The pursuit of goals

Popular culture would like to convince us that our happiest moments are centered on leisure: Lounging around in a Snuggie, watching an entire season of Dexter, or cruising around in a convertible, with no particular destination in mind. Be forewarned: Pop culture is lying! Interestingly, research suggests exactly the opposite. According to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, our happiest moments are when we’re stretched to our limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. When the goal we’re pursuing is equal to or slightly above the level of our skill, happiness increases.

You can imagine it like this:

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When your goal doesn’t challenge you, or is below your level of skill, you’ll find yourself in the “drone zone.” This is that boring place where your mind checks out and goes wandering off into lala land. Your body is present, but your mind is a thousand miles away. Time spent here is a waste; Life is happening, but you’re not engaging in it all.

When your goal far exceeds your level of skill, you’ll find yourself in the “panic zone.” Your heart rate shoots up, your brain floods with cortisol, and you’re not functional because all you can think of is how to get through the next few seconds.

The “flow zone” is the happy place in the middle. When you’re in flow, the goal challenges you just enough to fully absorb your attention, keeping you engaged and interested in the task at hand. Some people report loosing track of time, they’re so immersed in the activity. His research suggests that our happiest moments happen here: While we’re in flow, in active pursuit of a goal.

So, if you’d like to get more flow into your life, and quite possibly increase your happiness, here are two of Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s suggestions to get you started:

1) Set clear goals. When you know where you’re going, you can focus your attention on taking meaningful action to get you to Point B.

2) Get immediate feedback. This may come from a partner who’s supervising your progress, or you can set yourself up by establishing mile-markers and deadlines for meeting them. This feedback gives you regular opportunities to assess your progress, so you know if you need to speed up or slow down to stay on target towards your goal.

If you want to learn more about flow, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience will get you started. If you’re not quite ready to commit to 300+ pages of reading, his TED talk presents all the basics in a 19-minute crash course.

By Laurah Hagen