A few days ago, my wife wrote down a simple stir-fry recipe for me to cook. I’m on nurse duty, and this particular recipe is the kind of comfort food she needs to help her recuperate. I’m a decent cook (and, the recipe is simple), so after one go, I managed to memorize it. I just finished cooking my third (and this time, double!) batch of it, and am feeling mighty good. How can it be that this simple act of getting my mis-en-place, chopping, and then sequencing the frying could be so satisfying? The answer is twofold: flow and acts of kindness.
You may have heard of flow (a.k.a. “the zone”) elsewhere. If not, it’s simply the concept of “a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of [an] activity.” It also happens to be one of the fundamental ways to help improve happiness, and according to “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, for me personally it is one the the most effective ways to build happiness. No wonder I feel so good! But, I am not a chef, nor do I aspire to be one. How can it be that cooking this meal got me into a flow state?
One common mistake for those seeking flow is to look in the wrong places. I’m a data scientist by profession, so naturally I’d expect to achieve flow when I’m writing code or analyzing data, and indeed I do (lucky for me, or I’d have to seriously consider another profession!) But that doesn’t mean that I can’t find flow in doing such “mundane” things as preparing a meal or going for a bicycle ride. According to Lyubomirsky, “we can experience flow in almost anything we do, however monotonous or tedious it might appear.” It helps that this this particular activity was also a way for me to “invest in social connections” via an “act of kindness” (in this case, the most important social connection I have – the one with my spouse!) – both activities that Lyubomirsky also proposes to help increase happiness. So naturally I’m feeling quite good right now.
If you’re interested in ways to improve flow (and happiness!) in your daily life, I highly recommend reading Lyubomirsky’s book (esp. Chapter 7), or the book by the originator of the concept – Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. You may find ways to turn the mundane into the sublime.