The key to happiness is to quit looking for happiness.
Seriously, happiness is so overrated. It’s an emotion, and like all emotions, it is flaky. It will roll into your life now and then like a handsome, bad-boy ex. You know he has commitment issues, but you can’t help yourself. You let him in. You give him one more chance.
You had almost forgotten how good Happiness makes you feel. You get dressed up and wear that perfume you’ve been saving for some unknown reason. You start planning a welcome home party. You get settled in for a big night with Happiness, and then guess what?
Poof. Happiness flees the scene, off to another party down the street, and you are left with Boredom. Or Annoyance. Or Anxiety. Your unwanted emotions take over the house, eating all the queso and spilling red wine on your carpet, and you’re left cleaning up the mess. You wonder if Happiness will ever visit again.
I’ve been there, girl. I’ve been searching for happiness my whole life, and even when I’m feeling pretty good, I’m wondering, “Is this it? Maybe I would be happier if I had more of this or less of that?” It’s a moving target. Recently, though, I’ve been working on finding something else. Something longer-term. A more sustainable, dependable kind of satisfaction.
It’s called Flow.
Flow is not a new concept. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (whom we will affectionately refer to as “Mihaly C.” from now on, if that’s okay with you!) wrote about it in the 1970s. Flow is that magical state where you are so immersed in whatever it is that you are doing that you lose track of time. You forget to think, forget to criticize yourself, and are not fretting about the past or fearful of the future.
Not surprisingly, people who spend more time in flow report that they are more satisfied with life. When you are in flow, you are not chasing happiness or even thinking about how you are feeling; you are not really thinking of anything, because all of your psychic energy is devoted to the task at hand.
It’s only later, after you’ve completed whatever you were working on, that you look around and realize that you were feeling pretty darn good the whole time.
Unlike happiness, which is so often dependent on outside influences and things we cannot control, flow is entirely accessible to us at any time.
So – how do we spend more time in flow?
You can experience flow doing just about anything – while pursuing your favorite hobbies, of course, or spending time with friends or getting into an excellent book. But we can also find flow many more mundane activities, if we try: weeding the garden, making a new recipe, even working on spreadsheets. The trick is to learn to concentrate, to be present. We have to quit trying to multitask (which studies show doesn’t really work anyway).
According to Mihaly C., activities that inspire flow have these three things in common:
- There is a clear goal.
- There is immediate feedback – you know right away how well things are going.
- It stretches your abilities but is not so challenging that it feels impossible.
I’m trying to put myself in more situations where flow is possible. Things like reorganizing a closet or wrapping a beautiful gift or making homemade bread all have the potential. Passive activities, like watching television, can be relaxing, but they are less likely to induce a state of flow – there are no goals, no feedback, and no challenge involved.
One of the best ways to get into flow is to learn something new. When we’re concentrating on learning, we are in flow – and as a bonus, we’re also building new connections in the brain, improving memory and concentration. Win-win!
Look, I would never suggest that you stop pursuing Happiness – how un-American would that be? All I’m saying is that he’s more likely to come by now and then if you’re focused on something else. If you stop being so needy, he might even stay a while.
You know how those bad boys can be.