapter.  Stitch up the patient's wound.  When the goals are clear, engagement in the task becomes more likely.

2. Immediate feedback: Related to clear goals, flow happens when you know how you are doing immediately.  You are approaching the goal on a break-away.  The you've completed 8 reps and have energy to spare.  You have three pages left and are enjoying the text.  You have stitched three-quarters of the wound without incident.  Flow experiences let us know how we're doing right away.

3. Appropriate Challenge: If a task is over our heads, we get stressed.  If a task is too simple, we get bored.  Flow experiences are those that provide just the right degree of challenge, but not too much.  How do you know when the balance is struck?  When you're feeling the flow!

For today's Daily Mind Game, we're going to watch out for flow experiences that happen in our daily lives.

Finding Flow

Task: Recognize moments of naturally occurring flow.

Info: No matter the job, we all have little moments when we are "In the Zone."  During these times, you should feel totally absorbed in your task, unconcerned with time.  What types of activities get you into this state?  How do you feel during these activities?  What activities produce the opposite feeling?  What about these "anti-flow" experiences make them so arduous?

Goal: Identify at least one Flow Experience today and analyze the reasons why the task gets you in the zone.

The ironic thing is that, for most people, flow normally happens at work.  However, most of us assume we would be happier if we worked less!  Flow Theory would argue otherwise: we are happiest when we are doing something engaging, not when we're sitting around watching TV.

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