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Flow State: the Path to Lasting Fulfillment

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman

In our culture where work is considered necessary, but rather unpleasant, the idea of freedom seems to be very appealing. Actually, often work fills the gap between eagerly awaited weekends or holidays when we have a chance to fulfil our individual needs and feel completely free.

Interestingly, studies show a rather puzzling pattern: people who were working, despite their level of education and qualifications reported higher level of satisfaction, creativity and strength than those who were free to do whatever they wanted in their free time. This led to a conclusion published about 50 years ago by the American Association for the Advancement of Psychiatry stating that most Americans are unable to enjoy free time.

The researchers investigated further looking at how commercial and passive entertainment may be associated with our wellbeing. It turned out that people who spent a few hours shopping or watching TV felt depleted, had lower level of self-esteem and less energy than those who were engaged in more creative activities such as playing a guitar or creating something useful or beautiful. Scientists concluded that a mindless entertainment doesn't serve us.

So, why is this? As human beings, we are biologically wired to enjoy participating in challenging and meaningful tasks. In a study published by the Sloan Foundation, researchers found that children associated work with unpleasant feelings and play with pleasant ones. However, when asked what brings them joy and fulfilment, they pointed out the situations when they could use their skills and combine both work and play.

As we grow up, it seems we only have one choice - work. Many studies over the last few decades have shown that stressful, coercive and unfulfilling work bring frustration and has a negative impact on our overall health. A recent European review of 13 studies was looking at how high stress at work may be associated with a risk of a heart attack. The researchers examined data from almost 200,000 people and found that those with highly demanding, unfulfilling jobs and little control over decision-making process were 23% more likely to have a heart attack over the period of 7.5 years compared with people with a lower level of stress at work. This association remained the same despite various socioeconomic status, gender and age. Although the study was observational showing association rather than causation, lower stress levels at work could potentially prevent nearly 3,4% of heart attacks.

What may bring more joy to our seemingly mundane work?

In 1969, the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s was looking to answer a simple question: “What contributes to the life worth living?” After interviewing hundreds of people like composers, clerks, surgeons and artists, he introduced the term “flow” which he defined as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”

He suggested that when our ability is in alignment with the level of challenge, and we are really immersed in an engaging process of creating something new, we don’t have enough attention left to think about daily problems or even physiological needs. Our existence temporarily disappears from our consciousness and we feel that time stops for us. We immerse ourselves with a fleeting and magical moments when all things in the real world merge to enhance our experience of being at one with what we do.

During the flow state, our brain waves are constantly switching from rapid when we fully awaken to very slow ones, when we are unconscious. These movements trigger specific modes ranging from day-dreaming, to what is called a hypnagogic gap, where ideas synchronise and the sum is greater than the parts. This process helps us enter our imagination and gives birth to creativity through the temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Quieting that part of the brain allows us to become less critical and judgmental. In result, we can come up with new concepts and ideas and make them come alive. During the flow state, the brain releases vast amounts of neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins, which induce pleasure and enhance performance, helping us link ideas in new more creative ways.

How do we get in the flow?

Three key points may help answer this questions. Number one: find what it is that you absolutely love doing and what moves your spirit. Number two: make sure that what you do add value to other people’s lives. Number three: play with it and have lots of fun. This is the secret ingredient in creating your ultimate freedom and lasting fulfilment.

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