Flow: (Also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time. – Wikipedia

Americans have a difficult time handling our over-abundance: in the same way we have let ourselves become sick and fattened by the over-availability of the processed “foods” we’ve developed, we have also slid into the vacuum of a whole lot of free time. The result: we have become fat and bored. But though we may find the search for health and happiness challenging amid so much excess, the answer might have been with us all along. Maybe, though, it was more visible in times of scarcity.

Just as the Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: Me-hi Chick-sent-me-hi) explains in Finding Flow, in 1958 the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry warned: “For many Americans, leisure is dangerous.” The warning sounds similar in many ways to the warnings about the American diet that makes many of us fat and sluggish.  It’s ironic that we must dig our way out of a pile of processed food to find health and dig our way out of unstructured free time to find happiness. Happiness is elusive and diets are hard.

Tons of free time and an enormous, hot and tasty buffet. What could possibly be better! Csikszentmihalyi offers an answer: structure.

The problem is that we have been conditioned to view free time as an end in and of itself. Thank God it’s Friday, the saying goes. We expected free time to equal happiness, but one look at Csikszentmihalyi’s research shows that it doesn’t. Simply existing in unstructured time, which we have often mistaken for the default way to experience “free time” is apparently not the best way to enjoy it and to have lasting happiness produced by it.

Instead, mining a longer-lasting, more substantial feeling of happiness from our free time requires an understanding of how to better optimize it specifically for the result of more happiness. Csikszentmihalyi’s Finding Flow offers suggestions. As with our approach to abundant food, our monkey brain leads us again and again down the wrong path. Our primitive brain has been conditioned by thousands of years of scarcity to seek out high-carb, high sugar treats. 100,000 years ago as we trekked endlessly across the savannah, carbs and sugars and fats were difficult to come by so the creatures that were most attracted to getting them survived to reproduce. Today, living under a pile of sugary, salty overabundance and lack of trekking, we find ourselves sinking into a slow, diabetic deterioration, victims of our appetites and ingenuity. Similarly, our monkey brain choice of leisure activities too has not yet caught up to our 21st Century abundance of free time.

Our first instinct is to make easy, low-energy, low bar-of-entry choices as to how to spend our free time. Csikszentmihalyi gives the example of how on weekends statistically more people experience anxiety and symptoms of illness. Most of us simply do not know how to derive happiness and focus from lack of structure. We seek to reduce the chaos of off time with easy go-to’s, such as eating, drinking, wandering through malls (real or virtual), surfing the web or our social media accounts or having sex. The recent development of the highly-addictive-by-design internet and instant availability of “friends” to “connect” with and we have a super-charged, scientifically-designed recipe for delivering dissatisfaction. Our monkey brain keeps pushing the button for more and more pleasure and we keep chasing elusive and substantial satisfaction in the wrong direction.

When we are experiencing the Flow state we are fully-involved. We are attacking something with our full being as a challenge. We are solving problems. We are discovering on our own. And there is clarity surrounding our activity as to the goals, rules and feedback.  Past and future disappear and there is only focus in the moment on the subject. And though it is work, it feels good. As I write this article, I find myself carving a path through a dense and challenging jungle that I might have initially tried to sidestep because of its daunting appearance. Yet I commit to it and he feeling as I work my way through the hard work of wrangling these thoughts into words is a good feeling. And, I have no doubt that the feeling will stay with me. At the end of the day I will have done something. Made an investment. I might have gone straight to my Facebook or Twitter account and begun scrolling effortlessly, but the Csikszentmihalyi suggests in my reading that Flow state is activated by making an active decision and pursuing it. So, today, I did. It is like the feeling when you convince yourself to drive to the gym, get on the treadmill and not get off. You block out the initial craving for instant gratification or stasis and by pushing past it you arrive at a place of much greater happiness and no guilt.

So, why don’t we take the road less travelled more often? Csikszentmihalyi’s extensive studies show that actively-pursued leisure time in which a participant is doing something like reading a challenging book, writing, playing a musical instrument, engaging in a hobby (which might include maintaining a strict diet and all of the monitoring, prepping, directed shopping, attentive cooking and regulated eating) is statistically more Flow-producing than passive actions (if they can be called “actions” at all).

We don’t tend to take the more difficult road or blaze our own trail because to do so requires, intention, planning, action, follow-through and at least initial discomfort. Csikszentmihalyi gives the example of kids who report little happiness by choosing watching TV compared to kids who experience exponentially greater happiness by playing softball. He asks them why they choose TV and they explain that it requires much more effort to organize a game. 

What the monkey brain doesn’t understand is that by the individual using a bit of “activation energy” up front she will put herself on a much more satisfying path. Engaging in Flow-inducing activities requires just a bit of delayed gratification for a much bigger payoff. Think of the way you feel 15 minutes into or post-work out. You feel energized. You feel pumped. Your brain and nervous system are firing like crazy. Your mind is flooded with great ideas washing away the problems you thought you had. And you tell yourself that you’re going to do this every day. Then, tomorrow,  monkey brain makes sure to lure you to the couch and the cupboard where you keep the snacks. 

The parallels between achieving the Flow state and self-directed diets seems interesting to me. It makes me wonder if Csikszentmihalyi has detected any overlap between people who maintain strict diets and the experiencing of Flow.  As I once heard Seth Godin mention on one of his podcasts: All diets work. I think he meant that generally “diet” as it’s used today means controlling our monkey-brain’s drive to eat unchecked. Just like the good feelings experienced during and immediately after the work out, when you’re in the delayed-gratification diet groove you feel better, you look better, you think better, you are better. The trick is finding and engaging the “activation energy,” the starter that gets your motor running in the right direction. The trick is getting over the hump every day, developing habits that steer us into Flow activities more automatically.

As with our diet, engaging in Flow-generating activities seems to extend into our lives and become a part of a cycle. We may feel bad at our jobs or in our relationships and as a result we come home, plop on the couch and devour a column of cookies to feel better. But those cookies and that time spent on low-engagement activities like scrolling through social media and watching television or drinking might also set us up for less than fulfilling experiences when our spouse walks in the door or when we have to get up for work the next morning. Good Flow and dietary habits are in and of themselves good, but they also feed into the way we experience the rest of our lives.

Csikszentmihalyi traces passive entertainment back to the days of “Bread and Circuses” when emperors provided spectacles and distractions for the populace during the trying times of their declining empires. Today TV producers and social media app designers and other web-content providers compete and integrate the latest monkey-brain science to lure us in front of the television and computer and, more importantly, to keep us there.

In the same way the relatively small group of food scientists are hard at work injecting just the right additives into all the most easily-available foods to satiate that monkey-brain, keep the cravings strong and ensure return customers.

Csikszentmihalyi explains that at one time science and art, painting and composition weren’t strictly the realm of the professionals. Today, however, we feel inhibited about exploring these Flow-inducing activities, however it is through experimenting with them that we are likely to find the solution to filling our leisure time with meaning. Why should painting be off limits to a banker? Why should an attorney feel ashamed to purchase a camera and begin shooting photos? Why should a trash-truck driver be afraid to write a verse of poetry in an empty notebook?

It is good to know this understanding of Flow is becoming more popular, that the hunger for something different, for something substantial is still alive within us, even if only faintly flickering. Beneath the short-lived, superficial feelings of well-being that processed foods and pre-packaged leisure activities provide, remains for many of us, a tiny hint of dissatisfaction. And if the voice is strong enough it just might persuade us to leave the couch, walk away from the snack dish and television and step out into the world seeking… something.

Every day people are making “creative readjustments” in their careers and in the way they are choosing to spend their leisure time just like the way they are choosing from what they will draw their nutrition. Csikszentmihalyi and others like him are breaking down happiness and satisfaction into their component parts for us to integrate into our lives. Individuals from around the world, often times without knowing the term,  seek ways to incorporate Flow into life. We are not leaving the science to the scientists, we are not leaving the painting to the artists, we are not accepting that our bodies must passively deteriorate from time and misuse. We are following the tiny voice that seeks real satisfaction, and it is leading us down interesting paths often times resulting in encountering Flow.

Some of us find ourselves at a disheartening intersection: a work life that offers no freedom and leisure time that has no purpose. The best solution is to merge the liberating freedom of down time with meaningful work. “If one’s job is beyond redemption,” says Csikszentmihalyi, we must be sure that at least the time we do have control over is spent in pursuing Flow.