Finding Your Way to Happy Through Flow

7585962832_IMG_2415We are afraid

The thing is, most of us are afraid.

Afraid to put ourselves ‘out there.’

Afraid to make the invite.

Afraid to fail. Afraid to succeed.

Afraid not to be liked. Afraid to love.

Afraid to say, ‘yes.’ Afraid to say, ‘no.’

Afraid to show our hearts. Afraid to see ourselves in others.

Afraid to take the leap. Afraid to sit still.

Afraid to be different. Afraid to be normal.

Afraid to be boring. Afraid to stand out.

The Box

So, we nestle ourselves comfortably within the confines of the bell curve.

We strive for ‘acceptably normal.’ We strive to ‘fit in.’

So that we’ll belong. So that we’ll be loved.

But the problem is that the more we strive to fit into the curve, the more apathetic we become, the more bored we find ourselves, the more anxiety we develop,

and the less energy and dedication we spend on what truly matters.

The more we strive to belong to something external, the less we tune into ourselves and what brings our souls to life.

And what more is there? What are we waiting for?

Permission?

A roadmap?

Someone else to do it first?

IMG_3321

You are your best thing.

This moment you’re living right now is life.

If not now, when?

Too often, we conform to the vision of what we should be, instead of focusing on what fills us with joy, meaning, and purpose in our lives.

We deny ourselves the delight of play, creation, and curious exploration, trading authentic expression for certainty.

What if we pressed pause on fear, just for long enough to see it for what it is? To examine thoughtfully how it holds us back? What if we thanked it, as author Elizabeth Gilbert does when she begins any new creative project, and explained patiently that for this endeavour, its services aren’t required.

What if instead of pursuing success according to someone else’s definition and consistently measuring ours in relation to theirs, we redefined it for ourselves?

What if our focus shifted to finding deep fulfilment through the expression of our truest selves?

Now, for the million dollar question…

HOW?

How can I become more fulfilled and happy?

Mihaly Csiksentmihaly is a positive psychologist, speaker, and author has made it his life’s work to find out what makes people happy and deeply fulfilled. In his 2004 TED talk, Flow, The Secret to Happiness, he asserts the research-based conclusion that material goods do not ensure happiness, and that true happiness is found when one is in flow.

IMG_0082
In order to measure flow, Csiksentmihaly measured people’s moods in relation to subjective perception of their own skills and perceived challenge-level of a task. Individuals were asked to identify their emotions/task/whereabouts 10 separate times per day for a set period of time. Each individual had their own set point (or baseline for emotion/skill/challenge level). He identified that flow occurs when people feel highly challenged, while simultaneously believing that they have the skills to succeed in completing the challenging task. Boredom and apathy were the two emotions that were most detrimental to creating a state of flow. It’s very similar to Vygotsky’s learning theory of the Zone of Proximal Development.

 

So, how do you find your flow? How do you even know when you’re close?

Here are the 7 signs that you’re in flow: (paraphrased from TED2004):

  1. Complete focus and concentration on a task
  2. A sense of being outside of yourself, the world, and the everyday
  3. Clarity-you know where to go intuitively
  4. You know that even through an activity is difficult, your skills are adequate enough to complete the task (difficult but possible)
  5. A sense of serenity and growth, unencumbered by the ego
  6. Time disappears
  7. Intrinsic motivation-the activity itself is the reward

We all have that thing that puts us into flow. Flow is our soul’s connection to purpose and meaning. Flow is play.

Think of the child who weaves in and out of flow so effortlessly, without the promise of an end-product.

Flow is that perfect balance when challenges are higher than average, but so is the skill set. It’s where you feel the joy of innovation and creation, while experiencing deep connection to the world and your place in it.

img_8805.jpg

Maybe it’s been a while since you experienced it. Perhaps you’ve even convinced yourself that it’s a thing of the past.  Maybe you’re waiting for the perfect moment or a permission slip from the office…

Take the leap. Just for fun. Find and explore the thing that makes you feel alive and connected.

Allow it to dissolve time.

Let it carry you away.

It may not bring you financial wealth, but it will make your soul fuller.

 

 

Just do a little more of that thing.

And maybe when you’re ready, you’ll share it.

7585962832_IMG_2089

 

 

So, I Threw A Spatula…

Just last week, in a fit of quiet rage and a heightened sense of perceived injustice, I hurled a spatula across my kitchen.

IMG_2622

I cannot convey to you, by the way, how hard that sentence was to admit, write and publish.

Anger’s not cute

Anger is not cute. Rage…even less so. It’s not an emotion many people, women specifically, proudly tout. Lack of control, specifically expressions of anger, seems to run counter to the current culture of mindfulness and increased emotional intelligence.

I admit, I’m not proud of throwing that spatula in fury. However, I choose to share my embarrassing outburst on social media because despite being one of the least favourite emotions, anger is a human one. It’s part of the colourful rainbow of sentiments that contributes to the privilege of being human. No one is exempt or immune. Nor, should we strive to be.

Nevertheless, we rarely see examples of healthy, thriving women in their anger. Somehow, anger doesn’t fall into the parameters of what society believes a woman should exude.

As Soman Chainani, acclaimed author and filmmaker, asserts, “Social media has made it so that we are constantly judging ourselves and others. If we’re not careful, our social media feeds become a torture device, an assault of beauty and perfection designed to make you feel inadequate. It makes you intolerant of other people’s real imperfections, and it makes you start to despise the weight of real life, and invest in shallow, flimsy, two dimensional mirrors of it.”

Our growing understanding of emotional expression has somehow coincided with raised and often unrealistic expectations of how our emotions should manifest themselves, which can result in feelings of shame in moments we don’t present as calm, cool, and controlled. We can even tell ourselves the story that we’re somehow ‘defective.’

A bit of background…

I should mention, for the record, that I didn’t throw the spatula at anyone. I was standing alone in the kitchen, ruminating.

The rage had been fuelled by a recent article in Maclean’s magazine, titled I Regret Having Children. The article reported that an increased number of women across North America were expressing regret for having had children, a fact I vehemently DO NOT personally agree with.

Reading it made me angry for three reasons:

  1. Mental Load: Most mothers these days share a profound first-hand understanding of the day-to-day inner conflicts one experiences when trying to meet insatiable, constant, 24-hour needs of our little people, balance and manage a household, nurture a flourishing relationship, nail it in our ambitious careers, all the while attempting to maintain a stronghold on one’s own identity and wellness. Just look at popular posts like the recent work by cartoonist Emma, You Should Have Asked, which depicts the pressures of ‘mental load’ in a hilarious and all-too-familiar manner. It resonates. However, it doesn’t mean I REGRET the choice to have children. It breaks my heart that for a rising number of women, the only relief comes from wishing they never had children. I HATE that women feel like they need to choose some binary definition and experience of motherhood. And that a surprising number feel like they chose wrong.IMG_2650
  2. I felt set up: After finishing the article, I couldn’t help myself. I continued scrolling down to the comments section, anticipating the onslaught of inevitable traditionalist commentators. Sure enough, comments judging the “regretters” harshly, each one echoing the other, affirmed that our current cultural and family denigration is owed to women forgetting their place. Blaming and shaming women for being selfish in their pursuits. Declaring that they should only find fulfillment by filling their pre-determined roles. Where is the village? The lack of support, the sometimes-lonely nature of parenting, and the expectations of living up to some ideal make it difficult to be a mother. It’s unjust and unfair…and heartbreaking. The underlying cultural viewpoint that this is somehow a mother’s issue is infuriating. Really, this comes down to perpetuated societal injustices. This is everyone’s problem!
  3. A building sense of injustice: So, there I stood, staring at the piled-up dishes taunting me from the sink, the next day’s awaiting lunch Tupperware practically begging to be filled from the messy counter, and imagined the wet laundry impatiently admonishing me for my turtle’s pace…empathy, solidarity, heartbreak mounting. I just couldn’t help myself…

So, I threw the spatula…

We feel we should know better

As soon as it clattered against the squared edges of the basin, the heat of shame quickly replaced the rage. Shocked, I realized that in spite of regular journaling, meditation, gratitude practice, and exercise, I had experienced an uncontrolled, reactionary outburst.

At the time, I thought, I know better! What is wrong with me? What had made me react like that? More importantly, I wanted to know how could I stop it from happening again.

I believe some people turn to mindfulness as an inoculation against uncomfortable human emotions like grief, hopelessness, fear, anxiety, and anger. That somehow, there’s a perception that meditation is the answer to ridding us of these feelings.

Our current mindset seems to be that the more we know, the more we should be able to control ourselves. Ironically, I have heard friends mention that mindfulness just doesn’t “work” for them, dejected in their inability to get ahead of their unwanted emotions and the humiliating ways these feelings can sometimes express themselves. Or, some teachers impatiently lament that reflection and meditation in school doesn’t immediately cause tangible changes in behaviour. But, maybe, we’re all missing the point?

What is authentic mindfulness?

Here’s the thing, resisting negative emotions only exaggerates them. Genuine mindfulness comes from acceptance and deep observation. Observing all emotions, accepting their existence, and dropping the expectation that we should somehow be immune to negative feelings. Only through that acceptance, can we alter our, possibly inappropriate, reactions.

Simple concept, challenging to execute

As Shawn Achor, Harvard-trained happiness expert and author asserts, “common sense is not common action.” What he means is that even if we know what to do, actually doing it comes down to more than just our willpower or intellectual knowledge. That’s why experts in the field refer to mindfulness and meditation as a practice. Much like going to the gym, we can’t simply attend for a week and expect to reap it’s benefits for the rest of our lives. It’s an on-going labour of love. We win some, we lose some, and the overall trend keeps us headed in a positive, self-aware direction.

What happened on the brain-level?

IMG_2649

(Pic credit www.greenlightheidi.com)

In order to explain what happened, we need to talk about the two parts of our brain that duel for supremacy.

First, we have the emotional, limbic, reptilian part of the brain (amygdala). When we’re threatened, cortisol and adrenaline (neuro-chemicals) course through our veins throwing this ancient part of our brain into fight, flight or freeze. This reaction can prove tremendously helpful in protecting us from the perils of huge predators; however, it is not of particular use when employed in day-to-day stressors. Cortisol shuts down the body on a fundamental level and is only meant to be present in our bodies for short bursts. The problem is, every single time we get stressed, cortisol is released. The compounding effects of stress on the body has been linked to decreases in effectiveness of the immune system, cardio-vascular functioning, digestion, cellular growth, empathy, and increases in depression and anxiety. It’s toxic stuff!

The other part of the brain, the logical prefrontal cortex, is responsible for rational thinking. It takes into account a myriad of factors about a situation, risk-assessing as it goes along, before advising you on how to react.

It’s fair to say that after reading that article, my limbic brain hijacked my rational brain, and consequently, I jumped into fight mode.

And so, I propose, maybe it would be more useful to be calculating success in terms of our Recovery Time, as opposed to some unattainable obliteration of negative thoughts. Recovery time meaning, how quickly are we able to get to a place of authentic, self-forgiving, ego-free reflection after an emotional breakdown?  How long does it take for the rational brain to regain control?

What Now? How do we increase our recovery time after an emotional outburst, anyway?

The key is letting go of the ego-which says that if you’re not winning, you’re losing. Compromise and self-reflection are not the ego’s favourite thing to do. We have to have more patience of ourselves and others in the process, so we can move on and bounce forward. Mindfulness plays a big role in recovery time.

And, a little bit of reflection also goes a long way…

Five things you can do to increase your recovery time:

  1. Your story: Ask yourself, What story am I telling myself right now?
  2. Let it out: Find a way to express your voice through journaling or talking. Sometimes, those big feelings just need validation.
  3. List it up: Create a mental or written list of what’s inside your control and what’s outside of it.
  4. Small Steps: Create a small goal you know you can accomplish. Doing that has a way to building your confidence. The all or nothing mindset serves nothing. Small steps lead to big changes!
  5. Celebrate: Holding yourself to an unrealistic ideal, when it comes to any behavioural change is a recipe for disaster and failure. Celebrate small triumphs!