Want to be truly happy? Submerse yourself in something. Anything. As it turns out, we are happiest when we are focused. In the zone, going with the flow, in the moment, call it what you will. But when you are so focused that nothing else can intrude, then you find happiness.
It’s that simple.
Maybe this is why I love to ski. I love to stand on top of a steep chute, drop in and focus only on the feel of the snow beneath my skis. Yesterday I skied a chute called Brain Damage at Crystal. While the name of the chute is intimidating and the entrance is a no fall zone, in reality it isn’t that difficult. It’s enough to make me focus, but not so steep that I have to talk myself into it.
During those first few turns I bobbled a little, catching the inside of my right edge and chattering along the firm surface. I recovered before I even realized what had happened and continued through the narrowest part before traversing over to a wind-buffed Shank’s Chute and skied all the way to the bottom. I thought of nothing else but the skiing: the consistency of the snow, how it started like firm chalk and gave way to a soft, carve-able palate; the way my skis arced from one side of the chute to another, the edges cutting tracks across the raised sides of the chute; the rock partway down the chute that I hopped over gingerly and stopped thinking about the moment I passed over it.
When I got to the bottom, I didn’t look back at my run. I just traversed towards the chairlift with a smile on my face. I was happy. For the few minutes it took me to complete the run, no other thoughts intruded. I did not think about work or the writing assignments in my inbox. There was no room in my brain for how I would juggle my schedule in the upcoming week, or the interviews I had scheduled or the millions of megabytes of brain space being occupied by all the things I wasn’t doing at that moment.
I recently finished reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book FLOW: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE, and I’ve been practicing being in Flow, as he calls it. Flow moments have a few prerequisites.
- There is a balance between challenge and skill. You won’t feel in flow if you’re either a) scared out of your mind or b) bored. Brain Damage is anything but boring for me. Nor is it so difficult that I’m unable to drop in without wetting my pants.
- Feedback is immediate. When I nearly fell at the top of Brain Damage, I received clear feedback. Pay attention. Get your skis underneath you, stupid.
- The goals are clear. There’s no equivocation. The goal of skiing a steep chute is to get to the bottom with a modicum of style and all of your limbs intact.
- Action and awareness are merged. This is my favorite prerequisite. My personality vacillates between action and reflection. This is fine, but sometimes I get tired of analyzing everything. When I cannot think beyond the action of my next turn, I’m happy. Truly, truly happy.
- Time is distorted. A few minutes can seem like an eternity, or hours can whiz by without realizing it. My run yesterday, which lasted less than a minute, felt much longer. I can still recall it in it’s entirety. Even without the help of a helmet cam.
- Self-consciousness and fear of failure fall away. For the length of my run down Brain Damage yesterday, I did not once worry if I was sticking my butt out too far. When I almost fell, I didn’t consider the consequences or overthink my run. Instead I made the required moves to get back on track and continued down.
- The experience is autotelic, or worthwhile in itself. I didn’t look back at my tracks, take photos or videos and I didn’t post my run on Facebook (although yes, I’m using it here on my blog as an example of happiness. That doesn’t count). The doing of the thing (not the sharing of the thing) was worthy all by itself.
I, for one, can be in my head a little too much. It is these moments of intense focus that bring me back. As both a writer and ski patroller, I get to experience these flow moments as part of my job, when I’m not over-thinking, I’m simply a part of a larger picture. And that makes me very happy.