Thursday, 6 June 2013

Flow, Happiness and Snot

Somebody linked me to this ages ago, and I thought 'That's very interesting, I should totally blog about it', and then couldn't think of anything to say that the video didn't already. And now, finally, with a little help from my hayfever (it's about time it did something for me), I have.

The talk in the video rambles a bit, though it's all interesting, but the basic idea as I understood it was that when you do high-difficulty tasks to which your skills are adequate - when you're both challenged and engaged by something - your consciousness doesn't have the bit-rate to worry, fret, stress or otherwise dwell on misery.

The guy in the video (who's earned the rare distinction that I won't even *try* to pronounce, spell or replicate his name in any way) calls this state of focus 'flow'. His claim is that happiness consists in regular experiences of flow - that we should seek out the things that get us into this state. For artists and creative types, this is their art or creative process, but he points out that something similar happens to scientists pursuing new insights and athletes in training too.

I have to admit I was sceptical at first. The thing I do which seems to me the most natural place in my life to look for flow is playing piano. I play almost exclusively the rags of Scott Joplin, pieces which require a very high level of technical precision; pieces which can really only be played by developing a degree of 'muscle memory'. I joke sometimes that I'm not a good pianist, but my C7 vertebra is. When I'm playing in this semi-automatic way, I do feel a kind of flow, but I often also find myself - the conscious part of me rather than the piano-playing part - dwelling on whatever negative feelings are at large in my life at the time.

The problem I'm running up against, of course, is that it's very hard to notice when you're truly in flow. In flow, you're lost in the moment. You're not paying attention to things like the passage of time, or the way you feel, or anything besides what you're doing. So the times when I'm sat at my piano and brooding, I'm not really in flow - I'm not engaged. And the times when I am experiencing flow, I'm not normally noting the fact. Just now, as a very unrigorous experiment, I tried, while playing, to focus enough to consciously move into flow and it did seem to help, but it was a delicate balancing act.

What really convinced me of this flow concept, though, is hayfever. I get it pretty bad at about this time of year, and it struck at the weekend. I spent most of Sunday and Monday sniffling, sneezing and generally feeling wretched. The thing is, it's basically impossible to maintain any kind of flow (except the flow of snot) when you have to stop every two minutes for a huge sneezing fit. There's almost no common sensation which is more attention-hogging than the need to sneeze.

And sure enough, I realised, every time I have a bad allergic flare-up, the pleasure gets sucked out of all the things I normally do for pleasure. Every time I start to build up some flow/momentum, my streaming nose will drag my attention back to mundane discomfort. Monday was a very miserable day. Today, with nasal matters starting to settle down, everything seems much more fun.

So how does one achieve flow? It's a combination of challenge and skill. Skill, and I think particularly the kinds of skill that are conducive to flow, is built by devoted practice. Want to learn to play piano? Play every day. Want to run marathons? Run every day. That's easy, or at least simple. Finding challenges sounds like it could be harder, but it actually won't be. Effective practice requires the finding of new challenges anyway, but as you learn a skill, you will come to understand what to look for in a challenge and how to find it.

If you want a relatively accessible example of this, by the way, look no further than the Guitar Hero games. They are perfect for flow. They give you a skill which seems relatively simple at first, and a ladder of challenges which has been fine-tuned to give a smooth increase in difficulty. As you master songs and get comfortable with them, you will find yourself getting tired of them and wanting to move on to harder material. The trance-state you have to develop in order to master the hardest tracks in the game is also one of the purest forms of flow I've ever experienced, which may explain why I spent so much of my final year as an undergraduate playing Guitar Hero (don't tell my lecturers...).

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