When I heard that Michael Jackson had died, my reflex reaction was: “It’s just as well, he wasn’t happy.” I have no way of knowing that, of course (he never confided in me at the Oscars) but the parade of lawsuits, media drama and plastic surgery didn’t seem to me like the hallmark of a contented life.
What’s more, continuing my presumptuous speculation about Michael’s emotional state, I’d bet that he was happiest when he could lose himself in the simple joy of dancing.
Which brings me to the point of this seemingly gratuitous celebrity reference: It’s the ability to achieve the state of total absorption in the moment, or “flow” – not wealth, talent or millions of admirers – that is one of the keys to happiness.
We all experience flow from time to time. The question is: how do you get into flow on a regular basis, even during the more mundane aspects of life? In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies one of the key factors of flow as a balance between level of ability and challenge. If a task is too easy, it’s difficult to get engaged; if it’s too hard, you’re likely to be discouraged and give up. You need to be like Goldilocks and find just the right level of challenge.
Let’s try a food analogy. Life is like a stress sandwich, says Charles Raison, MD: “The bottom and top piece of bread are “bad stress.” The bottom piece of bread is the bad stress that comes from living too dull and routine a life (yes, being bored is itself a powerful stressor). The top piece of bread we might call “being overwhelmed”-this is the stress that comes from feeling like life is asking more from us than our emotions can handle.”
The trick is to achieve positive stress – the “meat” in between – by calibrating each situation for optimal challenge. Here’s what I mean:
1. Seek out novelty. Bored with the same old, same old? Before you quit your job, divorce your spouse or move to a different country, introduce change on a smaller scale. Discover a new author, teach yourself to draw cartoons (there’s a kit at Barnes & Noble) or try a different recipe. Don’t underestimate the power of spending even 20 minutes a day in an activity you enjoy simply for its own sake to reinvigorate the rest of your routine.
2. Take risks. In writing his latest book Absinthe and Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously, William Gurstelle noted (and studies show) that people who take just a few more risks than average, tend to be more satisfied with their lives and more fulfilled. You don’t, however, have to risk your life driving 120 mph on the Autobahn or eating the world’s hottest pepper, as Gurstelle suggests. It’s enough to stay within spitting distance of your comfort zone: present a provocative viewpoint in a meeting, brave the extra attention of wearing a colorful outfit, or move to the front row of the kickboxing class.
3. One bite at a time. Overwhelm happens when we’re focused more on the sheer volume or difficulty of what’s before us, rather than deciding the next action. You don’t try and fit a whole Subway Footlong sandwich in your mouth, do you? (Another sandwich analogy!) You size it up and decide where to take that first bite. Same approach works with even the most daunting project. Figure out the smallest action you can comfortably take, and focus on that. Repeat as needed.
4. Know your skill level. Matt Koppenheffer, columnist at The Motley Fool, notes how matching challenge and ability can help you enjoy the process of investing: You need to “have a sense of your skill level as an investor and match that to the companies you try to tackle. For example, a beginning investor is likely to get overwhelmed trying to nail down all the intricacies of Goldman Sachs and its black-box operating model. Trying to analyze a more straightforward company like Coca-Cola may be more likely to induce flow for that investor.” The same concept applies whether you’re learning a language, having a dinner party or starting a business.
If you can use creativity and resourcefulness to continuously tweak the degree of challenge, either up or down, your life will become more interesting, manageable and, dare I say, happier.