The last few years have certainly proved challenging for many. With COVID-19 circulating, and lockdowns and travel restrictions in place, many of us have felt “stagnant.” The term “languishing” describes the way many of us felt. The opposite of thriving, languishing leaves us feeling apathetic.
We can jumpstart our lives again. Each one of us holds the power to change our lives – to create interest and excitement. When I was a teenager, my mother shared a philosophy told to her by a woman she met at a gathering. She advised my mother to strive to “make Monday different than Tuesday.” What she meant was: Explore new things, take a different route, and embrace change and the unknown. The philosophy really resonated with me.
When an artist friend invited me to an event, I knew nothing about, I showed up. It turned out to be the American Academy of Arts and Letters (the academy recognizes superior achievement in the arts and literature). The limited membership of 250 includes Christo, Jasper Johns, and Stephen Sondheim. Past members are Duke Ellington, Allen Ginsberg, Henry James, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
When asked to sit in on a historical lecture with a college-aged friend (even though I was in my 40s at the time), I attended. When invited to spontaneously join a friend on a surf lesson, I said yes and soon experienced the thrill of catching a wave. What I also got was a close encounter with a pod of dolphins that were sharing their home with me.
In doing so, I’ve had many great life experiences and created lots of memories. It’s always possible to create more joy.
Even in this era of “mindfulness,” so many of us have difficulty truly living in the moment. That means freeing ourselves from thoughts about the past or being preoccupied with thoughts about the future.
It’s about living in the present – really feeling the warmth of the sun on our skin on a hot summer day, feeling the grass beneath our feet when we walk barefoot through the park, and listening to the ripple of the water as it swooshes away as we kayak through a river or lake.
Many yoga teachers and meditation coaches encourage us to achieve a sense of presence by simply “being.” When I lived in Hawaii, I meditated with Tom Davidson-Marx of Aloha Sangha, who was a student of Early Buddhism. He asked me to simply sit and be aware of my thoughts. Davidson-Marx asked the group to label our thoughts and simply be aware of how much time we spend planning, preoccupied with the past, or fearful of what’s coming in the days ahead. It was quite an awakening.
“Meditation invites us to take a seat in a new relationship with experience: to shift from planning, self-congratulation or regret to touching, tasting, hearing, seeing, feeling. From a made-up world to the real world as presented by raw sensory impressions, moment by moment,” says Davidson-Marx.
How can we find more moments in which we are truly present? When we are really engaged with a pursuit, passion, or hobby, we can find moments of mindfulness and “flow.”
Psychologists refer to this as a mental state in which a person performing an activity they enjoy is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment. Flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.
Named by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, the concept has been widely referred to across a variety of fields and is particularly well recognized in occupational therapy, though the concept has been claimed to have existed for thousands of years under other names.
According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
According to the mindfulness app Headspace, “When you’re giving your fullest attention to an activity or task that you are incredibly passionate about, singularly focused on, and totally immersed in, you may find yourself creating the conditions necessary to experience a flow state of mind. The mind’s usual chatter begins to fade away, placing us in a non-distracted zone. The feelings that would consume you under normal circumstances (inhibition, hunger, fatigue, or aches and pains) melt away, and all that matters is your dedication to your craft.
Those who regularly experience flow are more likely to develop positive traits, such as increased wellbeing, higher self-esteem, more creativity, stronger concentration, and increased productivity.
Csíkszentmihályi describes the eight characteristics of flow as:
1. Complete concentration on the task
2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down)
4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
5. Effortlessness and ease
6. A balance between challenge and skills
7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
8. There is a feeling of control over the task
VerywellMind – a health and wellbeing website, states that, “Flow experiences can occur in different ways for different people. It often happens when you are doing something that you enjoy and in which you are quite skilled.” Many activities can spark a sense of flow – from painting, drawing, and writing to skiing to dancing or running.
“I’ve been painting for 50 years, and the beautiful part of this gift is that it makes me leave this planet. As soon as I put my brush to paper and see the paint smear, I don’t hear voices, lose awareness of time, and am transformed into a place where I am free of everything, including pain,” says Grace Volpe, an artist from the Catskills region.
To enter flow, choose a task that you don’t find to be too easy or boring. According to Medical News Today, we can achieve flow by:
• Allowing enough time: It takes time to enter a flow state. Therefore, it might be easier to use flow for longer tasks rather than shorter ones and to block off a set period to work on them.
• Minimizing interruptions: Distractions and interruptions make entering a flow state more difficult. People can ensure that they have uninterrupted time to work on something by going somewhere private, turning notifications off on their devices, telling others they will be busy, or blocking out time on their calendar.
• Practicing mindfulness: The skills that a person uses to become and remain mindful are similar to those involved in a flow state.
• Adjusting the task: Tasks that are dull, repetitive, or too easy may not induce a flow state. If possible, a person should try adjusting these tasks so that they are more enjoyable, meaningful, or challenging. Conversely, they can break down tasks that are too hard or complex into simplified steps.
Beyond flow, there’s also the importance of play. Humans have a biological drive to play and there are several different kinds of play.
Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist, dedicated much of his career to the study of human play. He is the founder of the National Institute for Play – a 501c (3) non-profit public benefit corporation dedicated to advancing society’s understanding and application of play – a long-ignored biological capability that can lead to healthier, happier lives. It studies the scientific knowledge of play behavior and understanding its implications.
Research reveals that adults who play experience less stress and more optimism and wellbeing. Children who are allowed to play are faster learners, more creative, and more socially competent.
Dr. Brown says that each of us has an inherent play nature that is as unique as our fingertips. As we grow up, we develop strong preferences for certain types of play over others. One person’s fun is another person’s boredom. Over the years, Dr. Brown has found that most people have one of eight “play personalities,” identified through thousands of interviews and observations.
Dr. Brown believes that most people see themselves in the eight archetypes and find them useful for homing in on their primary play personality. Here’s the list. What’s yours?
The thrill is to have and to hold an interesting collection of objects or experiences – anything from coins to toy trains, antiques, wine, postage stamps, and beyond.
These people tap into euphoria and the creativity of play by participating in a competitive game with specific rules. They aren’t playing just for the game; they aim to win. Games and keeping score make them tick.
For this type, joy is found in making things. Painting, printmaking, woodworking, pottery, and sculpture are well-known activities of creator/artists, but so are furniture making, knitting, sewing, and gardening. Creator/artists may share their creations or may never show anyone what they make. The point is to make something beautiful, functional, goofy, or to make something work. The creator/artist may enjoy taking something apart, replacing broken parts, and putting it back together again.
Directors enjoy planning and executing scenes and events. Though many are unconscious of their motives and style of operating, they love the power to make things happen. They are born organizers.
Exploring can be physical – literally going to new places – or emotional – searching for a new feeling or a deepening of the familiar through music, movement, or even flirtation. Exploration can also be mental, such as researching a new subject or seeking out new points of view.
The most basic and extreme player throughout history is the joker. A joker’s play always revolves around foolishness. In school, a joker may have found social acceptance by clowning around to make classmates laugh. Adult jokers carry on that social strategy in different ways.
Kinesthetes are people who like to move; some even need to move to think. This category of people finds themselves happiest moving as part of dance, swimming, or walking. They naturally want to push their bodies and feel the result. While kinesthetes may play sports, competition is not the focus – it is a way of engaging in movement.
Juliane Randazzo, my surf partner on the New Jersey Shore may be a kinesthete. She says that after a session trying to catch some waves, she smiles on her short drive home from the beach. “Whether I caught any waves or just paddled around in the ocean, the accomplishment for me is just getting out there and moving. There’s just something about being in the waves,” says Randazzo.
For the storyteller, imagination is the key to the joys of play. Storytellers may be novelists, playwrights, cartoonists, or screenwriters, or they may find their greatest joy in reading novels and watching movies created by others. Storytellers feel engaged in stories and experience the thoughts and emotions of characters in the story.
Get inspired. Start a new project, host a gathering, take a new class. In other words, “Make Monday different than Tuesday.”
To learn more about the National Institute For Play, they are located in Carmel Valley, CA , can be reached by phone at (831) 659-1740, or visit online at nifplay.org/#Section_1