Find happy, healthy, inspired living.

Most of us want to be happy. We long for that general satisfaction and enjoyment that helps happy people ride out the ups and downs of life, but it often eludes us. Do we have to find happiness, or does it find us? How do we know where to look?

According to Psychology Today, “Truly happy people seem to have an intuitive grasp of the fact that sustained happiness is not just about doing things you [already] like. It also requires growth and adventuring beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. Happy people are, simply put, curious.”

Happiness, then, comes packaged with challenges and personal growth. It sounds like hard work.

The proposition that happiness requires challenge is proven by the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studied the psychological phenomenon of flow state—when we get lost in an activity and everything else, even time, falls away.

It goes by many other names, like being in “the zone” or “the groove.” In his 2004 TED talk on flow, Csikszentmihalyi calls it the secret to happiness.

But no matter what we call it, we know what it looks like. We most often notice it in elite athletes and musical virtuosos or top-notch performers. Think about the way Wayne Gretzky, Mia Hamm and Tiger Woods changed the game with their performances. Or think of the spell-binding magic of Eric Clapton’s guitar, Adele’s vocals or David Blaine’s mastery of illusion.

When they’re in the zone, when they can’t miss, their performances are inspirational. It elevates the experience for everyone watching.

Extra ordinary every day

We may not always recognize it, but flow happens in our everyday lives, too.

It’s in the rhythm of a busy bartender. From the ice to the pour, a barkeep in flow makes serving drinks look like a ballet. It’s in the speedy efficiency of a grocery clerk who has the bags perfectly packed in no time. And it’s in that harder-than-anticipated mountain bike ride or fitness class we somehow managed to pull off.

When we get lost in flow, we feel a sense of effortless attention, overall relaxation and improved performance. The work of Csikszentmihalyi and others reveals even more benefits, suggesting flow state can do the following:

  • Increase feelings of satisfaction
  • Boost our ability to persist in a challenging activity
  • Reduce anxiety during challenging activities
  • Motivate us and build self-esteem
  • Elevate everyday tasks
  • Increase self-confidence
  • Inspire us to try more
  • Convince us we can succeed outside our comfort zone

Curiosity, personal growth, getting out of our comfort zone—flow obviously has much in common with happiness. Feeling happy results from these things, but flow state helps us create them.

Lose yourself

No one ever got into the zone by relaxing with a movie or listening to the rain. Flow is all about doing—physical and mental action.

Activities that put us in flow state don’t all look the same, but they share certain characteristics.

In his TED talk, Csikszentmihalyi shares this diagram that illustrates how the challenge level of an activity combines with a person’s skill level in that activity to bring on different psychological reactions. The chart shows that flow happens when both the skill level and the challenge level are high. (Relatively speaking, that is. This is highly individual.)

In a flow state, we have confidence in our abilities but need to stretch our skills a little. We must quickly learn, adjust and improve. The possibility that we may not pull it off keeps us engaged and absorbed. (This intersection of skill and challenge has other applications. For example, horror-themed video games often set the level of challenge higher than the player’s skill set to create a feeling of anxiety.)

Like the bartender or grocery clerk from earlier, we can find flow opportunities in our daily lives. But we can also create flow opportunities with physical challenges.

Universal flow

Life runs on rhythm. From the cycles of day and night to the ocean tides and animal migration patterns, the earth thrives on the motion of rhythm.

Our bodies tune into these rhythms. We sleep and wake with the night and day. We feel more active in the warmer, sunnier months than in the cold dark of winter. In fact, most of our basic physiology depends on rhythm: heartbeat, breathing, menstrual cycles, even the motion of our joints.

We even rely on rhythm to learn how to move. Every movement, from typing to sprinting, is a pattern we learned through rhythm and repetition. Imagine trying to join in on a dance that everyone else already knows at a wedding. We’re talking chicken dance. Macarena. The Cha Cha Slide.

First off, we look around at everyone else. Mirror neurons in our brain help us pick up the rhythm of their feet and follow what they do. Within seconds, we get into the rhythm of moving our feet, and maybe start enjoying ourselves.

It is amazing how quickly we can build skills when rhythm is involved. Rhythm is part of many activities: Dance, sports, yoga and aerobics classes all use rhythm and flow to help us execute skills. And because they capture our attention, and always have room for a new challenge, they can help us enter flow.

Growing keeps us glowing

Both flow state and flow movement have concrete benefits for health too. Learning and overcoming challenges improves mental sharpness, cognitive health and physical efficiency.

When we enter flow state via physical activity or sport, we also reap the cardiovascular, strength, and metabolic benefits of the activity.

Flow happens when we get lost in the challenge and enjoyment of an activity. What we find when we’re there may be the key to improved performance, inspired living and overall health. It’s enough to make anyone happy.


Photo credits (in order): Fotos 593, Adobe Stock; kuznetsov_konsta, Adobe Stock; vitaliymateha, Adobe Stock; nikolay100, Adobe Stock; Studio Firma, Stocksy