Is flow the secret to happiness?

"The more flow we experience in daily life, the more likely we are to feel happy overall."        

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leading authority on positive psychology.

A good friend of mine living in Singapore asked me recently if I'm finding 'a flow' with all I'm learning and doing - as a side note - I recently transitioned from a 19 year career in marketing and branding to move into the business of emotional resilience.

I digress, back to flow.............

I LOVE that she asked that question.

Because over the past month, I found an unexpected and exceptional flow to my daily life.  

You could call it a rhythm. Or being in the zone.

As a regular meditator, I have come across the word 'flow' on a number of occasions, at retreats and lectures. I have partaken in guided meditation practices that focused on 'flow' with Shinzen Young.  

But this past month I experienced a different side of flow...and became much more curious about it. 

This led me to the work of Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, pronounced "chick-sent-me-high" (thanks for the pronunciation Dan Pink). Csikszentmihalyi is best known for his work in the study of happiness and creativity. He also happens to have done extensive research in this state of being and coined the term 'flow'.

So what is flow? 

According to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi:

Flow is completely focused motivation.

You could also argue flow is a state of meditation - of mindfulness - that you experience not just while sitting quietly, but while fully and completely absorbed in an activity. 

For me, flow is total and complete attention.

From my recent experience, it happens when the many different facets of life, both pleasant and unpleasant, come together in a seamless, effortless way.  Life suddenly moves in a rhythm where there is less chaos, resistance and rigidity and much more integration and peace.  

It's a powerful yet subtle energy force which is both activating and soothing and can be felt within the whole body as well as all around us.  It involves a high degree of concentration, like an intense focus on an engaged activity.

For the many sportspeople out there, flow is often linked to sporting activities and professionals. When you find flow, your performance level is often at a peak. You achieve an optimum level of clarity. Things that you might ordinarily see as an issue, remain in the background or disappear.

Your ego withdraws to allow the most truly incredible things to unfold.

You feel in tune with life, moving with precision and poise.  You feel more alive, connected and at peace.  There is a fluidity and heightened awareness of being in the present moment. Your experience of time is suddenly altered and it seems to slow down and stretch out.

Finding my flow was the last thing I expected to happen this summer.

I'm not sure if I even fully comprehended what flow meant until I found myself falling in sync with an undeniable rhythm in my work and life. 

Allow me to digress once more and give you some quick context...

This summer was the first time my husband and I both worked from home which meant being together 24/7. It's also the first summer that I've been home full time with my young children 24/7. And it's the first time (and hopefully last) my husband had knee replacement surgery...... I was essentially heading into a summer of full time caregiving for both my husband and my kids while simultaneously launching a company. Help!

I had a hunch the stars weren't going to align...

So before heading into June (when my husband's surgery was scheduled), I prepared myself for a tough month. I intentionally and deliberately dropped my expectations and kept an open mind.

I took things one day at a time. I worked hard to be present and not ruminate about things. I turned towards painful experiences to find a way through them.

I practised the art of acceptance and found it to be a powerful ally.  

Guess what? June was still a tough month. But that's OK, because what might have been hugely painful became hugely manageable. Less stress. More calm.

In addition to eliminating my expectations, I set two other intentions.

Intention #2: hang out with my children and be fully present. Let go of worries, let go of future plans and thoughts about what I'm doing, or what I'm not doing. Just be with them. Enjoy simple pleasures together. 

Intention #3: grow my business (during periods of time not with my boys). I realized that summer is a great opportunity to focus on business development to get ahead of the game before September. So I intentionally ramped up while things typically slow down.  

I'm ecstatic to say that I'm well on track to fulfilling my intentions! 

but - and it's a big but... good intentions will only get you half way to your goal.

In order to fulfil intentions, you've got to work hard at paying attention to your intentions so that they stay top of mind. We all know how easy it is to get distracted by the smallest things. How many times have you danced with procrastination?  That's why it requires tremendous concentration power and focus.  

quite simply, that's how I found flow.

It's hard to explain how good flow feels. I've found many moments each day where I feel a complete sense of happiness, peace and well being. I become aware of a smile on my face for no particular reason. What an extraordinary life!

Note: a small caveat...

Nothing in life is permanent, everything is constantly changing and flow states come and go.  

We all have the ability to find flow.

The key is to increase our concentration power, for example through meditation, which in turn helps to strengthen our awareness and ability to be in a flow state. 

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi conducted extensive research on what makes a human being truly happy. He found that money doesn't make people happy - what he discovered is that there is no real difference in happiness levels between people making $35,000 per year and people making $300,000 per year. 

Interestingly, in his book Drive, which among many things, focuses on employee disengagement, Dan Pink says, "the costs, in both human satisfaction and organizational health are high when a workplace is a no-flow zone."

While you ponder that, i'll leave you with these 4 mindful tips to help you find or increase flow.

May these lead to more happiness and emotional resilience in your work and life.

#1 Live intentionally

You can learn to increase flow in your life by living more intentionally. The best place to start is with some daily intentions. Decide on three intentions each day and focus all your efforts on absolutely nailing them! Prioritize the things most important to you and minimize the things you don't like or need to do.  If you're still stuck, ask yourself, which is the smallest step I can do. And if the smallest step still seems hard, try doing just five minutes, or two minutes and build from there. Once you master this, you can apply it to your whole life. 

#2 Pay attention to your intention

With several years of daily meditation under my belt, I find it much easier to bring my attention and concentration to where ever I need it to be. A good place to start is labeling your intentions for the day. Then revisit them every hour. You've heard the expression: "Do many things poorly or one thing really well"? Don't overload yourself with too many tasks. Three intentions a day is doable.

#3 Get out of your head

It really helps to get out of your head and into your body. I'm doing it right now... I feel grounded in my body. There is some tingling in my left arm, my heart is beating, as it faithfully does, perhaps a little faster than normal. My body is breathing air in and out, without my having to consciously make it happen. I feel really good. No pain. What a joy. We are constantly enveloped by our own thoughts and emotions. At least once a day get out of your head. Make a conscious effort to shift your attention to your body. As a first step, bring your full attention to your heart beat. 

#4 Eliminate expectations

We frequently place expectations on ourselves and others. Often they are unrealistic and we end up frustrated or disappointed when things don't meet with our expectations. When you expect something of a friend or co-worker or family member and they don't live up to it, you're upset with them. If you had no expectations, then their actions would be neither good nor bad, just actions and it would be easier to accept them for who they are.

Have you come across flow at any time? What tips would you share on finding flow? Do you think it's important to find flow? We learn so much from sharing - your comments are so important, so do share them!

(Both Wiki, and Dan Pink's book 'Drive' are great resources to learn more about Csikszentmihalyi's story and his insights on flow. Csikszentmihalyi has also done a TED talk, if you're interested).