The Happiness of Flow

I recently received some feedback from a friend trying out our Rezl app.  Rezl builds resilience by delivering  a course in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) though a series of audio tutorials and guided meditations.  The early steps involve becoming more aware, to avoid distracting thoughts… and to become more able to focus.  My friend’s feedback represented an enthusiastic response to his early progress. One comment caught my eye:

“My brain has become much better at absorbing information, there seems to be much more clarity – that sounds strange. It’s different… and it makes me happier.”

It’s true that less detraction and more focus enable us to concentrate on what we read, hear and see… and to retain more; yet there is something else here.  My friend is starting to  experience “flow”.

Flow is a state of engagement and heightened awareness while participating is some activity.  It is beautifully described here in Melli O’Brian’s blog:

“Time seems to slow down, your sense perceptions are heightened – colours are sharper and brighter and each sound seems to ripple right through you.  Your mind shifts into a new space. A sense of vibrant aliveness, connectedness and peace infuse your being. You feel in tune with life, moving with a precision and poise you don’t fully understand but at the same time relish. You’re in the zone. You’re in flow.”

The state of flow is often associated with elite athletes, actors, writers or even with scientists and mathematicians. The basketball superstar Larry Bird said that, for him,  at critical moments in the game, the court would go quiet and the players would seem to be moving in slow motion.  This state allowed Larry to see the whole situation; to see opportunities and to be crystal clear on and what he had to do.

So what’s going on? Well I believe that it’s about being able to shut out external distractions and quieten any internal mind-chatter and thoughts of the past or of the future;… and to set aside bigger goals… so you can focus, right now, on the task in hand;  and this leads leads to an intense focus… that builds engagement… and total absorption… to achieve “flow” … where time distorts… your senses are heightened… everything become clear… as you take the actions to succeed. Flow delivers a state of happiness that leaves a lasting glow.

“In flow, your ‘ego’ withdraws, making way for the process to happen, unimpeded— you’re not conscious of inhibitions, hunger, thirst, fatigue, aches or anything outside of the activity. All worries, thoughts and memories seem to melt away,” says Melli O’Brian.

Dr. Mihaly Chentmihalyi, studied this state of being and coined the term “flow”  (see his book  “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”); he tells us that things, possessions, money  don’t play much part in how happy someone is. He found that humans are at their happiest when in flow –  in part because when we are so absorbed in a single task, we don’t have enough attention left over to get lost in the inane chatter of our “monkey mind”, to worry about things beyond our control, or to stress about our endless to-do-list.

The new experience of flow is especially rewarding for those setting out on embedding the skills of mindfulness – grounding to eliminate any distractions or mind-chatter; and awareness so that you are able focus and to  refocus should the mind wander.  Why not give it a try?

Don’t call me a snowflake.

A report in The Times tells us:  “72 per cent of those in Generation Z would be afraid of being branded a ‘snowflake’ if they took a sick day because of poor mental health, with 43 per cent saying that this would stop them taking one”.  (Generation Z is generally defined as those born after 1995. The survey was carried out by the graduate recruitment website  Milkround.)

And so it turns out that most of these Z-ers exercise the option to be “economical with the truth”:  The survey found that 62 per cent of Generation Z workers had taken a sick day because of a mental health problem but that only 24 per cent of these were honest about their reasons.”

It’s a big problem …the HSE tell us that mental health accounted for 57% of all sick days lost in the UK in 2018….  and this study shows the problem is even bigger for Generation Z:   across  all age ranges, 29% of workers had taken a “mental health sick day” and half of these felt that they could be open with their bosses; yet 62% of Generation Z workers had taken a “mental health sick day” but that only about a quarter of these were honest about their reasons.

So the level of “mental health sick days”  is significant for all ages… but the problem more than doubles for Generation Z – and for Generation Z the level of honesty plummets. Even if we make some allowances for, as some commentators suggest, the “mental health sick day” being the new version of a “bad back” or a ”day off after a late night out” – these results are still very high indeed.

The Times piece suggests this lack of openness might be because the generation Z-ers fear being labelled as “snowflakes” – but I expect it’s more likely to be due to their worries about the serious  longer term impact on their careers…  and their prospects of progression.

“Snowflake” is a pejorative term popularised on social media to stereotype young people; to suggest that they are more prone to feelings of distress and outrage than previous generations.; yet we know that generation Z-ers are slower to mature e.g. to leave home, to start families, to buy a home etc; while they value their “work life balance” (the flip side of this is that they are less prone to “work work work”); they have always had the internet so think nothing of connecting with other across thre world… at any time;  and they apparently have a strong  sense of individuality (- yet I suspect they just want to be like their friends as per all other generations!).  Of these traits,  I expect that while generation Z-ers do seek a life that has a better work-life balance they are a bit defensive about being seen as less committed to their work by their employers – yet this is two sides of the same coin.

In my opinion “snowflakes” should embrace the terms – and say “yes I want a better work life balance – to do otherwise will not make me more productive in the longer terms… for me or my employer”.

Now, it seems to me that most major employers are very tolerant and supportive of employees with  mental health problems (from whatever generation) – yet most private sector jobs are now within small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who may well be less tolerant*. So maybe it is time for the SMEs to get their act together and provide support to help  employees to avoid  mental wellbeing challenges.

As you may be aware, we at Carina Sciences are proving our Rezl app to employers to help build resilience within their employees – to help their staff to deal with stress and to reduce their likelihood of developing conditions like anxiety and depression.  The app uses Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). The proof is in the pudding… and research shows MBCT significantly reduces absenteeism and staff turnover.  Yet it also  improves the performance of all employees:  research shows MBCT helps people to improve their focus and to make better decisions under pressure; and it improves their ability to listen;  it also improves “open mindedness” and empathy – research has shown that teams with mindful team-members are more effective and more likely to collaborate towards achieving team goals.

What were are finding is that, while many large organisations have programmes in  place, it is the smaller organisations  (<5000 employees) that often lack such proactive interventions.

So I guess the solution may be for “Snowflakes” to be more open about mental health and less defensive about their choice.. and for employers, especially SMEs, to be more supportive.

Finally, reading thru the comments attached to the Times article there were some clear themes including… Why do people stay in jobs that are causing them to have such problems? Of course, once you have a record of mental health absences then moving to any new job might be difficult – but I wonder if some people should continue with jobs or with employers that make them feel unwell – if you have a duff employer then move on quickly.


*In 2018 employment in SMEs however was 15.7 million i.e.60% of all private sector employment in the UK.