Joshua Keel

Flow = Happiness?

March 8, 2020

It’s clear to me in retrospect, but it wasn’t clear at the time, that I have been bored at work. I haven’t been challenged enough. I was engaged in the sense that I cared and wanted my team to succeed, but I wasn’t galvanized—forced to bring all my wit to bear on solving the problems of the day.

Then, I got put on a new project, as a technical lead, working with a new team, forced to confront technical hurdles we’ve never had before. And I’m loving it! The days pass quickly. There are many moments in a given week that I am struggling, that I’m wracking my brain for the answers, both technical and human.

We’re all probably familiar with the concept of flow at this point. You can’t read a popular psychology book or hear a podcast interview without a reference to it. Wikipedia defines flow as “the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”[1]

This sounds very familiar to me. It’s what I’m experiencing at work each day now, and what was painfully absent in the past. One of the components of flow is having the right level of challenge. Too little, and boredom sets in. Too much, and frustration dominates. For flow, you need to be at the edge of your comfort zone, but not over the line.

I never understood how fun it could be to feel challenged in my work. I’ve often felt flow when engaged in various hobbies and personal pursuits, but it has been elusive at the office. It’s clear to me now that I simply wasn’t being pushed to my edge. I could coast by using 70% of my brain, but now that I must be engaged—for the success of my team, for the work to get done, for the respect of my peers—I’m on fire.

I’m bringing my best self in ways I didn’t know I could.

All this has made me happier at work than I believe I’ve ever been. It has also reduced a lot of my interest in personal pursuits that used to capture my attention. This newsletter, much to my chagrin, has gotten less love and attention as I’ve become more engaged, even obsessed, with work.

I’ve actually had to consciously slow down and disengage from the workday, a need that only rarely came up in the past. It was easy for me to just turn work off and on. I never felt the desire or necessity to spend a lot of time thinking about work or checking in after hours. But in the last few weeks, I’ve been doing just that—not from a sense of obligation, but because I want to. I want my team to succeed.

The lessons of meditation seem relevant here. Life is better when we’re not constantly thinking about why things went wrong yesterday, or worrying about some anticipated trouble. When we’re centered in this moment—the only one we have—mental suffering is greatly reduced, if not entirely ceased.

Happiness blossoms in immersion, in full engagement, in flow.

I know I may just be going through a phase. Nothing lasts, after all. But the power of total absorption—of being enthralled—has been seared into my brain. It has brought me joy at work in a way I didn’t know was possible, and I’m exceedingly grateful.

What are your experiences with flow? What makes you feel alive? What fills you with the delight of total absorption? I’d love to hear from you.

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