If Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Matt Killingsworth are right, we should be paying far more attention to how we spend our time than to the stuff we accumulate. They argue that it’s not the activity we choose to do that’s important to our happiness: that turns out to have little to no effect on our state of mind.
Instead, it has everything to do with the quality of our mental focus in the moment.
Both of these researchers are students of human happiness, and have come to similar conclusions from different directions: Killingsworth’s work has uncovered the fact that we are substantially less happy when we indulge in mind-wandering. The activity we are engaged in almost doesn’t matter. Being on vacation in Jamaica isn’t an opportunity to mind-wander—that only makes us unhappy. The same applies to a boring meeting that’s going nowhere.
Csikszentmihalyi discovered a similar result: that we are happiest (and most productive) when we are able to enter the flow state—an ecstatic experience of total concentration that requires our complete attention due to its difficulty. He found that this is more likely to happen when we are at the office: we often derive more enjoyment from work than from time off, due to the fact that we feel “skillful, and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative and satisfied.” It’s not because work is inherently better, but it is well-structured.
It appears that we are confused about what real happiness is and what it looks like from one moment to the next. We tell ourselves that we’ll be happy when we win the lottery, not understanding that after the money is in the bank, we’ll be just as unhappy as before if we allow our minds to wander.
Instead, we need to be careful about how we manage our time. It’s not a bad idea to set up our days, whether we are at work, holiday or vacation, to move from one flow opportunity to another. Or, in other words, we should use time management methods to limit the amount of time we spend mind-wandering.
Unfortunately, there are many who act in the opposite fashion, and don’t plan their days at all. They suffer in situations like long commutes with the habit of allowing free, unhappy mind-wandering. Their days are sometimes spent bouncing from one interruption to another, fighting fires, and never able to enter the flow state. According to research conducted at King’s College in London
workers distracted by phone calls, emails and text messages suffer a greater loss of IQ than a person smoking marijuana.
Others make open-ended lists of items that can’t be accomplished within several days, and feel burdened whenever they have to confront these lists to find the next item to work on.
How To Enter the Flow State
The best approach seems to combine daily foresight, continuous improvement, and a high level of awareness.
We aren’t born with a natural ability to achieve flow, and to avoid mind-wandering. Instead, productivity and happiness need to be fabricated each day, which means working with our calendar to carve out blocks of time in which we intend to enter the flow state.
These blocks of time won’t be created on their own on a regular basis, so we have to learn how to improve the habits, practices and rituals that make up our time management systems: this is the only way to produce these opportunities reliably, even as we overcome obstacles such as the noise and visual distractions that make rooms stuffed with cubicles such unproductive environments.
A high level of awareness is important so that when we are in the flow state, we know it. With self-awareness, we can interact with the world to sustain it, as we ignore the ringing of phones or the alerts from tablets because we are “Flowing.”
These skills (daily foresight, continuous improvement and high awareness) aren’t only for the office. They also apply to leisure activities such as talking with your spouse, playing with your kids, engaging in a hobby or worshipping in church. Entering the flow state in these activities can be an intentional act that is planned beforehand, and perfected in the moment.
People with good time management skills can get into these states as often as they want. They aren’t distracted by all the other stuff they could be doing, as they know its all being properly managed. This takes practice if it’s to be implemented at work or at play, but in the end, it could give us exactly what Csikszentmihalyi and Killingsworth predicted in their research: more happiness.
Featured photo credit: Vintage pocket watch and hour glass via Shutterstock