When flow is hard, try this

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 4 of The Year of Happy‘s month on flow. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

If you listen to the flow experts, this state is what gives meaning to life. It’s where we fulfill our potential as human beings, morphing into the best version of ourselves. Many athletes risk death in order to get there.

That’s a lot of pressure.

According to a Gallup survey, flow is not particularly common. Only 20% of people experience flow daily, while the vast majority – about 65% – experience it weekly or more sporadically. A full 15% of people are never in flow. Flow is harder for people who are neurotic and conscientous, two of the Big 5 personality traits. It’s also harder for people low in emotional intelligence.

This week, we’ll look at three of the common obstacles that keep us from flow (or happiness afterward).

Problem: I don’t have time for fun

Busyness is one of the biggest obstacles to flow. In one infamous study, participants were asked to eliminate any flow from their life. They basically acted like busy people who had no time for fun – with disastrous consequences. Let’s just say the study was stopped prematurely. 

The other problem with busyness is that we become so harried that all we feel like doing at the end of the day is flopping down in front of the TV, which isn’t likely to bring us flow. In this video, the University of California, Berkeley’s Christine Carter gives some tips for taming the busyness:

In life, we’re constantly prioritizing – so one of the reasons that flow activities get lost in the shuffle is because we don’t actively put value on them. We think we have to grow up and get serious – and stop playing guitar, surfing, or painting. 

“We have decided that play – an activity fundamental to survival, tied to the greatest neurochemical rewards the brain can produce, and flat out necessary for achieving peak performance, creative brilliance, and overall life satisfaction – is a waste of time for adults,” says Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.

Obviously, he believes flow is the exact opposite of a waste of time – and we should put it higher on our priority list.

Problem: Flow activities take too much effort

All flow is preceded by struggle – this is the first phase of the flow process, according to Kotler. It’s also the reason why many of us have trouble getting into flow. Getting into flow requires us to persist past the point where we feel overloaded, incompetent, and frustrated.

“Frustration is the signal that the breakthrough is coming,” he writes. Simply knowing that may give us the wherewithal to not give up. Plus, the better we get at something – running, knitting, writing – the more we enjoy it. Pushing ourselves to practice in the beginning will eventually give way to more internal motivation as we get better at our craft.

In this interview, Kotler explains why the flow process doesn’t always feel good, and how he structures his life around five major flow activities:

Problem: The rest of life seems boring

The struggle phase can be frustrating, but so can the recovery phase after flow. It’s like coming down from a high, like getting back from a luscious vacation. Boredom threatens, and we may even start to feel anxious that we can’t get back to that heavenly place.

Kotler describes it this way: “Handling the massive delta between the world-at-your-feet sensation that comes with flow and the utterly ordinary, all-too-human reality that shows up afterward is not always pleasant. There’s no more feel-good neurochemistry, no more superhuman powers. It can take a considerable amount of resilience to navigate recovery.”

His Flow Genome Project cofounder makes a similar point: “An enormous gap sits between the ecstasy of the zone and the all-too-familiar daily toil waiting for us on the other end. If you’ve glimpsed this state, but can’t get back there – that lack can become unbearable.”

So what’s the solution? If we’re already trying to add flow triggers to life, all that’s left to do is realize: this is normal. Even the craziest athletes aren’t in flow all the time. Flow is not the be-all-end-all of happiness; we need other strategies to cultivate happiness in the rest of our lives. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, albeit a very beautiful one.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 3: The benefits of flow

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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