Defining happiness has long been a topic of focus and contemplation for researchers, philosophers, theologians, and many others from all walks of life. In recent years, research has concluded that, contrary to popular belief, happiness is not dependent on wealth and material possessions—as economic prosperity increased over time, overall happiness did not.
So, this brings up the question, what causes happiness? One answer is that happiness is simply a choice, an idea that we elaborate more on in this post. While making a conscious choice to stay cheerful with whatever life brings is always a good idea, there are specific experiences, philosophies, and thoughts that can lead to greater overall joy.
Miyalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high) proposed that humans experience their greatest happiness when in flow—a period of deep concentration and dedication to completing a certain task. It is a state of one-pointedness where everything is in focus, and time, external stressors, and any irrelevant internal dialogue is systematically shut down. Flow, Csikszentmihalyi contends, is state of bliss that is internally attained, which results in a much deeper sense of joy than, say, the act of enjoying a delicious dinner.
The 4 Phases of Flow
You’ve probably experienced flow before. It can happen when you’re writing a song, playing a sport, cooking a meal, or doing anything that is intrinsically rewarding, in-line with your skillset, and presents some level of a challenge. It happens when your mind stays fully present on the task at hand, and the challenge you’re facing is engaging and feels right. Since Csikszentmihalyi first explained the idea of flow, further research has revealed 4 key phases that we’ll explain next.
Phase 1: Struggle
To be in flow requires a challenge that, at first, may cause an internal struggle or conflict. However, challenges that can result in flow are not impossible; they are well-matched to the skillset of the individual. Too much of a challenge may result in a lack of motivation, or distraction. Too little of a challenge may result in boredom and thus also a lack of motivation. Finding a struggle that is right in the sweet spot between will allow you to move on to the next step: release.
Phase 2: Release
To enter into flow, you must be able to let go of the struggle to some degree. It’s impossible to initiate flow when in a highly anxious and stressed state. Releasing at least some of the tension associated with the struggle and letting go of the end result will allow you to step into the next phase.
Phase 3: Flow
You did it! You’re here! Likely, though, you didn’t realize it. When flow starts, self-consciousness is mostly lost. This state can last for long periods of time where you’re mostly unaware of your surroundings and needs (like food).
Phase 4: Recovery
Being in flow is often intense. It utilizes large amounts of bodily energy and requires a period of relaxation and restoration afterwards. Even if the activity that initiates flow isn’t physical, you’ll find yourself hungry, spacey, and exhausted afterwards. After all, the brain is responsible for at least 20% of our metabolism, more than any other organ. Thus, proper nutrition, sleep, relaxation exercises, and restorative activities will allow you to organize and associate everything you’ve learned while in flow and prepare you for next time.
Flow is a great place to be. While it can help increase your happiness, it can also help you to be the most productive and efficient person you can be.