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Resilience: Mindfulness and Flow

Harry Mills, Ph.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The hectic pace of modern life places many demands on attention. Your schedule may become so busy that you don’t have time to stop and truly pay attention to what you're doing. Being this busy creates stress. Taking the time to learn how to become more attentive, conscious and mindful as you go about your daily activities can increase your enjoyment of those activities, and also help you to maintain a resilient attitude in the face of pressure and stress.

The types of activities you choose to spend time performing are important. Rather than engaging in work or play activities that mean little to you, you can, within certain limits, choose activities that make you feel happier, healthier and more alert.

Mindfulness vs. Mindlessness

be mindful wooden blocksMany day-to-day activities get performed mindlessly, without awareness. People tend to act and react automatically (mindlessly, unconsciously) to situations that are familiar, and/or to situations that aren't closely attended to (such as when you might multi task many tasks at once without paying close attention to any of them). The tendency to act mindlessly get worse as stress builds. As a readily available example, consider how many times you have driven from one place to another only to realize later that you remember nothing about the trip. Driving without awareness is an example of mindlessness.

It is easier to concentrate on what we are doing when we are in a quiet, focused state of mind versus when we are racing through experiences. Working toward being more mindful (conscious, aware) is important because we only fully appreciate something, such as a task, an experience, or a relationship, when we dedicate our full attention towards it.

When you approach a task, experience or relationship in a mindless way, you are not fully engaged with that task, experience or relationship. You might be there physically, and you may get the job done, but you aren't present. It's not so bad that this happens when you are doing routine and safe tasks like brushing your teeth. However, failure to be present and attentive during experiences like driving (or operating any dangerous machinery) or relating to people you care about can create difficult consequences. You can miss seeing, for instance, the child that runs into the road in front of our car and lose the chance to prevent a grievous accident. You can miss perceiving that a family member or friend is not feeling well and lose the chance to express love and support to them. Your failure to mindfully attend to and engage with your romantic partner can, over time, cause the death of your romance. Your failure to be present and mindful during such situations can, over time or all in one moment, cause you to lose meaningful life opportunities.

Your decision to become more mindful and attentive can reward you with both physical and emotional pleasure and with a special kind of gratification known as 'eudaimonia' which is a happiness that comes from doing things excellently and with noble purpose. Gratifications are more subtle than simple pleasures. While physical pleasures center around the senses or emotions, gratifications involve virtues and personal strengths. Enjoying a long soak in a hot bath is a physical pleasure. Seeing your beautiful baby smile at you brings emotional pleasure. However, supporting a family member or friend in their time of need is a gratification. True gratification brings with it a sense of personal accomplishment, confidence and the knowledge that you have done something to help others or to help yourself. Although gratifications do not have to involve altruism, those gratifications that do can provide some of the best moments of human experience.

Defining Flow

Is there any activity in your life that makes time stand still when you engage in it? What activity enthralls you so much that you find it easy, effortless, to tune out everything else and focus on that activity exclusively? Such a state of unselfconscious absorption in activity has been termed 'flow' by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks sent me high ee”). The experience of flow has the following characteristics:

  • It occurs during the pursuit of a task requiring skill and concentration
  • It involves an intense focus on the task
  • It is goal-directed. The flowing person is working to achieve some goal.
  • Ongoing feedback about how the activity is progressing occurs
  • It feels like the activity is effortless
  • The flowing person feels very much in control of what he or she is doing
  • The flowing person ceases to be self-conscious. It feels like he or she has disappeared and only the activity is left.
  • Time seems to stand still

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi became fascinated by artists who were driven not by money, praise, or promotion but by the intrinsic reward of creation. He studied artists who for hours effortlessly focused specifically on creating a single painting or sculpture, only to forget about it completely once it was finished. This same intensity of flow can be observed in surgeons, athletes, writers, parents, computer programmers and dancers, to name just a few. Flow occurs when someone with an aptitude and appreciation for an activity finds, engages in and ultimately masters that activity. It emerges when the doer does something that he or she really connects with; it cannot otherwise be forced into existence. The experience of flow appears to be universal—people of all nationalities and backgrounds seem to enjoy and benefit from the experience of flow. The experience of flow is also universally appreciated. It feels good to flow. Flow leaves people feeling more confident and competent and promotes a sense of well-being and vigor.

Finding a Daily Flow

Feeling a sense of flow is not limited to activities that require careful contemplation. People can feel a sense of flow while working, playing, or even doing routine tasks, such as driving a car. Dr. Csikszenmihalyi has identified four ways to increase the amount of flow in your life:

  • Setting goals
  • Endeavoring to immerse yourself in activities you like
  • Paying attention to what is happening
  • Enjoying the immediate experience

To summarize, you can learn to increase the flow in your life by living more intentionally. Planing out your life helps you to identify and prioritize those things you like and minimize those things you don't like so that you don't waste time on things that don’t bring you pleasure.

Upon examining your life, you may find that you watch hours of television that leaves you feeling tired and lethargic rather than happy and entertained. If this is so, you have the option of using that time for something you like better. Instead of spending your leisure time in passive pursuits, choose instead to be involved in active endeavors: Work out, take photographs, play a musical instrument, read a good book, plant a garden, build something, have a friend over to visit, or go for a walk. Choose an activity that appeals to you and see if you don't lose yourself in it. You may be surprised at what can happen.

What is true for your spare time is also true for your work. Finding meaningful work (at which you can flow) is especially important because work takes up so much of our time, and once you've used time, you can never get it back.