In the (Happiness) Zone

Immerse yourself in something you enjoy and your happiness will flow to a new level.

In the (Happiness) Zone

Next time your boss catches you playing online Sudoku at your computer, tell her a happy employee is a productive employee. Scientific evidence may actually back you up. It’s possible engaging in a pursuit in which challenge meets skill causes you to experience what psychologists refer to as “flow.”

Those who experience flow are generally happier and feel more fulfilled than those who don’t. The good news is, just about anyone can find a way to increase flow in their lives.

Coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chik-sent-ma-hai), flow describes a state of complete immersion that produces intrinsic pleasure within those who participate in activities that allow them to block all outside influences.

As Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book "Finding Flow," “Athletes refer to it as being ‘in the zone,’ religious mystics as being in ‘ecstasy,’ artists and musicians as ‘aesthetic rapture’.” Flow activities cause you to break away from the mundane and experience life to the fullest, without distractions.

Art Markman, Ph.D., professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin, and YouBeauty Psychology Advisor, says most people have felt this type of transcendence. You find yourself in a trance while painting, fully focused on your chess game or totally in sync with numbers while figuring your taxes.

To identify activities you can really get immersed in, try making daily diary entries in which you reflect on the day’s happenings and how they affected your disposition. You’ll be able to pinpoint the more enjoyable parts of life, thereby increasing how often you engage in them.

S. Katherine Nelson, M.A., who works in the Positive Psychology Lab at University of California, Riverside, says to achieve this heightened sense of captivation, you need to participate in an activity that:

  • Allows you to feel a degree of competence
  • Challenges you enough to keep you engaged
  • Prohibits you from becoming frustrated (too challenging) or bored (not challenging enough)

Milwaukee teacher Marisa Wall tends to experience complete immersion when she does yoga, paints, dances, bakes and cleans. In the midst of these activities, she says she feels happy, part of something greater and as if time doesn't matter. 

“A state of flow can emerge during any activity in which I'm not preoccupied or worried about something. I'm not comparing myself to anyone else. I'm present and focused on something other than my troubles or my loneliness,” Wall says.

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