“If you’re having fun, that’s when the best memories are built.” Simone Biles, Olympic gymnast
Have you ever lost track of time while doing something you love?
It turns out you may have discovered one of the most natural and healthiest human states of mind.
Simone Biles trains from 9 a.m. to 8.p.m. most of the week, and then spends her evenings analyzing videos of her performance. Somewhere in that busy schedule she’ll squeeze in time for home schooling. And she calls this tough arrangement “fun.”
If you’ve ever met a typical teenager, you know it’s hard to get most of them to do anything more strenuous than type a 14-character text message. Yet young athletes will go through rigorous training programs to improve their game--and tell you that they love it.
The real reward for this hard work is a magical feeling that researchers have known about for decades. It’s popularly referred to as being “in the zone.”
Over the last 20 years or so, cognitive scientists and athletic coaches have studied this state intensely. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe this state. (Just trying to spell his last name can put some people into a state of total engagement.)
It seems that to be in flow you have to have two things going on. First, you have to feel challenged. Second, you have to have sufficient skills to overcome the challenge, or at least feel you can keep on trying.
A good bike ride will get you into the zone, especially if you can season the ride with a touch of adventure or competition. But you can also get into the flow from doing almost any engaging, challenging activity--even playing video games.
The “Angry Birds” secret to excellence
Cognitive scientist Jane McGonigal researched the benefits to game playing in her book SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient--Powered by the Science of Games. Gaming is a quick and easy way to get into flow--which might explain why games are so addictive.
But aside from feeling good, there are a lot of reasons to try and get into flow on a frequent basis.
When you’re in flow, you’re able to block out pain and other distractions. Your heart rate drops. Research shows that flow can even reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
My favorite thing about flow is that you have to be challenged or it won’t work. And this is where all the benefits of flow come into play.
The activity that gets you into flow this month won’t work next month, because it will no longer challenge you. You have to constantly learn, improve, and evolve.
When you play games, plant a garden, or bike your way into flow, you’re also training yourself to be tenacious. There is always a solution, and when you figure it out you’ll crave something harder. Neural pathways for persistence, problem-solving, and learning start to form in the brain.
The benefits of flow aren’t just academic. People who frequently enter this state tend to be happier, physically healthier, even more creative and innovative. Eventually they seek out new activities that can induce the flow state.
Follow this to your personal best
Joseph Campbell offered simple advice to 20-year-olds who didn’t know what to do with their lives. (I can attest that his words are equally valid for a 40-something-year-old who doesn’t know what to do.)
“Follow your bliss,” he said.
Your bliss is the thing that puts you into flow. Even if it has no economic value.
You could find flow in caring for other people, plants, and animals. Teaching and entertaining. Building things and fixing things.
But the science suggests you can learn and grow even if you just want to spend your free time playing video games.
I get there from bike rides, looking for ancient ruins, sometimes from reading and writing. Better yet, a combination of all four of these.
What puts you in a state of flow?
Some good flow resources:
A TEDTalk given by Csikszentmihalyi on flow. http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow?language=en#t-318966
If you’re interested in learning more, check out the Flow Genome Project. (There’s a free test and a 6-minute video that shows the biochemistry behind flow.) http://www.flowgenomeproject.com/
Disclosure: I am not affiliated with any of the organizations or websites cited here. If you click on the link to McGonigal’s book and make a purchase on Amazon I will receive a commission which may help pay for my next bike tour.