I must admit, when I started to write about happiness, I thought I might write a quick little blog post and move on. Then, I realized I had too much to say to keep it all in one post; when I finished the second post I realized I STILL wasn’t done. There’s one more thing I really want to share about choosing to live happily. But first, if you haven’t already, please check out Part 1 and Part 2 in this series.
In my first post, I talked about happiness as an attitude choice and its affect on overall health. Then, in the second post, I talked about living in alignment with your values. But there’s one more exciting thing I just have to share with you: FLOW!
Don’t say you haven’t heard about flow?! This is one of the concepts that was born out of the positive psychology world in the last 30 years. Flow is the feeling you experience when you are “in the zone”. Like when you play a sport, or garden or dance. When you do these activities and get to that point where you feel like you could keep going at just that pace for ever and be just fine; that point where time seems to lose its meaning; THAT’S flow.
There are some really cool things about flow:
First, studies have shown that people who experience flow on a regular basis live longer, healthier and happier lives.
Also, it works best when you actually engage your body. For example, you might experience flow while painting or drawing, but you will get better benefits from it if you dance around while you create your art.
And, you can experience flow alone or in groups, but engaging with others increases the effectiveness. Think about practicing a line dance in your living room and then think about doing the dance at a bar with a bunch of friends; it’s not JUST the dancing that makes the difference, but the camaraderie and sense of mutual purpose that is so beneficial.
Finally, and perhaps my favorite part, a large percentage of our overall happiness level is attributed to “intentional activity”. Intentional activity is a way to say “things we actively choose to do”. This means that I can choose to experience flow and thereby choose to increase my overall level of happiness and satisfaction. And I can only experience flow by doing things that I find fun and enjoyable, so, really it’s best for my health to have fun!
If I can get just a little neuro-nerd on you for a second: our brains function with limited resources. Because they have to maximize efficiency, they tend to improve and maintain tracts of neurons that get used the most often. Imagine a city that needs to fill pot holes in its roads. It makes sense to fill the holes in the main roads first, and then get to all the side streets later, if you have enough money left. And because the main roads are smoother, people find them easier to drive on and choose them more often. Because the brain works this way, it gets very good at maximizing the pathways that we use most often. The more you use a path, the stronger and faster it gets.
But the brain also functions with what we call plasticity. This is a fancy word used to say that the brain is flexible. If you start using a different pathway in your brain because you are learning a new skill, say, Japanese calligraphy, at first the brain struggles with this new pathway. As you continue to ask your brain to optimize the “Japanese calligraphy pathway”, your brain will begin to devote more resources to the pathway; it will, to use our example of the roads, “fill the pot holes” and make it smoother for you to use. Over time, aspects of your new skill require almost no conscious thought because your brain has optimized that new pathway for you. (If you want to read more about plasticity, one of my favorite books on the subject is called “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, MD)
Here’s where this gets really cool: you can CHOOSE TO OPTIMIZE YOUR HAPPINESS PATHWAYS! By actively choosing to live within your values and experiencing flow on a regular basis, you can train your brain to find feelings of happiness easier. Over time, not only will it be easier to access that happy feeling, it will be equally more difficult to access feelings of prolonged depression. Please understand that this is a simplistic view; some people experience diseases of their neurotransmitters that make this very difficult. But regardless of who you are or what your brain chemistry might be, you can choose to be a little bit better today than you were yesterday.
You can choose to be happy.