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Flow Is the Secret to Our Happiness

If you’re a parent, you’re used to being interrupted. This is probably why it takes approximately 45 minutes to pack lunches (Mom! Can I have more milk?) for two small children when I do it in the morning, compared to (Mom! Where’s my purple car?) when I prep meals the night before. It’s why my husband and I (MOMMMM! Where’s my light saber?!?) rarely finish a conversation. Maybe it’s why a complete cycle of laundry never seems to get finished.

Interruptions are annoying.

But could they also be contributing to unhappiness?

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Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would probably say so.

The author of "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience," Csikszentmihalyi theorizes that humans are happiest when we’re engaged in an activity that’s completely absorbing. He calls it “flow.” It’s that feeling when you’re running and you can feel your whole body working together, sleek and synchronized. Or when you’re writing and the words are sliding in from nowhere, from everywhere, and they fit together just right. Maybe yoga or Sudoku or reading are activities that envelope you, funnel your attention, and make you lose track of time.

With young children underfoot, it’s hard to even unload the dishwasher without fielding requests for snacks or drinks, without being summoned to mop up a spill or break up a fight.

The other day, I was trying to pen a quick email to a colleague. My 3-year-old daughter seemed to smell my need for focus. She interrupted me about five times before I grumpily shut my laptop down, saving the task for another time. The agitation I experience when being interrupted like this vies for the same level of frustration I reach after a night of broken sleep, or PMS.

Amidst the frequent interruptions, concentration feels good. Challenge feels good. Being absorbed feels good.

Being constantly interrupted while trying to focus is the opposite of flow.

It’s like having a boss who constantly burst into your office. “Can I have some cereal?” he blurts. A few minutes later, he appears donning a Darth Vader mask. “Whatcha doin?” he asks. After he leaves, you’re just re-focusing on the spreadsheet you’re working on when he slides into your doorway again. “I have to poop,” he announces.

This is life with young children.

There are hilarious moments, syrup-sweet snuggles and of course, the omnipresent hum of love. It’s what I signed up for, and I wouldn’t trade it.

But oh, are there interruptions.

As my children get older, I do find pockets of flow with them. Last weekend we went sledding together, and I let the thrill of hurtling downhill wash over me. Sometimes it's doing puzzles with my daughter or constructing a 400-piece Lego set with my son. Amidst the frequent interruptions, concentration feels good. Challenge feels good. Being absorbed feels good. I can see why Csikszentmihalyi believes that flow is the secret to happiness.

But most of my flow moments these days happen away from the kids. They happen while my kids are in school and I sit down at my laptop, ready to see what words will make their way across the blank page, or when I make it to yoga class and let everything go except my breath and my warm muscles, or when I’m reading a book so good that I sink into the world of the story, leaving the realities of my life blurred around the edges.

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I’m learning to make space for flow, to help counteract all the fractured, frustrating moments of early parenthood, to recharge, to feed myself, to stay challenged. Our children find these moments organically—when they burrow deep into their own imaginations, when they’re building a LEGO tower, when they’re learning something new. For most parents, especially moms, it takes effort to find flow and to make the space for a happier self.

Where do you find your flow?

Image via Twenty20/user329

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