Monday, February 1, 2016

Flowing into Happiness

It’s 8 am. A fresh coat of snow blankets the earth and a light fog fills the air as I begin my standard Sunday long run.Today I’m running with my headphones for some musical inspiration. My musical selection is quite diverse but even with it set to shuffle I feel like my ipod can sometimes read my mind, as it often picks the right song at the right moment. As I tread lightly across the new fallen snow to get a sense of the degree of slipperiness, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is the first melody that serenades my eardrums.

One might not associate this with a workout song but its cadence is perfect for warming up. And despite being about moonlight it seems to be fitting. Being early in the day on a Sunday the rest of the world seems to still be at rest, providing a similar stillness as the moonlight hours. It’s just me running through a silent snow covered foggy town. The song seems to be the soundtrack for this moment, emphasizing the so called loneliness of the long distance runner.

I love my long runs, they provide me with a form of meditation, an opportunity to get inside my head and clean out the gunk that has accumulated from a hectic work week.
Despite the fact that I’m running while listening to music I am still very much able to clear my head. In fact, exercising to music has been shown to induce a state of ‘flow’ or ‘getting into the zone’.

Flow is the point during an activity in which mind and body work in perfect synch, you are totally in the moment and movements seem to flow without conscious effort. Recent research at Brunel University’s School of Sport and Education showed that music can make the experience of cardiovascular exercise far more positive. Promoting a state of flow is a way in which this happens. Researchers concluded that music and imagery could enhance athletic performance by triggering emotions and cognitions associated with flow.  

While music certainly isn’t required for a flow state, sometimes it helps. Today is one of those days for me. As my strides take me over varied terrain thoughts of my week and daily obligations disappear. The rhythm from assorted melodies on my ipod and my breathing are all I’m aware of. I’m out playing in the snow approaching the day with a childlike enthusiasm.

Not long ago I listened to an NPR episode of the TED Radio Hour in which the subject was Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. In 1943 Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that healthy human beings have a certain number of needs, and that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy, with some needs (such as physiological and safety needs) being more primitive or basic than others (such as social and ego needs). Maslow’s so-called ‘hierarchy of needs’ is often presented as a five-level pyramid, with higher needs coming into focus only once lower, more basic needs are met.

One of the discussions during this TED radio hour episode was with Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (see pronunciation below). The “gist” of this discussion was that after a certain point, increases in material well-being don’t seem to affect happiness. Research shows that people who, regardless of what they are doing, become totally absorbed in the activity (thereby being in a state of flow) tend to be the most truly happy. This explains why I am feeling so at peace and consumed with happiness.

                                     Mihaly Csikszentmihaly; How do you say that?

His TED talk on the subject is here:

Recently, while perusing through television channels in search of something that struck my fancy I came across the film “Stick It”, a film in which the main characters are gymnasts. The description of this film from is as follows: 

After a run-in with the law, Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym) is forced to return to the world from which she fled some years ago. Enrolled in an elite gymnastics program run by the legendary Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges), Haley's rebellious attitude gives way to something that just might be called team spirit.

This film met with mixed reviews but it had some really interesting cinematography and some memorable scenes. One such scene stands out in my mind because I felt it really exemplified the power of being in a state of flow. Haley (the lead character) had a life that was in turmoil. She came from a broken home, had an unsupportive mother, and was viewed by many as being unable to live up to her potential. As a result she was rebellious.

Despite all this and the negative distractions that go along with them, when on the balance beam in this particular scene she tunes out her surroundings and puts her heart and soul into her routine. She stumbles at one point but doesn’t lose focus. From this point forward is where she achieves 'flow'. She gets right back on the beam, pouring her emotions into her routine using them as fuel to power her to a beautiful and flawless finish. My perception is that while she’s on the beam she feels that all negativity is gone and there is only beauty in each moment as she gracefully expresses herself through her routine.

Perhaps this is what the world needs for greater peace, happiness and an overall healthier state; more flow. We are so consumed by day-to-day tasks that often involve multi-tasking that we don’t take time out to lose ourselves in something, to completely immerse ourselves in one particular action. When we are multi-tasking, we cannot possibly devote all of our attention to one thing.

Flow is also far more likely to occur with mastery. By this I mean the more frequently an activity is done, the more skill you acquire. Skill improvement occurs as a result of an enhanced mind and body connection. Since flow is the point in which mind and body work in perfect synch, this enhanced connection leads to this perfect synchronicity.

Today there is too much of an emphasis on shortcuts. It’s difficult to master something if you are taking shortcuts. Also, it’s important to be persistent and not give up. More and more, people give up too quickly when trying something new. By doing this the meditative state of flow is avoided and the empowering self esteem building sense of accomplishment is bypassed as well.

All of these flow preventing factors can prevent happiness. A lack of happiness often leads to negative thinking which leads to poor health (both physical and mental) and negative actions towards ourselves and others.

Okay so maybe getting in the zone won’t cure all of the world’s problems, but it sure isn’t going to hurt. So my advice to myself and others is to slow down from time to time, take time to immerse yourself in something and work at mastering it. Play an instrument, write a book, do some woodworking, go for a run,... whatever. The activity doesn’t necessarily matter as long as it challenges you enough to require focus. I guarantee the action won't be regretted.

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