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The American psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihályi did research on the subject of happiness in the middle 70s and came to the conclusion that people experienced the most happiness when they were in a state that he called „Flow“. Flow means that we are totally immersed in an activity while everything else becomes secondary. Time and space, even our own needs recede and lose their significance. We are totally concentrated, the task completely absorbs us, and we merge with whatever we are doing, so to speak. This is indeed an important character strength for the achievement of your happiness: Enthusiasm! Enthusiasm represents the ability to meet the world with excitement and energy, to be totally involved with what one happens to be doing at the time.

Most of us know this feeling very well from our own experience—at least from the days of our childhood. Remember how you were able to totally immerse yourself in a game, did not realize how late it got, whether you were hungry or thirsty, and it had long gotten past your bedtime? Like nothing else, a task that may be difficult but must be accomplished, stimulates reward centers in the brain. Therefore, work can be a good flow source (for instance, I frequently experience flow when I write, or when I realize that a therapeutic session is really going well at the moment). Many leisure time activities can also create flow, whether one is rowing, painting, or playing piano. However, an important point: lounging around on the beach, snoozing in the sun, or watching TV are not among the flow creating activities. All of these pleasurable things may be relaxing and satisfying in the short term, but in the medium term they get to be boring because they do not represent a challenge. Therefore happiness has nothing to do with hanging around in a hammock drinking tequila! Happiness is doing something one likes to do—and does well—with concentration and enthusiasm.

According to Csikszentmihályi the important components of a flow generating activity are:
  • A challenging task that requires know-how but does not overextend us.
  • Our concentration.
  • There are clear objectives.
  • We receive immediate feedback.
  • We are deeply but effortlessly involved.
  • We have the feeling to be in control.
  • We lose track of ourselves.
  • Time stands still.
One can best achieve flow experiences if one is doing something that corresponds to the personal strengths and preferences. Using myself as an example, I am a Social Realist combined with a good portion of Engaged Idealist. Both personality types tend to enjoy dealing with other people and are happiest when they are able to advance their development and support their self-realization. It is here where the important strengths of these personality types are found: Ability to empathize, interest in others, the preparedness to engage oneself, to name only a few. It is no wonder that I have frequent flow experiences in the above mentioned situations because it is then that I am able to fully utilize these strengths.

If one is fortunate enough to consider one’s profession as a calling, work can be the “prime time for flow,” as Martin Seligman calls it. What a privilege it is to spend the largest part of one’s waking hours (predominantly) with activities one loves and then gets paid for! The trick is to find a job one loves to do so much that one would do it even without getting paid—because then one has arrived at the heart of the so called “intrinsic motivation” which is a very important prerequisite for those happy moments: It is something one does not do for material rewards or public recognition, but because one simply has fun. Frida Kahlo the famous painter is said to have said: “All I can say about my work is that I paint because I must.” That describes pure unadulterated intrinsic motivation.

Obviously, flow can also be achieved during leisure time if you practice a hobby that fascinates you. Gregor Mendel lived as a priest in an Augustine Monastery and conducted his cross breeding experiments in the monastery’s garden because he was interested in the hereditary code of plants. Benjamin Franklin‘s main occupation was that of an acting postmaster in Philadelphia when he invented the lightening arrestor “on the side.” However, activity is the prerequisite for a flow-creating hobby. For instance, studies do not find listening to music or watching TV demonstrating any flow qualities because they tend to create passivity. On the contrary: In their results, watching TV correlates with slightly increased depression. Just to simply consume that which others serve you may occasionally, in the short term be ok after an especially trying day. But if you would like to increase your happiness quotient, you should use the lion’s share of your free time for active, not passive, activities. And if this happens in keeping with your personality traits, the flow is almost inevitable!

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