Learning to Flow and trying to be happy…even while running.
A few weeks ago I was watching at YouTube clip of a friend of mine. She is a successful and sought after public speaker. In her video she was talking about a book that has helped to shape her life and her career. She described how the book “Flow” was important as the philosophy of this Positive Psychology, provided a unique perspective for living successfully and happily. I have read innumerable self help books on the subject of happiness and finding happiness in your vocation. In fact, the Ekahi Method was born from a story told to me about a young lady who appeared to have found nirvana serving ice cream at Baskin Robbins. My initial reaction upon hearing about another book centered on the idea about finding happiness in life, was, less than enthusiastic. Out of respect for my friend, I ordered the book from Amazon. When the book arrived I took a look at the insipid looking cover and was even less inspired to bend the spine. It sat on my counter for a few days before I finally found a few minutes to start what I thought would be a skim of a few pages before tossing it in my pile of books that met the same fate.
After reading the first paragraph, I knew I was reading something quite different. The author, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is the founder of Flow psychology. He developed this branch of psychology by studying thousands of people from all walks of life. He started his research with a simple question, “When do people feel most happy?” He interviewed people at work or doing some form of recreation. What he found was that happiness had nothing to do with what people did or even the settings in which they lived or worked. He found some people who did the most menial and repetitive of tasks described themselves as very happy. He also interviewed people living in conditions that most would describe as deplorable and yet, they were happy.
After 25 years of his research Mihaly found that one of the commonalities in people who describe themselves as “very happy” is to have control over conscious thought. He found that when people were doing something that required significant concentration and was challenging for them, they described feeling not just happy but in a state of nirvana and bliss. Mihaly went on to describe this state as being in Flow. He adds, “happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”
I think what really resonates for me in this book is how he talks about the importance of focusing the attention of the mind so that we can not only control the experience but control our response to the experience. He talks about how it has become “fashionable” lately to follow the whims of “what we feel inside”. I must admit that I too have become caught up in this idea that if it feels good it must be good. While I do think that a certain amount of trusting intuition is important, until one is skilled at interpreting intuition, perhaps Mihaly is correct that we need to apply some degree of control over our lives our we become ships at sea without a rudder.
During times of my life I have exercised significant control. I think what I didn’t do was learn how to enjoy myself during those activities. As a result, the controlled part of my life became a chore that was unsustainable. Inevitably, I would over-correct but just “doing what felt good”. I can see now that what is required is to exert some control via goal setting, discipline, and focus but to make sure that enjoyment is found during the activity or job. A good example for me is running. At times of my life I have been a dedicated runner. What would usually happen is that I would get into running and do it regularly for weeks, months and for a period – years of my life. When I think back, most of the time I have been running I never really enjoyed it. It had every chance to be enjoyable: I was outside, I was physically able to do it, it could be good for me, and more. The last few years when I would run I would complain every time I went. Most of my complaints had to do with comparing my experience or my result with running when I was in my early 20’s. Of course it is an unfair comparison. I will never be happy running if I think I should be running like I did then – it is impossible. I found myself, lately, complaining about the various aches and pains and the fact that old ladies with walkers were shuffling along faster than my running pace.
So, as I come to the end of the book Flow, I feel it has made a significant impression on me. I have learned that happiness is an emotion that can be experienced during the most mundane and menial of chores and can be experienced even when running. I need to think about the the intrinsic motivation for running and set realistic and achievable goals. As I think about trying to run again starting this week, I will set my goal to merely get out and finding something enjoyable about the experience.