Relaxing with Rob

Increase Optimal Experience (a.k.a. "Flow")

February 16, 2020 Rob Sepich Season 1 Episode 35
Relaxing with Rob
Increase Optimal Experience (a.k.a. "Flow")
Show Notes Transcript

Learn evidence-based ways to feel happier and more engaged. Although what you do for a living matters, how you do it is even more important.

If you would like to learn more, here are some resources:

https://positivepsychology.com/what-is-flow/

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1999-11644-003

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[ music ] . Hi, this is Rob Sepich, and welcome to Relaxing with Rob. There's a fun state of consciousness that research shows can lead to happiness. It goes beyond relaxation. Mindfulness is a component, but it also goes beyond that. It's a combination of concentration and deep enjoyment. It's like being in the zone where time stands still. I learned about this from a graduate student who did some work with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi when he was at the University of Chicago. He's a leader in the positive psychology movement, and he's the person who first described the state of "flow," or "optimal experience." So today I'd like to tell you about it and offer a couple ideas on how to cultivate it. Some background: Csikszentmihalyi studied people around the world, with his group conducting more than 10,000 interviews of folks at every socioeconomic status level to understand the components of flow. If you're a visual person, picture a simple graph with your skills on the horizontal axis and challenges of the job on the vertical axis. If a low-challenge task requires low skills, you feel apathy; you just don't care. But if the challenges become too high and your skills to do it are still pretty low, your feeling shifts in the direction of anxiety. You're in over your head. And this makes it pretty hard to learn, because you're just focused on reducing stress. But if you're highly trained for something, so your skills are high and the challenges of the job are high--we're talking the upper right hand portion of the graph. That's the recipe for flow. What happens is we become invested in what we're doing and our attention is focused. Our self-consciousness vanishes. Now an air traffic controller who thinks, "Oh, I'm just pushing tin ," might not be very happy on the job. Or surgeons who feel like they're just on an assembly line completing yet another procedure--also not happy. Yet, there are actual assembly line workers who love their jobs, always try to improve their performance, you know, above the company's requirements. They want to cross train on different parts of the line and they feel they serve a crucial role in making great products, and they are routinely in a state of flow. So it's less about what you do and more about how you do it. In the movie "In Good Company," the character that Scarlett Johansson portrays is, among other things, a really good tennis player. And in one brief scene, her boyfriend played by Topher Grace is playing tennis with her for the first time--and probably the only time. Johansson is so much better than her boyfriend that we see him first kind of sweating, diving for the ball, running back from side to side. And then we see her, calmly standing still, holding a coffee in one hand and hitting the ball back and forth with the other. It just no fun for her when there's such a mismatch in skill level. Probably no fun for him, either. Has that happened to you in a sport or some other competition, maybe in high school or college? Your team was so much better than a competitor that winning wasn't really satisfying? Or on the other hand, a situation where no matter how hard you tried, you just didn't have the skill level to match your competition? It even happens in spectator sports where fans leave early during blowouts, even if their team is winning. To most people, being an air traffic controller, or a nuclear physicist, or an ER physician sounds stressful. But if you feel prepared for your work and fully engaged with it, you might feel challenged but it's not stressful. And by the way, some might think that being an assembly line worker does not sound stressful, but think again. At least for many workers, especially if you have no control and unrealistic demands on your time. That reminds me, have I ever mentioned that I used to work in a blanket factory--until it folded? Sorry, I couldn't resist. I know I'm a card; I should be dealt with. Okay, and now back to our topic. In research on flow, the job itself is a factor, but it's only a factor. It doesn't determine whether or not you're in a state of flow. For your convenience, I've placed a reference to one of Csikszentmihalyi's articles in the show notes as well as the name of one of his books. And these are non-affiliate links, so if you do purchase anything, I don't receive anything. Here's an amalgam of what the research team heard from people who are regularly in a state of flow. It goes something like this: "You could say I worked every minute of my life, and with equal justice you could say I never worked a day." So think about situations when you become so involved with the activity itself that you lose track of time, and of yourself. Rock climbers describe this. So do parents of newborns when they're holding their babies. So do jazz musicians and dancers. When you're this engaged with what you're doing, you don't have a chance to worry. In a 2017 [NPR] podcast called "How I Built This," Zumba was described at about the 20-minute mark of most classes as "FEJ," Freeing, Electrifying Joy. When participants totally lose themselves in the music and dance. That's another example of flow. But if you ask my friends, we think it happens during the first song. If you're one of the lucky ones who often find themselves in a state of flow, you already know how to get there. But if this is something new and you'd like to give it a try, here's an experiment that I used to offer to my students with two options. Option one: if you're anxious about a high-challenge task, see if you can get more skilled at it. Get extra training or take another class. Ask a supervisor for some guidance. Ask a friend for help. Watch some YouTube videos. Basically, sharpen your skills to meet the challenge, and your anxiety will fade. So I think that relaxation is not always the answer. Sometimes it's becoming more prepared. Option two: if you're bored with a low-challenge task or job that feels routine and you don't need better skills, increase the challenge of it. It could be by using your non-dominant hand, like in the famous fencing scene of "The Princess Bride." Or using a foreign language to do the task, or inventing a number game while you're working. Or asking for a new role on your job, or maybe an entirely new job. I think the options are only limited by your imagination. Here's a tiny thing I would do along these lines. I used to challenge myself to learn the names of my students by the second class each semester. But then when photo rosters became available to instructors, it made it much easier. So I learned them by the first class. This helped me connect things they were saying with each other by name, right from the start. And I have a friend with a great sense of humor. We used to co-present an orientation session to a group on campus each semester, and he'd use a different joke to illustrate a fact every time. And since it was a new group of students, he didn't need to, but he told me he did it for me just to get a fresh laugh each time we worked together. But I'm sure he was also doing it for flow. So remember, the state of flow is within reach for all of us, and it can really make life a lot more fun. So I hope you'll play around with this. Thank you for listening, and we'll talk again soon.