This morning I saw my internist for my annual physical. We reviewed health data, such as the results of blood tests, including my blood pressure and cholesterol levels. I’m happy to say that the results were good! When the doctor brought up the subject of exercise. I teased that I wanted credit for all the strenuous work that I do in the garden, explaining the many tasks required to grow a large garden. “Just last night I was out there until well after 11 pm,” I reported. A questioning look flashed across the doctor’s face. I guessed at his question, and with a shrug I explained, “I was wearing a headlamp, and the time got away from me.”
I noted that while the same quizzical look had remained on his face, a tiny smile had tugged at the corners of his mouth for a split-second and had then been stifled. “He thinks I’m crazy,” I thought to myself. I told him of how I look forward throughout the day to an hour or so in the evening when I can tackle one or more gardening tasks. “Last night I was preparing additional rows for planting,” I added. To my surprise the doctor began to describe the benefits I could experience from gardening–specifically he spoke of mental health benefits.
When I am alone in the garden and can focus on a task I know well, my mind can fully attend to what is happening, to what I am doing and to what is needed. I am consumed by the work and I relax into the task. My mind doesn’t attend to other topics or become distracted from my focus. What is happening at the moment becomes my sole focus and the pace of time begins to accelerate away from my awareness of it. I don’t care about being hungry or tired, I’m too involved to notice. Afterwards, when I transition away from the work, I will be surprised how much time has passed.
According to positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, PhD, what I describe as my experience last night is known as “flow” or a state of complete immersion in an activity. In his book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, Dr. Csíkszentmihályi describes the mental state of flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” He then goes on to explain that when you’re completely involved in flow, you don’t have enough attention left over to monitor how your body feels or to pay attention to your mind chatter.
The understanding of the concept of flow was a result of research on happiness. When considering the questions “What makes us happy?” and “When are we most happy?” research psychologists recognized that being able to achieve this state of flow–which is deeply satisfying and enjoyable–is a key component of happiness.
No wonder I enjoy gardening–it makes me happy. Have you experienced a state of flow in your work or life interests? It will most likely occur in an activity that you can perform with unconscious competency. Flow experiences can occur in different ways for different people. Some might experience flow while engaging in play or a favorite sport. Others might have such an experience while painting, drawing, or writing. I personally find I also experience flow when I’m fly fishing a favorite river, or teaching content where I have significant expertise.
Please share your experiences or questions in the comments and let’s figure out how to flow along happily.
The Midnight Gardener
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books, New York.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004, February). Flow. The Secret to Happiness. https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow