Happiness Hack: Flow
Each quarter, our wellness team tries and reviews a popular wellness trend. This quarter, we're trying happiness hacks, and Brittany is trying out flow.
“Wellness Tries” is a quarterly series where the GatorCare wellness team tries out and reviews different wellness trends, so you can see what might work for you! This quarter, we’re testing out various “happiness hacks” from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness. In Lyubomirsky’s book, she claims that 50% of our happiness is determined by our genetics, 10% is determined by our circumstances, and 40% is determined by our thoughts and actions. The happiness hacks. These strategies are research-supported methods to increase happiness levels to help us max out that 40% we can control.
Our team chose this project back in January when life looked very different. Most of us started our hacks before the pandemic hit hard and continued our experiments into our current shelter-at-home situation. While the implementation changed quite a bit over the course of our hacks, we all agreed that the focus on increasing our happiness could not have come at a better time.
Flow & Happiness
This week, Brittany is diving into the world of flow, and how maximizing flow experiences can improve happiness.
What is flow? This term was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and it describes a state of intense absorption and involvement in what you’re doing. You’re completely concentrated. Time feels transformed. What you’re doing feels easy and effortless, but there’s a balance of challenge and skill. Your action and awareness are merged, and all self-consciousness disappears. Put simply: you’re in the zone.
Trying to increase flow experiences put me in a tough spot. I know what tasks put me into flow. The problem was that with a broken arm and a long road of healing ahead of me, I wasn’t able to turn to those activities that are guaranteed to put me in the zone. Running, cycling, and roller derby were all on pause for several months, and so was that transcendent, effortless, confident flow feeling. Or so I thought.
The cool thing about flow, it turns out, is that you can transform nearly anything into a flow experience.
My expected flow experiences:
Even though I couldn’t play roller derby for a while, I was invited to come to practice to help coach our newer skaters. Teaching without skates was definitely a challenge. Before COVID-19 canceled our season indefinitely, we had planned on playing in Virginia, and I was going to bench coach. Preparing for this by watching plays, writing down stats as they were happening, and giving actionable feedback to my team put me in flow in a brand new way that made me excited to coach.
I also used my newfound downtime to revisit some old hobbies that would put me into flow when I was younger. I picked up new crafts, including candle-making, resin crafts, and started painting again. Painting especially put me into flow because I wasn’t putting pressure on myself to have a perfect final product. I was doing it for the experience of doing it, and the activity was intrinsically rewarding.
Another activity that put me into flow was social time, and I surprisingly have noticed it more during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order. I was already a huge fan of FaceTime, but usually reserved it for friends who live far away. Now FaceTime is how I connect with everyone, and I find myself losing track of time completely while connecting with people. I’ve found that flow in conversation is one of the most rewarding flow experiences for me.
These were my most expected experiences of flow during this experiment, but I thought it would be interesting to transform activities like work, waiting for the bus, and other typically “boring” tasks into flow experiences. Lyubomirsky suggests creating “microflow” activities to transform these into engaging and challenging experiences. Her suggestions include solving puzzles in your head, drawing doodles, tapping melodies, or writing limericks. A microflow activity doesn’t have to be one of those, it just needs to be somewhat challenging and interesting, and results in a richer (and less boring or stressful) experience of day-to-day life.
- I wanted to try a microflow activity while I led my Tuesday night fitness class. We usually spend the first 15 minutes walking up and down the stadium stairs, but since I’m injured, I stay put. I turned to people-watching. I watched everyone on the other side of the stadium and noticed the different, often strange, things they were doing. The small mental challenge I gave myself was trying to count how many people were over there. Those 15 minutes flew by.
- Another surprising moment of flow happened when I was cleaning one weekend. I’m sure a lot of people experience flow while cleaning, but I’m the kind of person that likes to do chores a little bit at a time so I don’t have to dedicate an entire Saturday morning to them. I had recently started driving again, and hadn’t cleaned my car since I broke my arm months ago. I intended to just tidy it up a little bit, but got so into it I ended up doing a deep clean of the inside and outside of my car. Listening to music and having clearly defined tasks for myself helped me get into this flow state.
Environment for Flow
I found that noticing and adjusting my environment helped me get into a flow mindset more easily. These were my own discoveries, but everyone is different.
- I’m much more likely to experience flow in the morning than in the afternoon or evening.
- My phone cannot be anywhere near me if I want to get in the zone, unless I’m using it to listen to music.
- Creatively challenging tasks were more likely to put me into flow: designing, drawing, or even approaching a spreadsheet in a creative way.
- Setting a timer for tasks also made it more likely I’d get into flow.
Tips for Getting into Flow
This is what worked for me. Lyubomirsky lays out the following tips, which may work for you.
- Control your attention. Intense concentration leads to flow, and exerting some effort and creativity will keep you engaged in a task.
- Adopt new values. Be open to new experiences, and try to learn every day.
- Learn what flows. Try to figure out what times and activities lead to flow for you.
- Transform routine tasks by creating microflow activities.
- Flow in conversation by aiming to learn more about the speaker.
- Engage in smart leisure by actively choosing your leisure activities, things that put you into flow, and limiting activities that cause you to zone out, like television or social media.
- Do smart work. Consider setting aside times to work intensely on a specific project. When engaging in activities that you find tedious or meaningless, challenge yourself to learn something new or make a game out of it. If you can’t get out of it, get into it.
Flow is objectively great. It feels good, helps you be productive, and makes activities enjoyable. But did it make me happier? I took Lyubomirsky’s Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS) test before and after this experiment. I scored only a half-point higher, but that’s some improvement. Social distancing has been tough for me, especially while trying to do this experiment. But it’s also felt really good to be able to turn to these flow activities when there is literally nothing else to do. Had I not been doing this Wellness Tries experiment, I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to generate flow in my life, and I think I would have seen a severe dip in my SHS score during all of this.
Finding flow is one way to enjoy the extra time at home you probably have right now. Give it a try, pay attention to it, and figure out a way to maximize it. The time will fly by!