Psychologists hail flow as the ‘secret to happiness’, here’s how a simple journal system can help you find your flow
Happiness is an elusive, slithery creature that we spend our lives trying to capture. We chase happiness because we believe it will ‘fix us.’ And as a result, happiness has become our ultimate status symbol. Happiness is our outward display to the world we have life figured out (even if inside we’re falling apart). Perhaps so many of us crave happiness because it’s makes us feel seen, heard, and worthy in a world where we feel so desperately misunderstood. And if we work hard enough, push ourselves, please others and drop a few extra pounds — happiness, we’re told, can be ours. But if happiness is our ultimate goal, how effective is our current paradigm at delivering it? In a finite world, with finite resources, can everyone have infinite happiness if they just work hard enough? And at what cost?
The Secret to Happiness
My questions about happiness started, like most cliche ah-ha moments, crying into my pillow. I was in my mid-30’s and utterly exhausted from pursuing happiness. My life felt like groundhog day. I was always chasing the next thing, always striving for more, always busy, always seeking approval— and somehow feeling unhappier as a result. My immediate solution to unhappiness was to hide it, bury it deep down, work harder and do more. But increasingly I found myself unable to shake the haunting question ‘Is this really what life is all about?’. So I used my unhappiness to fuel my search for a different happiness model, and that’s when I stumbled across the psychology of flow.
Psychologists hail flow as the ‘secret to happiness’ and for a good reason. Rather than haphazardly scattering our energies in the hope our efforts might result in happiness, flow channels our energy to ensure it. Better yet, flow is a state we can control and create that isn’t dependent on favorable external circumstances. It’s authentic happiness on tap.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered flow in the 1970s, but sadly much of the mainstream interest surrounding flow has focused on its amazing ability to boost our productivity by up to 500%. And while this is undoubtedly beneficial, flow is much more than optimizing our human output. It’s a new paradigm for happiness that can offer a solution to our busy, always hungry for more culture. Flow help’s us slow down, enjoy life, feel happier, and cultivate a greater sense of purpose — all from within. In flow, we’re not waiting on any form of reward; living becomes its own joy and justification. And this is much more than motivational rah-rah because flow has a formula.
After years of extensive research, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that three conditions need to be present to create flow. Firstly we need a clear goal or intention (I know what I am doing and why I am doing it). Secondly, we need an optimal level of challenge (I execute the goal to the best of my current level of ability, stretching my skills). The third and final condition is immediate feedback (I understand what progress looks, feels and sounds like as I complete my goal). This formula for flow creates our optimal state of consciousness. In flow, our intention is in congruence with our attention, bringing our inner and outer worlds into greater alignment. This makes flow is our anecdote to cognitive resistance, a state many of us regularly experience. Cognitive resistance is a state of inner chaos; in which we don’t know what to focus on; different goals wrestle in our minds for priority and we’re easily distracted. And even when we engage in an activity, like heading out for drinks with friends, we feel guilty that we aren’t at the gym or with our family. Flow immerses us in life; resistance pulls us out of it. And importantly we experience of flow in two ways; flow experiences and unified flow.
It’s likely you’ve already had a flow experience; in fact, you’ve probably even used the word flow to describe it. A flow experience is when we ‘forget about everything,’ because our attention fully invested, consciousness is ordered, and there is no room for distractions. In this state, our sense of self disappears and time distorts (speeding up or slowing down). Perhaps you’ve felt it when you’ve lost track of time in the flow of a great conversation? Or when you felt in the flow of work? These experiences are important in everyday life as we feel happier after them and because flow experiences also stretch our skills they help us fulfill our potential. When we integrate flow experiences into our daily life (in work and leisure), we design our day around happiness. There is no more delaying, no more chasing, no more rushing through life. When we find our own unique flow, the present is a happy place to reside. And because we’re stretching our skills, we use the presents transition point to effortlessly co-create our future. But as great as flow experiences are, they’re not enough to create a meaningful life. This is where the second, lesser discussed type of flow comes in, unified flow.
Unified involves turning all of life into a flow experience. And to create unified flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states that we need to set a large personally compelling goal, from which all other smaller goals logically follow. He writes that if we
‘invest all energy in developing skills to reach that goal, then actions and feelings will be in harmony and the separate parts of life will fit together…In such a way, it is possible to give meaning to one’s entire life’.
Flow enables us to regain control of our lives and happiness. However it would be unrealistic and dangerous for me to say flow makes us immune from challenges or suffering life because those are inevitable parts of our human experience. But flow can help us navigate life’s storms with greater ease. In times of unease, flow experiences offer us those blissful moments where we can just forget everything and unified flow, provide us with the purpose and persistence of overcomes what is in front of us.
But how can we consciously integrate flow on a daily basis? That’s where the journal system comes in.
The Journal System for Flow
I created the journal system for flow as a daily ritual that integrates the three core conditions of flow and structures my day around flow and unified flow experiences. It’s the world’s first journal system for flow that’s based on proven positive psychology and designed to fit everyday life. It’s a daily practice that helps me release what I can’t control, focus on what I can to bring a greater sense of serenity, harmony and purpose to my days. Flow and the journal system has given me a different formula for happiness and changed my experience of life. I’ve slowed down, enjoy the journey, and now find myself saying, ‘Ah, so this is what life is all about’.
(If you want to learn the journal system for flow and the psychology behind it, you can read more at www.findyourflowthebook.com or check out these short tutorials on youtube that will give you an overview of how to use the system)
Final Thoughts – Happiness shouldn’t cost the earth
Happiness and our search for it outside of ourselves drives our hunger to consume more, placing a strain on us and our planet. If happiness is our ultimate goal, we need to find more sustainable ways to cultivate it for ourselves. I believe flow is one of those ways that we can regain control of our happiness, feel worthy and enjoy the gift of life. And with a wealth of research on how to find our flow, it seems like a wonderful place for us to start building a new formula for happiness.