The classic “go to” piece of advice when you find yourself worried, anxious, grieving, broken hearted, or angry is near enough always the same: “distract yourself” or “try to take your mind off of things”. These phrases are much more easier said than done. We may find they go over our heads along with the other valuable pick me up points “things will get better”, “just try to stay positive” that our loved ones wrap us in when feeling low. We grow bored and frustrated at ourselves for feeling down, but do not have the energy or information about what to do to pick ourselves up. Which arguably, results in then feeling even worse. Welcome, the vicious cycle of negative thinking. We may be able to identify we need to change something, but when has anyone asked “when are you finding yourself in flow?”
The founder of Flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a highly respected researcher within the field of positive psychology. Interestingly, his research began following the devastation that followed World War II. Csikszentmihalyi became interested in the science of happiness and how to create more of it after witnessing so much pain and suffering. The way in which Csikszentmihalyi first came to investigate happiness I feel is particularly significant. When are we most likely to look for happiness? When we are down and when we are suffering. Yet, when we are happy, how often do we pause to reflect on the present moments that are making us feel joy, contentment and love? Not enough. Perhaps the moments in which we find ourselves blissfully happy we should actively pay more attention to, not only to practise gratitude but to actually enable ourselves to have a greater understanding of what we are doing, who we are with, when we are happy. Csikszentmihalyi (2000) describes “flow” as the moments in time in which we find ourselves thinking creatively and productively, stretching our minds to its limits. If you’re unsure if you have ever experienced flow have a think about the following:
Do you engage in any activities in which you enjoy so much you lose track of time?
Have you ever found yourself so immersed in a task you have completely forgotten about any troubles from earlier on that day?
What do you find rewards you and fulfils you?
What challenges you, but excites you at the same time?
What do tasks can you perform at ease, but with enjoyment?
What challenges you just enough that you enjoy it but not so much that you dread it?
These are the points in time in which you are likely to be experiencing flow. Neurologically, when we experience flow, evidence suggests there is a decrease in prefrontal cortex activity. During this down-regulation the prefrontal context may cause distortion of time and limit self-jeopardising thoughts (Dietrich., 2003). This allows for concentration of neurological activity within the creative parts of our brain that allow us to be creative and imaginative to become active. The state of flow has also been found to increase levels of dopamine and therefore our feelings of reward and pleasure (Dietrich., 2004).
This year, I have begun to battle with regular low mood. Not only did I grow tired from negative thoughts and experiencing low self-esteem, I noticed those around me were becoming frustrated too. We can pay for the most expensive therapy we can find, or hear the best advice in the world, but I strongly hold the belief that unless an individual wants to make a change themselves, it will not happen. The desire to change has to come from within an individual. I was motivated to change my mood but struggled to think of how.
Finding a new project, hobby or interest I have come to believe is key to getting over the inevitable negativities in life. I decided, I wanted to do something for myself, that I could be proud of. So I decided to begin the process of buying my own property. Change can be good, and whilst I appreciate my ‘project’ was rather extreme, there is nothing to say trying a new sport, starting a new cooking class or getting a new pet can’t free your mind in the same way. With a new space to fill and a new chapter of my life set to begin I have channelled all my energy into colour schemes, furniture renovation and creating mood boards. I found myself looking at my phone less and the negative thoughts I was experiencing back in January… well quite simply I did not have time for. I was meeting new people and learning new things I never had to contemplate before e.g. the role of solicitors in buying a house. I found myself laughing again and motivated to get up in the morning. Having a new project seemed to realign my perspective and remind me of what I truly value. I was consistently experiencing, flow.
Find your own
All our problems and heartaches must be dealt with and treated correctly for us to move on. I am under no illusion they should be ignored in favour of a new project, pet or sport. Negative feelings need to be acknowledged and adhered to. However, I have come to believe the process of acknowledging those feelings is considerably easier to do when you find your own flow activity. If nothing else, flow reminds you that life continues regardless of how you may feel at the present time. I encourage anyone who is feeling a bit down to start something new and channel negative energy as soon as they can. The energy we have to be sad, angry, disappointed is arguably better channelled on something rewarding than wasted in a bottle of wine, argument or wasted week on the sof
Dietrich, A. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: the transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and cognition, 12(2), 231-256.
Dietrich, A. (2004). Neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the experience of flow. Consciousness and Cognition, 13(4), 746-761.
Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Positive psychology: An introduction. In Flow and the foundations of positive psychology (pp. 279-298). Springer, Dordrecht.
About the Author: Amy Poole a University of Essex graduate and currently a second year Positive Psychology Masters student with Buckinghamshire new university. Amy has several published pieces and displays a keen interest in mental wellbeing, humor and gratitude. Amy works in partnership with Wellbeing Suffolk to manage a team, whom give advice to individuals suffering work related stress and anxiety.